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Written on: Saturday August 4th, 2007

A journal entry from: Bolivia, Peru, and the Galapagos!

We drove from Sucre to Potosí (pronounced poh-toh-SEE, not poh-tohz-EE) yesterday on a private bus that we shared with a tour group from Intrepid Travel. Apparently, they had started in Rio just like our guide had earlier. The drive was about 2.5 hours along a modern asphalt two lane highway. The landscape was amazing! The terrain was mostly rocky mountainous desert with some cactus, similar to what I imagine is in the Southwest US. The driver passed people often, which was a bit frightening considering they had no guardrails making it easy to tumble hundreds of feet off the edge of the road down the side of a mountain. Nonetheless, we made it to Potosí.

Once in Potosí, we grabbed a quick bowl of soup for lunch and then headed off for a tour of a mine. Potosí's claim to fame is that they have a dormant volcano called Cerro Rico that is extremely mineral rich. Starting in 1545, Potosí supplied a large percentage of the silver that kept the Spanish monarchy running. In order to do so, nearly 8 million indigenous and African slaves died mining the silver (mostly from respiratory diseases, but I'm sure their were other occupational hazards as well). Today, the mine is not nearly as prosperous, but it still functions with tin being the most important mineral extracted from it. Unfortunately, working conditions are not much better than they were in the 16th century, and workers will most likely die within 10-15 years from a pulmonary illness after beginning work in the mines.

To tour the mines, we were given a plastic jacket and pants, rubber boots, a hardhat, and a headlamp. We also bought coca leaves, soda, cigarettes, and dynamite kits as gifts for the miners that we would encounter in the mines. We then joined with the Intrepid group again and took a bus to one of the mine entrances and entered just as the miners would (except we didn't have to push a large cart). The tunnel ceilings were low in many places and I knocked my head several times as a result (thank goodness for the hardhat). Twice we actually crawled on our hands and knees. The tunnels were very dusty from both dirt and silica (and apparently also filled with various noxious gases) which made breathing difficult. The temperature was also quite warm and uncomfortable. We encountered several groups of miners that were pushing their last load of minerals out of the mine for the day and our guide gave them our gifts as we passed. They were super friendly and were very happy to have visitors in the mines with them. They were super fascinated with the female visitors and wanted to shake our hands. We also passed two shrines along the way for Tío, the devil that the miners believe owns the minerals in the mountain. They leave him offerings as they enter the mine in the morning and on Fridays after they are done. After about a one mile walk inside the tunnels, we exited with great relief. I can't even imagine having to work in those tunnels in order to survive.

After the mine, we all took showers and headed for dinner at Pata place that our mine guide had told us about. It turned out to be a disaster. It took an hour for our starters to arrive and another hour for our main course. And the food was terrible (I only ate half my main). The food was still cheap though. One soda, one bowl of soup, and one bowl of pasta was $4US. The one interesting thing about the restaurant, however, was that they had a band playing traditional Bolivia Andean music (just like those guys you see around town with the harmonica/flute things). The performance was great, but it was far too loud for the small restaurant, so nobody could carry on a conversation.

We all slept well that night and then woke up early to catch Potosí's other main attraction, the Bolivian Mint. The mint is no longer in service because Bolivia's money is now made in Europe, but in colonial times the mint was used to make the silver coins that made the Spanish monarchy so wealthy.

After the mint, we wandered around the market and caught some lunch before getting on our 6 hour bus ride to Uyuni.....