‘In the mines, they pray to the devil, Tio, because the men feel
closer to his land than to the land of the living.’
– Johnny, a former miner
After a quick flight from La Paz to Sucre, aboard Aerosur, Bolivia’s
national airline, I landed in the white city, or at least, Bolivia’s
white city. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Peru’s white city,
Arequipa. Although Sucre has it’s charms, it was no Arequipa and I was
more than ready to leave after two days. The highlight of Sucre though
was the Casa de la Libertad, the house where the Bolivian Declaration
of Independance was signed in 1825. I received a terrific guided tour
of the building. Oddly, the tour was in French and the most memorable
nugget of information I took home from the tour was about Argentina.
Did you know that the original Argentine flag was white, sky blue, and
white (the inverse of the current flag)? One of Argentina’s president
inversed the colour scheme some time ago because he wanted to add the
Inca sun to the middle of the flag and he thought the sun would be
better on a white backdrop. Did you also know that the sky blue
represents the Virgin Mary?
Before visiting the Casa though, I first met up with Sinead whom I’d
originally met in El Calafate in the first week of my trip. Thanks to
the wonders of Facebook, we realized that we were in the same Bolivian
city, and took the Dino truck together to Cal Orcko Cretaceous Park,
home to the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks. Discovered
in the midst of a cement production mine, there are over 500 tracks
fossilized on a sheer vertical wall face. No, the dinosaurs didn’t
have the ability to disobey the laws of gravity, the tracks were left
back when South America was flat, and then the Andes popped up and
verticalized the land and the tracks (yes, that is a word).
Before leaving Sucre, I stumbled upon Tom and Robyn, my former
travelling partners from Argentina and Chile. Or rather they stumbled
upon me, as I was sitting in the lobby of my hostel and they had just
arrived in Sucre and were looking for a room. We exchanged travel
stories and advice over dinner and beers, then I headed off to Potosi,
the highest city of it’s size in the world, and the source of Spanish
riches for several hundred years.
Sitting at over 4000 meters above sea level, Potosi is a relic of what
once was, and undoubtedly my favorite Bolivian city. Towering over
Potosi is Cerro Rico, a mountain that, during the years of Spanish
rule, provided tonnes upon tonnes upon tonnes of silver to Spain,
accounting for most of their riches between the 16th and 19th
centuries. Today, the mine is still active but run as cooperatives by
groups of local miners. Though the working conditions have changed
little over the last 400 years, the miners still hammer away at the
mountain, selling their weekly take to local smelters. They say that
the mountain is 200 meters shorter today than it was when it was
discovered because of all the extraction activities.
Led by Johnny, a former miner, and joined by a Brit named Joe that I
met in my hostel, we took a tour of the mine, interacting with and
giving gifts to the miners along the way. Johnny worked in the mine for 2 years, and then
quit for two reasons – his mother and his health. While an average of
300 workers die from accidents in the mine every year, the average
working lifespan of a miner is 15 years before he becomes dibilitated
with silicosis. Walking into the mine really did feel like walking
into hell. Decked out in safety gear and clothing, we spent about an
hour in the mine, going down as far as six levels deep.
Claustrophobics beware, this is not your kind of experience. There
were very few places where I was able to stand up straight, most
tunnels had a diameter of only around 5 feet and none of the tunnels
are lit. The only source of light is provided by a headlamp attached
to your helmet. At one point, Johnny had us all turn off our lamps and
it was as dark as I’ve ever witnessed. The whole experience was very
gritty, slightly terrifying and incredibly unforgettable.
Many of the workers in the mine are very young, most in their 20’s and 30’s, but some teenagers can be seen. We learned that there are three classes of miners. The lowest class is the younger bunch, the ones who do all the heavy labour, the pushing of the carts and shoveling into buckets. The second and first class miners do all the discovery work, dynamiting and supervising. In order to move up a class, and get paid more, miners have to put in a certain nuber of hours in the mine and pay a fee into the cooperation. In the end, it’s not all that different from joining the ranks of a professional association in North America. While we were in the mine, we got to interact with the miners. We brought them gifts, like drinks, coca leaves and dynamite. And they showed us what they do and let us try some of the work. I can tell you that a cart full of raw ore is absolutely impossible to move…I don’t know how those guys do it. Although we were told that that were some women in the mine, I didn’t see one the whole day. At the end of the day, we went outside and Johnny demonstrated a dynamite explosion on the hillside (although, if his lighter had been working, he would have done it in the mine).
On my second day in Potosi, I received guided tours of three terrific museums. People who work in tourism in Bolivia are so excited to have you as a visitor. They really just want nothing more than to share a part of their lives with you. The highlight was the Casa de la Moneda, the former site of the National Mint. Originally built by the Spanish, it’s said that when the King of Spain was told how much the building cost, he thought they must have built the thing out of pure silver. A hugely elaborate building, it’s no longer in use. Ironically, while Bolivia once minted coins for countries all around the world, all Bolivian currency is now imported from mints in other countries (such as Canada, whose mint produces the 5 Boliviano coin). As our tour guide said, c’est la vie!
On to Uyuni and the famous salt flats.