Week 16: Potosi & Sucre, Bolivia

After Uyuni I decided to make my way to Potosi. This is a really special place with an amazing history. It is mainly famous for it’s mines containing silver. Located at 4,090 m high it is one of the highest cities in the word and you can definitely feel it. In its height it was one of America’s wealthiest cities. The city went into decline once all the silver in the mines was gone. There are still miners working in the mines today in the most abysmal conditions you can imagine.

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View of the Cerro Rico mine, Potosi
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Beautiful Potosi

The only way to visit the mines is to go with a tour. I went with one where the guide was an ex miner and knew the miners well. Sadly the average life expectancy is around 40-45 years because of the intoxicating fumes.The first thing you do is go visit the miners market where you buy gifts for the miners for example cocoa leaves, alcohol, dynamite and ammunition (they expect these and really rely on tourists). I opted to buy dynamite and juice for them. Without coca leaves the miners wouldn’t survive, they chew the leaves for hours and leave them in their mouth so when you see the miners they all have a big protruding balls in their mouths. Coca leaves give energy and help with the altitude sickness.

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Buying dynamite at the miners market, Potosi

The fumes are so bad in the mine you are warned to wear a mask. Some of the miners start working in the mines as young 12 years old and work up to 18 hours straight in the mine. They can’t eat in the mine as it’s so intoxicated they would get sick so there only source of fuel is coco leaves, alcohol and juice. The miners all work for themselves and have to buy all of their own dynamite and equipment. Most of the them don’t like the work but with very poor prospects in Potosi most don’t have any other choice. Today there are around 15,000 miners working in Cerro Rico.

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Me just before going into the mine. 4,300 m Potosi

When you first get into the mine it is extremely claustrophobic and difficult to breath because of the extremely high altitude, fumes and dust. It can also get really really hot. It was so interesting to talk to the miners and see them going about their day. They all work for themselves and its all based on luck whether or not they find minerals. Some can go weeks without finding anything. I got chatting to one of the miners who was in the middle of drilling holes for dynamite so he could blow up part of the mine to try and discover some new minerals (they do this daily). He started working in the mine when we was 12 and is now 33!

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Miners just about to start their day
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This is Alberto and has been working in the Cerro Rico mine for 22 years
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Placing dynamite in the walls of the mine
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Making ammunition for the dynamite

8 million people have died in the mines in Potosi in last 400 years it was a very sad history and they don’t know for how much longer there will be work in the Cerro Rico mines. During our tour a few people had to drop out as they couldn’t stand the small spaces and heat. It’s 4 floors and we crawled to the bottom floor where your on your hands and knees. Every now and again we would hear a scream saying watch the hole ( as in massive drop). At one point we were descending down into the mine on this dodgy ladder which had a load of steps missing (definitely on its last legs). This kind of a set up definitely wouldn’t be a runner in Éire. Helmets are a must, I lost count the amount of times of whacked my head against the rocks.

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One of the many holes in the mine

On our way out of the mine our guide was screaming at us to start sprinting to get out of the way as a group of miners running behind us carrying tons of minerals in these steel barrels. The whole experience was intense, sad and unforgettable.

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Some of the miners have to carry this heavy  carts in and out of the mine up to 15 times  a day
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View from the top of the mine

Another interesting thing in Potosi is the Casa de la Moneda. Potosi was the first city in the world to start producing coins given its location to the Cerro Rico mine. I’m not usually one for museums but this was fascinating. En route back to the hostel a man was chasing after with my debit card saying I’d left in the bank (this is the third time this week! and also ironic I had just left the money museum). Blessed to have met such decent people in the banks here. The bank card has been having a rough time lately as have my clothes. Another one of my clothes bags has bitten the dust and has vanished so I’m really down to the dregs.

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Casa de Moneda
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Side streets of Potosi

My first impression of the people in Bolivia were they were a bit cross.  Every corner of the street there are native women selling absolutely everything you can imagine. I have found these women to be particular cross and they are definitely not fans of my spanish small talk. Lots of travelers complain about the food in Bolivia but I have been pleasantly surprised and so far have had some delicious street food for absolutely nothing. Lunch set menus are generally 2$ for really good 3 course meals. You can find a lot cheaper food on the streets or at the central markets. It’s actually cheaper for me to eat out then to cook for myself a welcomed change from Argentina. Dinner was 50c for the most delicious spicy chicken soup. I’ve become addicted to Bolivia’s cinnamon ice cream. It’s made on the streets by hand its more like a sorbet and made using only fruit, cinnamon, ice and sugar.

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My ice cream gal!
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Doing two of my favourite things; sleeping & eating ice cream
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Main plaza, Potosi
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Potosi
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Colonial buildings Potosi
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People watching from the cathedral, Potosi

Not surprisingly, the bus from Potosi to Sucre was rough. The bus man was adamant that I paid 2 bus fares because my backpack was so huge. I refused and instead was forced to sit on the backpack for the 4 hour journey. The gal next to me was less than impressed when she got whacked with one of my runners as I was leaving. It was worth once I arrived in the beautiful town of Sucre.

