The random pic below shows wool being spun by hand. We’ve seen this often on the streets in Peru and Bolivia, it’s mainly done by ladies but we have seen the odd modern man having a go as well! Often this activity is done while walking, talking, herding sheep and children as well.
We had arrived at the city of Potosi which is one of the highest cities in the world at 4090 metres. It has a pretty enough centre but the main reason to stop here is the area’s mining history.
It was established by the Spanish in 1546 and for several centuries slave labour made up of local Quechua and Aymara people mined more silver than anywhere else in the world. Now, silver is a small percentage of what is mined but with lead, copper and zinc plus quite recently discovered lithium this is still the only real industry supporting the town. Currently approximately half the population are involved in the mining industry but is is estimated that in 30 years or so there will not be much left to extract.
Whether to visit one of the working mines is a subject that splits opinion amongst visitors we have met for 2 reasons 1. Is it fair on the miners, do they benefit from the tours? 2. Safety, some of the articles and reports on-line claim the miners drink 96 percent alcohol all day, dynamite is used while tourists are in the mine, and it is generally a flippin dangerous activity!
Anyhow, we did it. We chose a tour guide who was an ex-miner and asked him a lot of questions before signing up. I was a bit worried about any particularly tight squeezes or crawling but nothing they said was particularly worrying. We also wanted to be sure that the miners where happy for tourists to visit.
Our first stop was at the miners market where you can buy coca leaves, dynamite, cigarettes, 96 percent alcohol, soft drinks and work gloves. Not your average mini market! Our guide suggested we take some gifts for the miners but not alcohol or cigarettes, in the mine we visited the alcohol is only drunk on Friday afternoons and the miners are not encouraged to smoke as this can make them more prone to lung disease and the nature of their work increases this risk anyway!
Before entering the mine we visited the refinery plant, as the ore mined contains multiple metals it is broken down and kind of washed over and over to get rid of the unwanted rock content. It is a noisy place with multiple machines pounding and sifting. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of safety guards and there were many trip hazards. I was finding it hard to put aside the HSE type standards we expect at home.
A sample containing some tiny weeny bits of silver and copper.
The ore is only partly refined here. This thick mud is as far as it gets in Bolivia, this is loaded into containers and shipped to other parts of the world for further processing.
View of Potosi from Cerro Rico the mountain where all the mines are located.
It certainly is still a very manual process, the ore is loaded into bags by hand, then loaded into wheel barrows and pushed out by the miners. There is no automation to help this part of the process.
Watch that hole.
We did climb up this very rickety ladder and squeeze through an small opening, still, we didn’t have to carry sacks of rock up and down as the miners do.
We had heard stories from others about tourists being allowed to ignite dynamite! Maybe it’s true but here we watched a miner drilling the hole for the explosives and we were advised to move on after a couple of minutes as it got really dusty. Any explosions are carried out during the late afternoon when the tours have finished.
The miners pay their respects to the devil, called Teo in the Quechua language. The miners believe that as the mines are underground they must be controlled by the Devil and making daily offerings of coca, alcohol and cigarettes to help them prosper. At the same time offerings are given to Pachamama the Inca earth mother to protect the health of the miners and their families. We got to taste the 96 percent alcohol, mmm, I prefer a nice gin and tonic personally.
According to our guide who was himself a miner for 15 years the conditions, health and miner’s welfare has improved in the last few years. The mines are now run as co-operatives and many miners have cut the length of their working day to 6 hours to reduce their exposure to cyanide and asbestos that are present in the mine. They have 6 monthly health checks including chest X-rays to monitor their health. The change to co-operatives allows the miners to earn approximately 3 times the average Bolivian wage, this means more miners are encouraging their children into further education as they are not needed to contribute to supporting the family household.
It doesn’t take away from the fact it is a hard industry but these changes will hopefully improve the average life expectancy which was only 45 a few years ago.
We passed through some colourful rocky scenery to get to Uyuni, home of the very famous salt flats.
So, the salt flats are well, salty. Although driving across the flats and getting those pics of us and Juanita would be great and sleeping under the stars there would be amazing it’s not what we did. We want to bring Juanita home and hopefully travel in her for a few more years. She deserves better than to have salt and salty water in all her little crevices. Some people say it’s fine, you get the underside of your van sprayed with diesel and then washed afterwards. We weren’t happy with this, you also hear from some that as water is in short supply (Uyuni is in the desert)the places that wash vehicles recycle salt water! So we don’t have those photos but we had a fun day out on the salt in someone else’s 4×4.
The graveyard of old trains previously used to ship salt out of Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni, approximately 11,000 sq kms, the largest salt flats in the world.
Sun glasses and sunscreen were definitely required.
The Dakar passed through here in 2015.
There had to be a couple of silly shots!
We have seen such a lot of cactus on this trip but this is the first time we have seen the wood used to make things.
Furry forecourt attendant.
We decided to spend our last few days travelling the Laguna route between Bolivia and Chile. It is all dirt road and some travellers we had met had said Juanita didn’t have enough clearance and we shouldn’t attempt it. Anyway more people who’s judgement seemed sound said we would probably be OK if we took it slow.
Our first night’s camping spot.
The same stream the next morning, a little icy. The temperature gauge inside the van read -8.5c!
Laguna Colorado, borax makes some areas white and algae makes some areas red.
3 days of amazing scenery, we said wow a lot.
Arbol de Piedra – stone tree.
Leaving Boliva, it was so cold and windy the Aduanas stay in their office and just tell you to see yourselves out and close the barrier behind you!
Until now when people have asked what has been our favourite country we can’t choose, we seen so many great places and had some fantastic experiences.
However we both agree (which is quite an unusual thing!) that Bolivia is pretty special. There is such a great mix of fantastic scenery, nature and indigenous culture and history in a relatively small country. For a snapshot of South America it has a lot to offer.
See you in Chilexxx.