Bumbling around Sucre and Potosi

Sucre

The bus from La Paz to Sucre was actually probably one of our best so far – we had front row seats on the top deck, so had great views all the way. Sucre has a similar feel to Cuenca in Ecuador, with its white washed colonial style buildings and cobbled streets. It was once the capital of Bolivia before La Paz stole its title recently, however it still remains the judicial capital – this is reflected by the fact there are more Abogados (Lawyer firms) than tiendas.

We didn’t actually see or do much here (Grace wasn’t too well again) apart from wander taround he town and the market, instead we used our time to chill, do our laundry and generally sort our lives out…

Potosi

Potosi is another white washed city (it was once incredibly wealthy thanks to the nearby silver mines) however unlike Sucre it is now starting to show some signs of dilapidation. After a walk around town and the main plaza we grabbed lunch in a cool café before heading to the local market. This was pretty similar to most of the markets we have been to – apart from the meat section. Amongst a dozen or so Llama tails on sale (fluff and all) we also saw a whole cows nose, just its nose on display…almost enough to turn Mike vegetarian, almost…

We also visited one of the city’s museums – an old mint. This mint, in its hayday, was one of the most important in all of South America and is rumoured to be the birthplace of currency as we know it. When the Spanish arrived in 1556 they discovered just how lucrative Potosi was with its seemingly endless supply of silver, they built the mint under orders from the King and began the production of arguably the World’s first mass produced currency. The mint took 14 years to build as special machines were shipped from Spain as well as a press designed by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. This was one of a few mints the Spanish built in Latin America during their period of rule – coins from Potosi were moved to the coast using mules before being shipped worldwide during trading. They even adopted the currency in the United States before they created the Dollar.

The Spanish did not work the mines themselves; they forced the local population and African slaves to mine for them instead. In the poor conditions it is estimated that nearly 8 million people have died since mining began in Potosi – mind blowing!

A number of companies in Potosi offer tours, where one can go and experience the mines and working conditions in the mountain. Grace and I jumped on a tour, although after some deliberation – the reports of tourists who have visited the mine vary greatly, some love it whilst others say the tight spaces, dust and toxic gases where all a bit too much.

At the start of the trip we stopped by the Miners Market where visiting tourists could purchase gifts for the miners – these included Coca Cola, cigarettes and of course dynamite!! Yep, you can buy dynamite here, you don’t even have to be a miner, anyone can buy it – this wouldn’t even be that bad if it wasn’t for the same shop selling 97% alcohol! Turns out it is a favourite tipple for the miners, they enjoy a drink whilst working apparently – to be fair, who can blame them…

After a look around a processing plant which extracted the silver, we popped on some protective clothing, dust masks, hard hats and headlamps and entered the mine. Nowadays the mines are still very much in use, however not to such large scales as centuries before.  Over 15,000 people work here with ages ranging from 12 to 50+, we actually met a kid aged 15 who is working during the summer holidays, not your average ‘paper round’! The miners only get paid for the quantity and quality of rock they pull out of the mine, so as you can imagine working days are long and hard.

The mines were pretty much what we expected, the conditions were terrible for the miners – with cramp passage ways, thick dust, and no circulating air it was certainly a place neither of us would like to work. Temperatures down there could also reach a blistering 40+ degrees, making manual labour near impossible. We met with a few miners whilst crawling around the mines, these guys are made of different stuff to us. Their ability to work 12+ hours carrying loads of over 50kg on their backs whilst scrambling around the rabbit warren is inspiring. As you can imagine it’s incredibly dangerous work, sadly around 30 people die every year trying to improve their family’s standard of living. If a miner is lucky enough to avoid the commonplace explosions and cave-ins, the nature of their work means that the average life expectancy is 45- the ‘black lung’ normally catches up with them by then!! The reason so many people choose to work here is the pay, miners can earn double that of your average Joe in Potosi – a mere $200 USD a month….. We truly believe this must be one of the hardest jobs in the World.

After our very eye opening tour we headed back to town to wash off the dust and dirt before lunch and our evening bus out to Uyuni…

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