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Incredible views of Sucre from one of my lunch stops
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Recoleta, Sucre

Sucre is a gorgeous. Lots of tourists come here to chill, explore and take spanish classes in the colonial town. I stayed in the most amazing hostel (Claval Blanco). Really nice family atmosphere with the comfiest beds. Everybody was v cool in the hostel and most of them played guitar, sang and made crafts in the plaza to earn some money.

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I randomly stumbled across this amazing view point, Sucre

I spend 4 nights here and spent my time exploring lots of the local food markets (my absolute favourite thing to do), trying all the delicious street food and pottering about the colonial town. One day I went to mercado campasino 30 minutes outside the city. It was incredible and each street was dedicated to something for example there was a banana street, apricots, meat, cheese, shoes, electrics, nuts, beans etc etc. It was absolutely massive.

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Mercado Campasino, Sucre
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This gal was pissed I only wanted to buy 1 tomato
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This woman said she’d love to come to Ireland some day to meet Bono
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Peach Street, Mercado Campasino
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Perfect spot for a siesta, Mercaod Campasino
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Mercado Central, Sucre

One of the nights a gang of Chilains and Argentinians hosted a cooking class on making homemade empanadas absolutely delish albeit a bit time consuming (we ate them 5 hours later). The hostel organised private spanish classes for me. It was €4/hour for the class bargain. My prof Slyvia had her hands full with me. It was v ideal I was able to do the classes in the courtyard of the hostel in my pj’s! Word war 2 broke out one of the days with Slyvia and one of the Chilains as Slyvia claimed that Chile stole Bolivia’s dance and music culture. Needless to say I hasn’t a breeze what was going on but a full blown argument broke out for a sold half hour. I was delira for the break! 2 hours of  spanish can be a bit intense and there’s no opportunity for shut eye when your flying solo!

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Rooftop views in Sucre
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Sucre

So the bus from Sucre to Cochabamba is renowned for being the most horrific in all of Bolivia. It is advised that ‘if you value your sanity do not take the bus’. It is also described as ‘hellish’. Most people I met in the hostel were taking cheap flights (40 minutes) to Cochabamba. Obviously I was intrigued and am a glutton for punishment so opted for the bus. I figured how bad could it be. The main reason it’s bad is the road is pretty horrific and Bolivian buses wouldn’t be the may west on the best of days. Also, the buses don’t have toilets so that combined with the bumpy ride is fairly rough on the bladder. The ride is around 8-10 hours long.

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The locals, Sucre
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Street vendors, Sucre

V unorganized I had no snacks so a gal was selling sponge cakes on the bus. They’re everywhere and look v light, fluffy and actually tasty. I bought one because I was starving and after one bite I could barely swallow the stuff (absolute muck) so it was donated to the chap on front of me. As per usual I was v unlucky with my bus partner. On this occasion it was an old Bolivian man with gold teeth (gold teeth are the norm in Bolivia). He was extremely smelly and the close proximity to him was chronic. The minute we set off I started to feel extremely sick and my small backpack was emptied as a precautionary sick bag. On a previous trip to Cambodia I ended up pucking into my backpack and breaking my camera and phone so I wasn’t taking any chances this time ! The ride was windy and bumpy. Not after long the chap on front of me got diorrhoea so we had to make an emergency stop for him ( It was probably the dodgy cake I gave him). After a while the chap with the gold teeth started to puck out the window as the bus was driving. At this stage I was tempted to join the gold toothed man pucking out the window. Luckily, the bus eventually stopped.

We had 20 minutes at this stop so I bought some soup. Bus ended up leaving after 5 minutes so I inhaled the soup and sprinted after the bus. I was feeling progressively worse on the bus out of no where a man ended up lying on the floor next to me. It looked like he was having a heart attack but no one seemed too concerned. It turned out he too had car sickness but felt he fared better on the floor. So I was literally enclosed by vomiting and diorrhoea men and was seconds from joining them. I distracted myself by blaring Eminem for hours and at 4.30am we eventually pulled into the terminal somehow 4 hours ahead of schedule god only knows how. I camped out in the terminal for a few hours in my sleeping bag waiting for a reasonable to text my friends.

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This was the view from one of the restaurants around the corner from my hostel
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All to myself!

One thought on “Week 16: Potosi & Sucre, Bolivia

  1. Great account Roisin. Brought back many memories. Potosi was my favorite place in South America. So interesting. I too went down the mines but on condition that we would not have to crawl! Also bought dynamite and coca leaves for the miners. And talked to the miners’ mothers hammering at waste rock outside. Truly unforgettable.

    You do remember that Laura was from Sucre….?

    Like

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