Chris' 1994  R100GS/PDChris' new bike, a 1996 F650 ULTIMATE JOURNEY Erin's 1997  F650
Living a Dream . . . 2 Live-N-Ride


June 6, 2002.-- Past 3 years, Day 1113, 41 countries and counting...

Credit to www.theodora.com/mapsMining in Potosi

-- Story by Erin --

Tuesday, June 4th: After a good night’s sleep, we all met for breakfast and talked about the previous day’s events, especially about what happened to Kfir. At lunch that day we dined outside in the sunshine on the plaza. There we met 3 Dutch guys, one (Charlie) riding a Honda XL600. Charlie intended to take his bike out on the tour like we had done. We swapped stories (he having traveled down through Central America) and we gave him some advice about riding through the expansive and wild terrain we had just experienced.

Wednesday, June 5th: At 2am Kfir finally makes it back to Uyuni, thanks to the generous help of the rangers at the national park. They left Laguna Colorada at 7pm the previous night with the Transalp loaded in the back of their NP Service truck. That morning as we were packing up and getting ready to leave for Potosi, we discover he has arrived. There are hugs all around. Kfir works with a mechanic all morning in order to leave for Potosi with us all. At 11am, Kfir is still with the mechanic. Mark agrees to stay and wait for him. Chris, Annet and I take off, not knowing what to expect out of the road. We have 208 kilometers to cover before dark. In Bolivia, that can be a very long way indeed. After riding a good winding road up and over the mountain range behind Uyuni, we cross a stretch of pampas. A big wind is blowing much sand in the air and across the road we are trying to navigate. The situation was similar to sand storms we experienced in Morocco. Surprisingly, there were few real sand dunes to navigate and we managed if fairly easily. The rest of the ride was on good dirt road, winding through beautifully colored rock canyons and small villages.

We finally arrive in Potosi at about 5:30pm, just before sunset. After finding a nice little hostal with a good hot shower, we join Annet and Liam at their hostal for some dinner. Liam arrived in Potosi some days before us, having had his own adventure crossing the Salar by himself with only a compass and map to guide him. As they were preparing a fabulous roast lamb dinner for us, in walks Mark and Kfir fresh off the road from Uyuni. It was definitely cause for celebration.

Potosi is a famous mining town, once the largest city in all of South America. Potosi has long been associated with the wealth of silver that’s been extracted from its many mines. First the indigenous Indians worked the silver mines, then came the Spanish to exploit the rest. Nowadays low-grade silver, tin, zinc, lead, antimony and wolfram are what’s being mined.

It is the largest city of its size at this altitude (4,100 meters/13,450 Feet) in the world. It is set on the side of the mountain, Cerro Rico (means Rich Mountain), which provides its bread and butter. Once an extremely rich city, one can still see the many remains of the extravagant colonial homes and municipal buildings. UNESCO has catalogued over 2,000 colonial buildings and has declared the city to be "Patrimonio de la Humanidad". Many locals refer to their city as being very poor, and indeed the mining industry, which struggles to sustain it is being undercut by overseas competition and oversupply (from Japan among others). However, the city still retains its charm and is very well maintained.

Thursday, June 06: Annet rises early and organizes a tour of the mines for us. The cost is about US$7.50 per person for a 4 hour tour. They pick us up at 10am in a mini bus at the hostal and we are greeted by an English-speaking guide (a nice surprise). We are taken first to a place where we can buy cocoa leaves, cigarettes, water and pure-grain alcohol as gifts for the miners. Next we are given gray plastic pants, red overcoats, rubber boots, a hard-hat and headlamp with battery-pack connected to a heavy leather belt. All geared up and ready to go, they lead us to a row of stalls on the street which sell dynamite and all its assorted parts necessary for blasting rock in the mines. We get a quick lesson on it all and the guys dive right in and buy several packages of the stuff.

Now the adventure really begins. The bus lets us off at the entrance to a mine (there are over 200 mines in the mountain). There are no privately owned mines anymore, and the mines are worked by small cooperatives of 5 or so men each. Apparently, each tour company goes to its own mine so that there is no overlap with several groups in a mine at one time. We later learn to appreciate how important this is for all our safety. Our guides have us turn on our headlamps and we enter the dark hole in the side of the mountain. Immediately the way gets smaller and smaller so that we are all hunched over and banging our helmets on the ceiling beams and rock. Mark, the Dutchman, is 2 meters tall (6 ft. 6 in.) and has to duck most of the time we are down there.

We are led to a small room which is the mine’s museum. There are many bizarre life-size figures representing the various men who worked the mines over the centuries. At the entrance is a really strange devil figure which is the guardian of the mine and protector of the miners. Here the guides take some cocoa leaves and sprinkle them on the devil figure. Next they mix the grain alcohol with orange soda and ask us all to take sips then sprinkle the drink around the base of the figure. This keeps the guardian happy I suppose. Our guide then explains the other items in the museum as he has our rapt attention.

The temperature in the mine went from cold to hot very quickly as we descended its depths. The going was hard at times, having to crawl or scoot on our bottoms down rocky shoots, slog through muddy water filled passageways, and jump out of the way of quickly passing metal carts filled with minerals. We passed many miners during the tour, all working harder than any of us could imagine. The carts that carry the mineral out of the mine are not mechanized, but pushed and pulled by 3-4 men at a time. Much of the digging is still done by hand, as dynamite is expensive for them. The average daily wage for a miner is just US$4.50/day. As we pass groups of miners, we give them handfuls of the cocoa leaves, cigarettes and water. Occasionally we pass a group taking a break and we give them the alcohol. The miners work 8 straight hours without stopping for lunch. The cocoa leaves serve to curb their appetite and give them energy to do their work. The average life expectancy of a miner here is 45 years.

As I said, the going was quite difficult at times. The air was filled with acrid rock dust and we had to breathe through scarves around our nose and mouth. Chris, who is asthmatic, had his inhaler with him. Several of us had to take puffs of his inhaler as the dust was choking. The tiny spaces, darkness and little air made for a real claustrophobic feeling in most of us. We slid down shoots holding onto the airhose lines, climbed ladders, and scrambled through tight rocky spaces. Near the end of the tour we had to climb a ladder into a small crawl space where a miner was working on digging (with hammer and chisel) holes to set dynamite. Here we contributed one of our sticks to the man. The space was extremely small and, at this altitude and being in the mine, it took all our strength just to descend the ladder again. The miner would set off the charge later in the afternoon.

Having exhausted our supply of gifts, as well as our strength, we finally exited the mine with a sense of relief. We had a new appreciation for the extreme working conditions of these miners. Our tour concluded with a demonstration outside the mine of the detonation of a stick of dynamite. As we waited for the fuse to ignite the dynamite, the guys tossed rocks (successfully) at a poor dog that happened to be walking by the detonation site. The explosion was surprisingly bigger than the one we experienced on the tour in Uyuni. Our guides brought us back to town where we shed our miner’s gear and thanked them heartily for a fantastically informative tour.

 


The boys buying sticks of dynamite for US$1 each

Mark, Kfir, Lady Vendor, Chris, and Liam (smoking 1 of 3 sticks he bought)


Our guide makes an offering to one of the Gods inside the mine


Crawling/Sliding down one of the many chutes


We often had to find nooks to stop and wait as 3-4 men would push a heavy cart past


After more than 3 hours underground, we arrive outside, exhausted!

BOL.Potosi.MineTourGang2.JPG (42319 bytes)
Erin, Mark, Annet, Liam, and Kfir

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