Another day, another bus, this time to the city of Potosi. The buses seem to be getting more ‘local’ as we go south and this one was no exception. It was still comfortable enough but this time we were to be joined by a box of chickens! It was with little relief that they put them in the luggage compartment before dog joined us on the bus!
we travelled through more, dry highlands full of tusk grasses – things seem to be getting drier though that could just could be my imagination. For the last few weeks, everything has been so dry and barren and Potosi was no exception. I am almost craving some rain and greenery – perhaps I need to go back to the jungle! 😉🤔
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world at 4090m above sea level and was the location for the Spanish colonial mint for many centuries. The city lies at the foot of Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) — a mountain popularly conceived of as being “made of silver” ore that dominates the city.
The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosí’s historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain and even today it is one of the main source of employment and income for the city having been mined for tin, silver and zinc constantly for nearly 500 years.
Today the mine employs 15,000 miners, generating revenue that supports the entire city. It was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987 (along with the city of Potosi) and it was initially given the title ‘the mountain that eats men’ after the large number of indigenous people and enslaved Africans who died mining in in the early years of its production.
After travelling through the dry, dusty ‘suburban’ areas of the city, full of unfinished buildings, we arrived in the old part of the city which was surprisingly pretty after first impressions and we enjoyed a quick walking tour.
That evening some of us went to a local basketball game. Basketball is the second most important sport in Bolivia (after soccer) and the city were hosting one of the quarter finals of the national competition – local side Pichincha de Potosi had a poor first quarter but came right and ended up having a resounding win. It was a fun evening out and as expected the local crowd was loud and colourful in their cheering with their music, singing and dancing!
The following morning a few of us had chosen to learn about the mine and mining industry that has been the centre of the city for many centuries. We started off at the miners’ market – most of the miners are contractors and are therefore responsible for supplying all their own equipment and the miners’ market is where they come to kit themselves out for the day. You can pretty much buy everything a miner needs for their work here – safety gloves and masks (although many miners work without both), coca leaves, cigarettes, strong local moonshine, oh and of course dynamite! Like I said, everything you would need for a day’s work in the mine!
We purchased some gloves, soft drinks and coca leaves to give to miners as gifts as we came across them when we entered the mine later in the morning.
After kitting up in overalls and miners helmets we started our tour at the refinery where much of the ore taken from the mine starts – for the contract workers, they get paid by quantity rather than quality and the out come of that is seen at the refinery where they extract the minerals from the rest! Already here it was apparent that this industry is hard and dirty work and despite the many warning signs, it seems like health and safety is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind!
We then went up to the mine where we entered through a view small entry point, having to avoid the miners rushing in and out with their wheelbarrows full of rock. (As I mentioned before, many of these men are paid by quantity so speed is of the essence.) Soon the mine opened out in to a larger area where we were introduced to El Tio (the uncle), the god of miners – a horned man, with bulging eyes and a pointed beard.
The statue was covered in streamers and coca leaves, as well as many bottles of the over proof alcohol we had seen at the market earlier in the morning – all of which are given to El Tio as offerings. El Tio is neither good or evil and is capable of delivering both death and amazing wealth! Above ground, most of the miners are Catholic and worship God but below ground El Tio is worshipped. To encourage wealth, we all had to partake in a sip of the alcohol – and due to superstitions everything has to take place in even numbers so we had to take two sips! IT WAS NOT GOOD 😬, but then what can you expect of 98% proof!!
Another of the superstitions is around women in the mine and for this reason, no women work in the Cerro Rico mine. Apparently Pacha Mama (mother earth as I had already met in Colombia and Peru) would get jealous!
We ventured deeper in to the mine, passed deep holes running to different levels of shafts and over planks across massive caverns were men were manually bringing up ore from lower levels. Although I never really felt unsafe, I must admit I was a little relieved when we finally exited in to the sun!
