Potosi: A lovely town with a surprisingly important history

So then, Potosi in Bolivia; A lovely town with a surprisingly important history to it.

We had a bit of lay in before heading to breakfast. They have dried quinoa which you eat like a cereal with yoghurt! Another first in the bag! At midday we headed out to find out about the mine tours and it became apparent we had to do the afternoon tour that afternoon, as most things would be shut the next day for good Friday. So we quickly went to the hostel picked up a few things and some cheap bread from the bakery before getting picked up by big deal tours that is run by ex miners. This tour cost 150 bobs. Our tour guide Wilson was hilarious (he is the guy in the post picture).

Our first stop was the miners market where we bought gifts to give to the miners. We were also shown the best saltenas. S#!* they were good! We got the miners some cocoa tea leaves and juice. Wilson explained that he started working at the mines from when he was 8 years old. He blew his first dynamite at 9 and soon knew how to make the dynamite. He jokingly called himself the master of disaster and was sure National Geographic was going to get in contact with him one day for all his knowledge. Funny guy.

He explained how to eat the cocoa tea leaves and how the miners knew how much time had passed just from how the leaves tasted in their mouths. They work on 4 hour slots, as after 4 hours the taste disappears from the leaves you have in the side of your mouth. It gives them energy and makes them less hungry allowing them work crazy long hours too. Some have been known to work for 24 hours in one go! We then kept driving up to a spot where we got a panoramic view of potosi before changing into out miners overalls at their workshop.

Then it was on to the refinery plant where Wilson explained how the minerals are extracted from the rocks, and they used to use mercury to do this. Obviously not anymore though for obvious reasons. They get silver, zinc, copper and many others from Cerro Rico (the mountain that is mined). The final product goes to the lab to determine the purity of the mineral before the workers get paid. The purer it is, the more money they get. The refinery is a pretty noisy and precarious place, and you get the sense that working there is bloody hard.

We then drove up the mountain where it was tricky to concentrate on what Wilson was saying because the roads were bloody scary! But he was basically explaining the co-operative and working conditions of the mine. To become a socio you can go to someone who already has their designated spot in the mine. They then give you some space and in the first year you are under training with all the tools provided and you get paid 3000 bobs a month. More than the average worker, who gets around 2000 bobs. The second year you split the profits of your area 50-50 with who you work for, still using their tools. Then, in the third year you provide your own tools and split 85-15. If the co-operative has verified that you are an honest worker they will let you in and you must then pay them 9000 bobs. The crappy thing is if the part of the mine you get allocated runs out of minerals you have to start the 3 years again! Even if you are already part of the co-operative. I think Wilson said he had to go through this 3 times in his 26 year career as a miner. Oh and each time round you have to pay the 9000 bobs….

The van arrived at one of the mine openings and we walked into the mines. This is not a closed mine for tourism, it is a fully working mine that you go into. We saw the guys working with an enormous drill (not your average black and decker 12v jobby!) and they also let off some dynamite whilst we were in there! I didn’t manage to get a video of the dynamite because it was all a bit last minute that we knew it was going off. The things you let yourself do on a trip make you laugh… ‘oh you want me to pop in this live mine and you want to let some dynamite off maybe near me, but you’re not sure exactly where? Sign me up’.

Kumu freaked out a bit when we first got into the caves as we walked really fast through small a space! Being bend over whilst walking, gets your breathing up, then the lower oxygen levels get you short of breath and if all starts to mount up to becoming a bit panicked. She did very well though, and we just cracked on calmly.

Wilson said how the miners are always swearing and calling each other names. For example, an 11 year old kid who worked there was named milk shitter! I won’t write some of the other names they had for some of the other miners….

The miners are not only on cocoa tea leaves but they drink pure alcohol in the hopes of pure minerals as they are very superstitious. Then Wilson talked about why the miners worship the deity Tio and why he is gifted alcohol, cigarettes etc. This is when Wilson did a prayer for us and cracked open the bottle of 98% alcohol and made us all try it. I of course got a video of Kumu doing this one! See what you think she thought of it.

He then explained about how odd numbers are bad luck and they have to be even, so guess what… we had to have another swig! A great bit of comedy for me watching kumu’s face when he said that and it came round again.

When we came out we saw girls working outside. ..they live on the mountain and were kids of a widower to one of the miners. Even though women are not allowed to work inside the mines, they can still do work on the outside. It was sad to see the working conditions of these miners, it’s almost like they are not in reality with their cocoa chewing and long hours underground doing back breaking work. If you didn’t have a watch you could just lose all sense of time down there. The mine was a real eye opener and a great insight into the workings and traditions of the mine. It was also good to see a company supporting ex miners and also helping current miners, so thank you Wilson and Big Deal tours.

We then came back to the hostel and had a beer in our rooftop bar watching the sunset before heading to a super nice restaurant where we tried llama and it was actually pretty tasty!

Next day it was good Friday and everything was shut so we just got the map out and walked around town seeing the many churches they had from outside (they were all shut…). I also got my first haircut of the trip for 2 quid, bloody bargain! We then headed to koala cafe for lunch. We found the food in Bolivia quite salty. Maybe they have too much salt to use up from salar de Uyuni..

It then started raining. First rain we have seen since Patagonia, so we headed back to the hostel for the afternoon to catch up on some shows and ring Kumu’s parents as it was their 34th anniversary. Kumu wrote a lovely piece for their anniversary here, check it out. As Kumu was on the phone we heard a band outside so we quickly ran out to see what was going on and it was an Easter procession by the different churches in the town. Kudos to the guys who hold up the massive statues and who are playing in the band, I’d be out of puff after 3 steps at that altitude.

Last day in Potosi. We woke up early as we wanted to visit case La moneda (mint museum) which we missed out on the day before because it was shut for good friday. It was probably the best museum we have visited. The mint (the building that the museum is in) was making coins for the world for 300 years using the minerals, in particular silver, from Cerro Rico. The building had over 200 rooms and the material, architecture and machines have all been preserved brilliantly. They keep well due to the cold and not much wind in Potosi, so they do not disintegrate so easily.

Our guide spoke quite fast but he explained how the coins were made using hammers initially and through the advancements of technology on to electric machines. They used to mark the coins with the letters P, T, S and I to show where the coins were made which eventually became the dollar sign. The guide showed us this by overlaying the letters and you could then see the connection. Potosi was once a very rich town, but due to corruption and it’s inaccessibility they have now lost all their wealth, which is a real shame for a town that effectively invented money and the dollar. This coin factory was there from 1575 but is no longer in use, as Bolivia outsources it’s coin making to other parts of the world like Canada. As I said, this museum was really interesting and one our most favourite, and a must see if you go to Potosi.

As we left the museum there was a procession with hundreds of kids from different schools and we thought it was to do with Easter but it was to celebrate the city’s 473rd anniversary. We bought two delicious pork sandwiches from the ladies who were carving meat and crackling off a whole leg before lining up for 30 minutes for some saltenas. I definitely preferred the ones we had before the mining tour as it was sweeter and generally more delicious!!

We then arranged for a taxi to Sucre for 50 bobs each with a couple we bumped into at a tour office the day before. When we met them later in the cab there was a bit of confusion as they thought we were sharing a cab to the bus station. The one down the road… They were pleasantly surprised when they realised it was all the way to Sucre.

When we got to Sucre we met our host family who we would be staying with for a week while we took Spanish lessons, and this is in the next post coming.

So to sum up Potosi. A lovely town with great history to it and a definite must if you are passing through the area.

CaYf Rikki

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