8 – 12 August
The bus fights its way further and further up the winding road until we arrive in Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world (almost 4100m above sea level). It is also called “the silver city” as tons and tons of silver were found in the nearby mine of Cerro Rico (the rich mountain) and taken by the Spanish back in the days ( 1545-1825 when Bolivia got independent). In fact, Cerro Rico turned out to be the richest silver-bearing mountain on the planet. Thanks to this immense wealth, Potosí was and still is a stunning city full of pastel-coloured colonial buildings with wooden balconies and beautiful facades. As soon as I get here and go for a first stroll around town I realize that I like this place eventhough the temperatures drop below 0 degrees Celsius at night.
A literally breathtaking hike up to some artificial barrier lakes rewards me with some amazing 360 degree views of the city, Cerro Rico and the surrounding mountains. Up there is hardly any vegetation left next to some dry grass – the perfect condition for llamas and alpacas. I come accross a few llama flocks and have fun chasing them and trying to get really close to these funny animals.
Obviously, I cannot leave Potosí without visiting its famous mine, one of the biggest ones out there. We stop at the miner’s market to purchase some gifts for the hard-working miners in form of coca leaves, some very strong spirit (96%) that does not smell any different than gasoline, cigarettes without filters and, last but not least, one product that is not a drug – juice. We jump into a grey miner’s suit and some rubber boots, put on a helmet and a headlamp and off we go – underground, while being more than 4000m above sea level – what a bizarre idea. The tunnel is very narrow, the ceiling quite low (it’s certainly not designed for tall Europeans) and the temperatures are rising constantly whereas the air is getting even thinner than it already is anyway in this altitude. After ten minutes, the French couple that is part of my group decides to turn around and to head back, so the only ones left are the guide and myself – a private tour for me then!
While heading deeper and deeper into the mine and the mountain we pass El Diablo (the devil), ruler of the mountain and the underworld. The miners provide him with tobacco, alcohol and coca leaves on a regular base and receive his protection in return, while working down here – sounds like a fair deal.
Every now and than, we hear a sound just like thunder caused by an approaching cart filled with rocks and minerals. There is just enough time to jump out of the way of these speeding and insanely heavy carts (about one ton) as there would certainly not be any way to pull an emergency break or to stop the cart.
At some point, we reach a hole in the ground that seems bottemless. I am told that it is about 50m deep and that this is where the miners work on several different levels before the rocks/minerals are pulled up by an electric cable winch. We climb down a few ladders and descent about 30m to get to a level where a team of four miners is just taking a break from this hard work. By now, it is so hot and the air is so thin and polluted by all the dust that I feel like being drunk. Nevertheless, since we have have been carrying the presents (juice, coca leaves and this very strong spirit) we do not get around having a drink together. Mixed with juice this spirit is actually quite enjoyable so one drink turns into a second one and a third one…
It definitely is one of the strangest experiences I have ever had: chatting, joking and drinking with five Bolivians that I have just met deep down in a dark mine that is so branched that it would take me days to find my way out. Luckily, my guide knows where to go so we breathe fresh air and see the sky again a little later. Having been in there for just two hours only gives me the slightest idea of what these hundreds of miners go through every day for I don’t know how many hours. They really have my deepest respect!
After facing the devil in the mines it is time to look the Inka in the eye as well. The crater lake which is a hot spring at the same time called Ojo del Inka (the eye of the Inka) due to its circular shape is located only 20km from Potosí, so in theory it should not take too long to get there. However, the miners are blocking the streets in the entire country since two days as some kind of protest, meaning it is almost impossible to get from A to B. It takes me a couple of different buses, lot’s of waiting and walking until I finally arrive at the lake after two hours.
By the time I get back it is too late to leave Potosí considering the current situation on the roads so I have no other choice but to stay another night and really hope that I will be able to keep on moving the next morning. I spend the night with Pui (from Thailand) and Valentin (from France) having a few beers and enjoying some Bolivian red wine.
Although the situation on the roads seems to be even worse the next morning, there is supposed to be one bus going to Uyuni that should be allowed to pass the road block within a certain time frame. Pui and I rush to the bus terminal and get there 20 minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart. It sounds almost too good to be true… and it is, as it turns out. After waiting for the bus for about one-and-a-half hours we decide to look for a different way. We find a “collectivo” (shared taxi) that is willing to take us, via a secret way in order to pass the road block. We cannot believe our eyes when we realize that this secret way is nothing else than some train tracks. As soon as we get on the tracks, one of our tires gives up – what a promising start. What follows is absolutely crazy and gives us pure adrenaline as we make our way along the tracks for about 10km, passing very narrow parts, big rocks and not being sure if these tracks are actually being used by trains. Well, at least this worry disappears when we get stopped by some miners who apparently not only block roads but train tracks as well. Fortunately, they are corrupt so we may pass in exchange for a few bucks and eventually make it to the highway…