San Pedro De Atacama was nice but after 5 nights and food poisoning from one of the restaurants (never eating ice-cream again!) we brimmed the tank, had our passports stamped, cleared customs and headed out of town in the direction of Argentina’s border 100 miles down the road.
We half considered taking the off-road route to Bolivia instead which takes a couple of days but the recent heavy rain and flooded salt flats along the way would make it too tricky.
On the way we achieved a new high of 4830m and rode past salt lakes with flamingos and the odd volcano.
We planned on passing quickly through Argentina on their good asphalt and taking the road north to Bolivia.
We only spent a day in the country but took in some good sights along the way.
Wow! I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this country later on if it is more of the same!
Unfortunately Argentina’s border to Bolivia isn’t as spectacular. It took five hours of waiting at the Villazon border for Argentina to do their stuff. I think there was only a dozen people in front of us but the border guys were so disorganized, it was like everyone first day on the job.
The Passport Control and Aduana guys were giving contradictory information to us and a few other bikers that were waiting patiently in line. That’s when I lost my cool with one guy who was sat behind a desk playing with his mobile phone. It could have gone one of two ways – he could have made us wait even longer but as it happened he took my temporary import paper, looked over at the bike and waved me onto the next window. Thirty minutes later, we were on our way with a temporary import permit for Bolivia.
We were expecting to ride dirt for much of our time in Bolivia as we had heard there was only 400 miles of sealed roads in the whole country. As it happens they have now sealed a few of the main roads through the country.
It seems strange to see beautifully sealed roads surrounded by mud houses though!
We arrived in the city of Potosi and planned on exploring the worlds highest city over the next few days.
Before we arrived in Potosi, we had heard about the mine tours so booked ourselves in to see what all the fuss was about.
We had to sign the involuntary voluntary disclaimer before we began……
First stop is the miners market to pick up supplies.
Everyone stocked up on cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves and dynamite………yes dynamite……
Everyone gives the alcohol a try. 96% and pretty disgusting.
We get kitted up ready to explore….
The guide shows us around the refinery plant…
A worker adjusts the mixture of cyanide and some other dodgy chemicals…..
Lisa hands a bottle of soda to the workers that are extracting the mineral from the rock….
We then take a bus to the the mines at Cerro Rico.
This mountain has quite a history. It has been mined since the 1500’s, firstly by the Spanish who gained vast amounts of silver. They say that enough silver was mined to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain with more left over to carry across it.
African and indigenous slaves were used to mine the silver during Spanish colonialism and the terrible conditions caused an estimated 8 to 10 million deaths.
Our guide stocks up on coca leaves in his cheek pouch before we enter one of the mines….
It doesn’t take long to realise that health and safety doesn’t apply here. There are very few supports in the tunnels.
We stop to chat to miners that have already started celebrating the Miners Carnival which starts the next day….
Another miner prepares some dynamite…..
The miner lights the fuse while we take cover around the corner. I’ve got to admit that it was a little scary sitting there in the dark while waiting for the explosions. They were bloody loud and echoed through the tunnels. Nobody has ever mapped the hundreds of tunnels that have been mined in Cerro Rico and it is thought to be like a Swiss cheese. There is concern by geologists that one day the whole mountain will just collapse.
After a couple of hours underground, we resurface and hand over some gifts to one of the miners. Looking at the dodgy stain on his jeans, I think they started partying a while before….
We all cram into a small mud hut while more coca leaves and alcohol is passed around.
It’s considered impolite to refuse alcohol and you are supposed to drop a bit on “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) before drinking. Lisa misunderstood (so she says) and poured it all on the ground to the miners amusement.
I think most of the tourists sighed with relief when the alcohol finally ran out but then they found another bottle and cracked it open…..
After chatting in broken Spanish to the miners and sharing more of their drink, we took the bus back into town.
What we thought was just another tourist attraction turned out to be a real eyeopener.
Men usually start working the mines in their teens (some as young at 12 even though it is illegal), they breath dangerous gases, asbestos and silica dust and face dangerous conditions every single day. Some earn barely enough to get by and the average life expectancy is just 40 years old.
It’s possibly the worlds worst job and a visit to the mines will put things into prospective. Getting up on a Monday morning for your 9-5 office job doesn’t look so bad after all….
We walked around the famous National Mint of Bolivia the next day.
Among the exhibits was a painting used by the Spanish to help bring Catholicism to Bolivia. They portrayed religious figures around Cerro Rico. I wonder if they would have still bothered if it wasn’t full of Silver?
The Mint is no longer used as it is cheaper to have Bolivian currency produced in Chile. It was also once used as a prison but is now just a museum.
Interesting/uninteresting fact for you: The dollar sign is thought to originate from the Potosi monogrammed mark on pieces of eight (PTSI)
These are the only remaining metal rolling mills from the 1700’s in South America which are still intact. Three machines with the help of 4 mules were used to roll the silver to 0.5mm thickness ready for the coin cutting process.
Iron chests with 12 locking mechanisms were built by the Spanish to transport the silver back to Europe.
Later that day, the Miners Carnival was now in full swing….or is that full swig?
Free WI-FI in public areas…..in a 3rd world country!
We have been in Sucre for about a week now as a Spanish language refresh was in order, so booked in for some lessons at a local Spanish School.
Break time at school. What to do with a bag of water balloons on a third story building?
More dancing and festivals through the week….
We’re getting back on the bike tomorrow, not really sure where yet but that’s half the fun.