Miners are either contractors (working for themselves) or work for a cooperative but in either case, some of the work practices date back to colonial times and in most instance the work is almost solely manual. If a miner strikes it lucky and gets a good seam, they can choose to purchase machinery to make their working lives easier but this is pretty rare. All in all, life if hard and often short for the miners of Cerro Rico.
Our guide for the tour was an ex-miner who appeared thankfully for a way to leave the ‘family business’ of mining behind him for work with tourists.
We were back on a bus that afternoon, and probably the worse bus so far (though still not that bad). The dry highlands continued and were interspersed with sand dunes and llamas until we had our first really view of the desert of salt as we drove down in to Uyuni. There were patches of snow on the side of the road reminding us just how cold it is going to be and we could feel the drop in temperature when people opened windows to take photos 😬!
Uyuni is a city in the southwest of Bolivia, and these days primarily serves as a gateway for tourists visiting the world’s largest salt flats nearby and of course this is the reason we found ourselves here too!
Unfortunately, it was here my trip plans were turned upside down with the news of a death in the family. So instead of my morning being spent preparing for a 3 day 4WD trip across southern Bolivian, I spend my morning with our tour guide working out flights out of Uyuni (thankfully the influx of tourists meant they had recently put in an airport with direct flights to La Paz) and onwards to Buenos Aries for an earlier flight home.
Despite the flight booking being painfully slow, we managed to sort it all out in time for me to join the rest of the group on the first day of their trip before returning to Uyuni for my evening flight.
The first stop of the day was the ‘cementario de trenes’ or train cemetery. Uyuni has been an important transportation hub for over a hundred years but during a decline in the mining industry in the 40s, many trains were abandoned outside Uyuni, forming this mass train cemetery. Many of the locomotives here date back to the early 20th century but having been left unattended in the salty winds they are now just rusted and eroded shells.
This is part of the normal tourist route and I have seen many Instagram worthy photos in the passed but I could not really see the appeal myself!
As we drove towards the salt flats, we came across the beautiful Vicuñas again on the side of the road. Definitely my favourite of the South American camelid family!
Our next stop was the small town of Colchani on the edge of the salt flats – the town now survives on tourism and salt production, with families running small salt manufacturing ‘factories’ from their homes (which are also made of salt). It was a completely manual process right down to packaging the salt which they sell for a pittance. Not sure the process would have met any health and safety standards of New Zealand so I was not tempted to purchase any despite the low price!
We then finally reached the main attraction – the Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats. At nearly 11,000 sq. km, they are the largest salt flats in the world and is the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind the desert like, bright white salt – truly otherworldly.
As we crossed in to the salt flats we stopped to see the ‘ojos de sal’, small ponds where water bubbles up through the salt plains. Despite the appearance of boiling water, these are not hot and is just a result of water pressure building up in the water that remains under the salt!
As we drove further in the plains the salt flats seemed to get whiter and more vast, and despite the number of other vehicles we saw at the normal stops (including at the original salt hotel – no longer a hotel – and the Dakar rally monument – the salt flats have been part of the famous Dakar rally since 2014) there was still the opportunity to drive off in the vastness and be on our own.
We had plenty of time to take in the incredible landscape and take the usual ‘perspective’ photos that grace everyone’s Instagram feeds! As the Salar is so flat, objects that are far aware can seem close. These photos were not really a priority for me under the circumstances but I took a few and just enjoyed the wonder of the scenery as other in the groups continued with their photoshoots.
I said a premature good bye to my group at Isla Incahuasi – a cactus covered rocky island in the sea of salt before being introduced to my ride back to Uyuni. Unfortunately, the new driver then announced that they were staying for the sunset which meant I would get back too late to get washed and packed in time for my flight! So, after some moments of panic, my guide arranged a taxi to meet me at the edge of the salt flats where the new ride would deposit me! To be honest, I was not filled with confidence when being told that a taxi would meet me at the edge of the 11,000 sq. km salt flats with no specific roads, but I should not have worried as all the drivers seemed to know what was going on and I met up with my driver and was back to town in time to shower and rearrange bag for the 2 days of travel ahead.