The route from Sucre to Potosi was very scenic and led us through dry mountain ranges. We climbed another 1000 m and you could immediately the thinner air and the colder temperatures around 17 Celsius at daytime and around 5 Celsius at night.
Potosi was in the 16th and 17th century among the biggest and richest towns in the world. This was driven by silver and tin found in the mines in Cerro Rico, the big peak at the door step of the city. Most of its buildings have the same color as the red sandstone surrounding the city.
We stayed at a hostel (Eucalyptus hostel) in the center. From here all of the main sights were easily walkable. We visited the Casa de la Moneda (tour 40 BOB per adult) which tells the story about the development of coins and bills in Bolivia. Further, we tried to enter the Convento de San Francisco and the Catedral Metropolitana which unfortunately held siesta time (12:30-14:30) during our attempt.
We used siesta time to head to the outskirts to Laguna San Ildefonso. We took a nice walk around this artificial lake and enjoyed the views of the Cordillera and particularly Cerro Rico. We even ran into a white lama which used the lake as a water source. The air was again quite thin here and breathing was not easy.
A very nice plaza to hang out is the Plaza de 10 Noviembre which is laced by white pillars and a beautiful fountain. Many restaurants and cafes surround the plaza and the Potosineros like to get together here. For dinner we tried for the first time Lama, a typical Bolivian dish, which was quite tasteful.
Our main highlight was the visit in a mine. Many travelers debate whether it’s morally correct to go and stare at the miners and their hard working conditions but we wanted to see it with our own eyes. We decided to go with Potochij Tours run by Antonio, an ex-miner, and his wife. We were very happy with our choice and that we went.
We met at 9:15am at the tour agency’s office and were to Antonio’s home where we got boots, pants, a shirt and a helmet with headlight. Before heading in a minivan to Cerro Rico we took some fun group pictures where everybody had to shout “Sexy Lama” 😉
Next we headed to the miner’s market where we got the miners a bag of cookies, soft drinks and coca leaves and a mouth cover for ourselves. It’s apparently the only market in the world where you can purchase dynamite. Antonio also told us that pure alcohol (96%!) and filter-less cigarettes are among popular presents. However, it’s hard to believe that these goods help to improve the very low expectancy of the workers (30-35y after work start) and hence we did not buy them. Then we drove up to the mine “Primero de Mayo” at Cerro Rico.
The access point to the mine was surprisingly narrow as were the first couple of meters inside. Nothing for people with claustrophobia! Until we reached the first level with had to dug and crawl due to the narrowness. Luckily, the tunnels were not narrow all the time such that we could some relief.
The first part led along rails for the mine carts. For the three of us it was hard to breath but we tried to keep as long as possible our mouth covers up due to the dust and small particles.
To get one level lower we had to climb ladders or even through small tunnels on our hands and feet. We learned that around 50 people work in this particular mine and that in total more than 400 mines in Cerro Rico exist. We met a couple of workers in the mine who we handed over our presents. We even were chased once by three workers pushing a filled mining cart.
At one point we heard a loud detonation which scared Lothar to death. Lothar thought the mine would collapse. Antonio immediately made us move quickly to the next tunnel passage. He told us that this was “just” a dynamite explosion and we should not be worried about 😉 We heard a couple of more during our stay in the mine (still scary!) and saw the holes in the rock where the miners put the dynamite into.
The biggest long-term thread for the workers are lung cancer and diseases caused by dust and silicium particles. The biggest short-term one is collapsing rocks from dynamite detonations. Every month five workers die in the mines. They take this risk for the sake of making an above average salary: 150 BOB a day which is a lot more than policemen or market sellers make.
The workers follow every first Friday of a month a religious ceremony. They bring alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes to a god made of stone (“El Tio”) and say prayers. This ceremony was introduced by the enslaved workers under Spanish colonialism as a counter religion to Christianity. Between the 16th and 17th century more than 8 million(!) workers died in the mines within one year.
After a bit more than an hour we were very happy to be back at daylight. We don’t regret this experience and have the highest respect for the mine workers. None of us would ever be willing to switch with them.
After the return from the mine we headed 25 km outside of town to Ojo del Inca. It’s a natural lake fed by natural thermal springs in the middle of a gorgeous mountain range. Via a dirt road we reached a sign which said: “No hay atencion”. We parked Oscar and walked up to the lake where an old lady greeted us and allowed us to bath in the adjacent pool fed by the mineral waters (10 BOB per adult). The main lake has been closed by the authorities due to the drowning of multiple people.
The water had around 32 Celsius and was very relaxing given outside temperatures of around 18 degrees. It was a joy to star the surrounding mountain ranges while profiting from the cozy mineral waters. Again we saw a couple of beautiful Alpaca lamas.
Overall, we enjoyed our stay at Potosi and recommend it, particularly if one is interested in the mine tour. Just a word of caution: The two annoying things about Potosi are the emissions from big traffic and the high altitude which caused headache, a bit nausea and shortage of breath. The later one even made us wake up in the middle of the night. Something we had never experienced before.