One year honeymoon around the world...17th April 2007 to 9th March 2008! Yes we're home!!

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Potosi, Bolivia - 4070m - World's Highest City

I really liked Potosi - bus journey wasn't much fun as we increased in altitude again but we're getting used to it now.
Potosi is famous for it's silver mines and some areas are quite wealthy, and there were several good cafes and restaurants. Also Bolivia is really cheap compared to the other countries we've visited so far in South America. I'd picked a good hostal on the hostelbookers website; newly refurbed with ensuite and cable telly for 15 USD a night, so I was happy to stay there a couple of nights.

On Friday Ben went to visit the Mines with Steve, Nicki, Diago and Joel - I'll let him fill you in on that experience later - but needless to say I didn't fancy crawling around underground so I opted to go visit the Tarapaya Hot Springs with Katrien & Tessa.

Hot Springs
The good old Lonely Planet said, I quote, "Outside Potosi are several hot spring resorts; the most popular is Tarapaya, in the picturesque countryside 25km north of the city, where pools hover around 30 degrees." We should have learnt by now that the Lonely Planet LIES (okay or maybe it's just incredibly outdated at 4 years old)
Anyway, Katrien was staying at same hostal as Ben and I so we walked across town to find Tessa's hostal. This was the first time I'd done anything without Ben so whilst I was a tad nervous I settled down quickly and really enjoyed the day - I'm a lot more confident about travelling now - Ben commented when we left for La Paz on the bus how at a miltary checkpoint I whacked open the window and bought biscuits from the street sellers and how I would never have done that 2 months ago. I still won't eat street-meat though and doubt I ever will :-)

Anyways, so we get to Tessa's hostal after wandering though the markets and streets and the three of us walk another couple of blocks to where the 'micros'(minibuses) go. I wish i'd had the camera but Ben had taken it to the mines but hopefully i'll get some piccies from the girls. Think I've mentionned before, but Bolivia is the first place where the people are indigenous Amerindians and also the lifestyles are tens of years behind Europe so I'm finding it really fascinating. All the women carry their babies/toddlers on their backs using brightly coloured blankets and we've watched a couple lift the kids up: they lay them on the floor then swing them up like you'd swing a golf club and i'm always wincing but the kids love it.

Anyways...back to the hot springs :-) We get in this micro and we're the only 3 westerners on this tiny bus (not met a single Bolivian yet who's taller than me - male or female so you can imagine what buses are like for Ben) and our knees are digging into the seat in front. Two kids in front watch us the whole journey and all the locals find us funny when we giggle and point at the llamas blocking the road. So we get to Tarapaya and whilst the scenery is stunning I wouldn't call it picturesque with the dust roads and street-shack shops. We wander up the road trying to locate the hot springs (if you`ve seen the photo of me and ben in a hot spring on the salt flats trip that's what we're looking for) but all we can see is mini hot waterfalls coming down the side of the hills. So we decide to climb up a rough track in search for the hot springs. Once we've climbed a far way up we can now see down onto the village and we realise what has happened: all the water has been manipulated into pipes and was feeding several "swimming" pools, and all but one had a tin roof. Also on closer inspection they were more old-style public baths where the locals were coming to wash themselves; not quite the relaxing, chillout afternoon we were looking for. But from our vantage point up on the hill we looked down on twenty or so people washing their clothes in the stream and they covered the hillside with the brightly covered clothes too. We stood there for probably half hour watching them and I was just waiting for one of them to spot us and everyone to look up but they never did and the girls got some great photos.

Ben - Mines
I had read about the mines in the lonely planet guide I kind of had an idea of what I was letting myself in for. The description in the LP reads as follows:

"A visit to the cooperative mines is demanding, shocking and memorable. Tours typically involve scrambling and crawling in low narrow dirty shafts and climbing rickety ladders....Working practices are medieval, safety provisions nearly non-existant and most shafts are aren't recommended for claustrophobes or asthmatics. Work is done by hand with basic tool...etc".

The reality of the mines trip was pretty shocking. We waited on the mountainside in the group for a train to come out before we could enter. The tiny train approached driven by a boy who couldn't have been more than 12 years old. If you've ever seen the mine trucks in the first Indiana Jones film you'll have an idea of what they were like. The train itself consisted of a few battered trucks that each held around a tonne of ore and an engine which was powered by multiple car batteries held on with bits of string.

Anyway we entered the mine and started walking into the mountain...there were hissing pipes and suspicious electric cables everywhere and the roof was pretty low in places which made walking difficult. On occasions we had to jump out of the way as the small train or waggons pushed by hand came past. I kept on smelling pockets of gas and when we made our first stop in an opening so the guide could talk to us I started to feel distinctly ill at ease about the whole experience. However I told myself to get it together and after or minute or two felt calmer. We then set off further into the mine and came to the entrance to the second level. There was a small hole in the floor which led down into a very low passageway which we had to crawl along on hands and knees. It was extremely dusty and hard to breath but we continued on. The passageway steepened and after some sliding around we reached the second level. The air seemed to be getting worse and there were some anxious faces in our group. A second similar passage but steeper led us to a rickety ladder which we descended to the third level. It now felt a very long way from the surface but the air was better and we reached a new railway line. The passage was higher and it no longer felt too claustrophobic. We set off into the third level through pools of water and finally reached the point where it was time to turn back. We met several miners on the way some of whom could not have been much older than 11!. We stoppped to chat with some of them and handed over drinks and coca leaves which we had bought in the market.

We then started the long journey back to the surface - up the rickety ladder, through the dusty passageways, scrabbling on our hands and knees. We finally made it back to the first level but still had a way to go to the mine entrance or more importantly for most people by this stage EXIT! The air seemed to be worse than ever and I kept detecting pockets of gas (probably cos my head was in the roof most of the time). We started the final section past the hissing pipes and flapping electric cables and finally could sense the fresh air and literally light at the end of the tunnel. The relief on reaching the outside and fresh air was indescribable even though at 4100 metres the air was pretty thin. The picture below tells a thousand words!

It was however an incredible experience but not one I would be too keen to repeat. How the miners work in those condidtions for 20-30 years often doing 16 hour shifts is beyond belief. The average pay in a good month (dependent on the minerals they find) is around GBP 100. Most miners eventually contract lung diseases and can then expect a pension of USD 14 per month! The only positive side that I could see was the camraderie and sense of community amongst the miners. They view working in the mines as an extremely macho activity and one of which they are proud. It is hard to believe however that such conditions exist in the 21st century. If you're ever in Potosi this is one "tourist attraction" that you should not miss!


Eunice said...

Note to Sam! If my sister invites you to go to BaƱos outside of Quito, the springs there are exactly the same as in Tarapaya. Just so you know..... : - )

Sam said...

Cheers hun!