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Potosi is famous for its mines. Once a wealthy city with rich mineral resources, its former glories now exist as souvenirs, in museums and the impressive buildings of the Central Plaza . Much has changed since the days of slavery when the mines were forcibly constructed under the Spanish; now the miners are free to use the government owned mine as they please (paying a certain percentage in taxes of course) and the tunnels are invaded twice daily by tourists bearing gifts if soft drink, coca leaves and dynamite in exchange for being put up with. It sounded a pretty good set up to me and after kitting ourselves out in wellies, waterproofs and rather fetching helmets, our small group each bought gifts and we headed up there to see what was going on.
Along the way we stopped off at the processing factory where lots of complicated separating procedures take place, eventually producing silver, lead and… something else. Obviously I was listening, taking in and fully understanding the science involved but I won’t bore you with the details. The machines were a lot louder than our guide. Basically they crushed up rocks and then took all the nice shiny bits out using machines that went round and made lots of noise. Really though, it was a pretty elaborate looking process and I just enjoyed the crowded collection of machines busily spinning, whirring, grinding and stirring.
Our next stop was the entrance of the mine. We switched on our headlamps and stooped carefully through the tunnels, trying not to hit our heads too many times and listening to the strange hissing of the pipes along the walls. We stopped at a point where the air suddenly turned warm and sickly. A young boy and (I assumed) his father pushed a big metal cart full of rubble along the metal tracks. It was hard to imagine children working in mines despite the prominence of working children across Bolivia . We had been served by children in restaurants, seen them shining shoes in the towns and cities, even been told off in a hostel by one for trying to use the wrong shower! There was a certain charm about it at times- like if a chubby four year old with a chocolatey face brought you your change or something – but this was a bit more disturbing.
We became used to the smells and sensations of the tunnels and soon found ourselves crawling on our bellies through the dust. Josh had been unsure about going into the claustrophobic mines but he didn’t seem too phased now that we were in there – even less so after a drinking session with some miners who we found relaxing at the end of their working day. With dust tickling our throats we climbed up and down spinning trap-like stairs and crawled shuffled and squeezed our way around the rocky tunnels, their wonky wooden beams looking set to collapse.
Eventually we felt a welcome rush of fresh air. We filled our lungs and moved excitedly through the well ventilated corridor to freedom, my helmet rattling happily along the ceiling. Once outside we were given a dynamite demonstration. We all stood silently as the bomb was constructed – it looked pretty harmless at first, like a little round plastic bag full of sweets, but the fuse gave it a menacing touch and, once lit, a sense of imminent destructive power. Oblivious to this, the guide passed the fizzing explosive to Josh who jokingly accepted and then quickly attempted to hand it back. But he wouldn’t take it! He managed to pass it on to an Irish girl whose fleeting moment of enthusiasm was quickly replaced with genuine concern as she failed to find a willing recipient. Eventually the guide took it and ran off onto some wasteland where he planted it before returning to safety. We waited until we started thinking it may not have worked when suddenly a bang shook the ground beneath us. I would not like to be in a mine when one of those goes off. No sir.
Potosi had introduced us to a harsher climate. Although sunny, the wind was bitter and patches of ice testified to freezing nights. We had come prepared – layers of long johns, fleece and alpaca kept us toasty – but as we set of towards Uyuni on a colourful little bus I noticed that we were practically naked compared to the bulky, blanket clad locals who shuffled onto the bus and shuffled sideways down the inadequate aisle.
on July 28, 2009
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