From a silver mining town to the white-washed walls of the country’s official capital
20.01.2013 - 24.01.2013
After hitching a ride on the jeep from my Uyuni tour to Potosi, I decided to bed down for the weekend and try to make the most of it. As an unscheduled stop on my trip, I soon realized that there were just 2 main attractions the town had to offer: the Casa de Moneda (“house of money”), and the tours into the active silver mines. Of course I did both.
The first was a museum of the history of silver in Potosi, dating back to the Spanish rule. Quite a large establishment, the guided tour lasted 90 minutes, and consisted of a little history of the colonization of the Spaniards, a walk through the different coins in time, and the history of the production of silver in Potosi.
The mining tour was definitely different. Imagine crawling into 4 levels of mining rubble, breathing through a bandana to avoid inhaling dust, sulfur and silicone, clinging to the walls hoping not to slide down into an unending abyss, all at an altitude of 4315mabsl. Not a pleasant experience, but definitely an unforgettable one.
The tour starts off with a quick change into your “miner’s” uniform, then a stop at the miner’s market to see the “ingredients” of dynamite, and to buy some gifts of water and coca leaves for the miners. One of the traditions included taking a swig from a bottle of pure alcohol, to cleanse the throat and ward off bacterial infections. Little did we know the burn from that alcohol would be nothing compared to what we were going to experience inside the mines. Small crawl spaces, walls lined with sulfuric deposits, clouds of dusts, sounds of dynamite explosions and the jackhammer… and yet, every miner you met was jovial and happy to share his experiences.
I chatted with many of them, all with different personalities, all looking older than they were, and all eager to talk to someone foreign. I felt a little like Snow White and the 7 dwarfs down there. And After it all, I realized:
Doc- wasn’t that old, he’d just been in the mines too long;
Sneezy- probably had hay fever from all the dust;
Bashful- was only red-faced from the 40 ͦC heat in the mines;
Happy- was new and naïve;
Sleepy- had been overworked;
Grumpy- was underpaid;
and Dopey had been breathing in the toxic fumes for way too long.
Summary? Good experience, but would not do it twice.
With beautifully clean streets, pristine white walls, and an immaculate market, Sucre is a far cry from the dirty mining town. With many trekking opportunities in close proximity, the capital attracts numerous tourists. I had originally planned to stay a week or two, and maybe take some extra Spanish classes while waiting for a Brazilian visa… Unfortunately my plans were foiled when I discovered that the consulate had been closed for a year, and I would need to head straight to Santa Cruz. Maybe I need to get a newer guide book.
Before leaving, I managed to take the time to catch a movie at the basic but cheap cinemas, as well as join a group on a bike tour to the countryside and nearby dinosaur footprint tracks. The bike tour led us to the local surrounding of the train tracks, the only castle in Sucre with a tower for the princess, and of course a short trek up through the rocky riverside to the footprints of the dinosaur. It was there we learnt that it was our guide and his father who actually discovered these prints some years ago, along with fossilized rocks dating back 250 million years.
We finished the daily tour by heading back to the center via the old cemetery, a beautiful setup of pristine kept crypts in a tranquil garden. It would be a great place to just sit and relax with a packed lunch on a lazy day. If I had more time I would also have liked to have ventured further out to see the Maragua crater and the other prints, but unfortunately you just can’t have it all…
Tip: If going from Sucre to Santa Cruz, It’s better to book a flight. During the rainy season there are several landslides, and if your bus driver is crazy like mine was and tries to get through it, you will get stuck.