Our next location on the round the world travels was the worlds highest city, Potosi, at 4100m above sea level. Our time in Potosi coincided with the Carnival as did it in Sucre and Cochabamba which meant that some of the more touristy attractions were closed, but we did get to experience more of Bolivian Carnival as well as being able to see Potosi’s fantastic and fascinating silver mines.
The first day we arrived from Sucre was spent checking into our hostel at around 3 o’clock, dumping our stuff and going out to explore the town. We quickly realised that the Carnival was still in full swing with water fights still taking place and brass bands still playing, and after a little rain we found ourselves a place to eat which which was a little over priced, but hey, we were in Bolivia so even expensive it very cheap compared to the UK. Also after a very restless sleep, because of the altitude, we just spent time doing some more exploring, but again the Carnival made our tourist happy snapping quite a challenege.
We had been used to market towns by this point so thought we should again check it out, and this was worth it. The market was big with good prices for food and made the idea of good Bangers and Mash a reality. This reality was slightly short lived when we realised that our cooking skills still weren’t as good as we thought and Bangers and Mash turned into a cheesy, meaty mash but although looking slightly unappealing, it was definitely tasty.
The main reason Potosi was on our list of places to go was the silver mines which had been recommended to us by Ben and Samuel in the Pantanal. To give you a bit of background, the mines were first opened by the Inkas and was then taken over by the Spanish when they invaded and took all of the pure silver and then left the mine as it is today to the locals to mine Tin, Zinc, and whatever else they find.
We booked our tour though our hostel as it was highly recommended for 80 Bolivianos per person for a half day tour. Our tour started at 7:30 with a short bus drive to the miners market to buy dynamite, the only place in Bolivia that you can buy it because when the army tried to stop the selling of dynamite the miners used it against the them, and coca leaves as presents for the miners. You will have to get a present for the miners at around 10 Bolivianos per person from the market, but it is cheaper and better for the miners if you buy a 5 Boliviano bag of coca from the actual markets as it is much bigger!
The mine was mental, wet, dark, damp, dangerous but a load of fun. It was how you expected a mine to look about 500 years ago, wooden beams are used to support the tunnels or sometimes nothing at all. The tunnels themselves, apart from one being caved in, were great and very interesting including the left over bottles from the nights before Carnival celebration.
We also got to meet a miner who had worked in the mines for around 25 years and who we gave the presents to. He explained to us about how and why the miners work there as there are no other jobs, how they make dynamite and what they do during the day. The miner explained that each day the consume a 25cl of 96% alcohol! We were lucky enough (or unlucky, depending how you look at things) to able to try half a cap of it which did make you feel like you may have had a couple of drinks. They also are always chewing on coca leaves all at the same time which means they are drunk and high on coca, slightly disconcerting when you are handing them dynamite as a gift!
Our guide took us to a part of the mine where they lit the fuse and gave it to us to hold and take photos. Although it was quite an experience, it was probably one of the most dangerous moments of my life. This did seem dangerous but realistically it would take about 30 minutes for it to go off so they cut the fuse down so that we wouldn’t have to wait. They placed and set the 3 dynamite charges and told us to turn our lights off. This increased the suspense and made the explosions so much more interesting. We could not see the explosion itself as it was deep in the mountain but when it went off the blast leaves a ringing in your ears, but also with each blast you feel a huge wall of warm air hit you in the face!
The tour is definitely worth it and a definite must do for anyone who is going to Bolivia and at about 80 Bolivianos (£7) its a half day which is, as so much of South America is, like nothing you will ever see in the rest of the world, the lax safety, the intoxicated miners and a way of life which won’t change through choice or persuasion.
Although Potosi was not as nice as it probably once was, there is still lots to see and it’s worth going just to see the mines and to say you have been to the highest city in the world.
When we get chance (and more importantly fast internet) we have videos of the dynamite being detonated! So keep an eye out for that. If you want to see more photos of Potosi and the mine check our Flcikr.