Sunday, August 30, 2009

Potosí, the silver city

July 29, 2009

Thursday morning started early as promised. We arrived in Potosí at 10:30, as all the buses were running much more quickly than predicted.

We booked a tour of the infamous silver mines with Andes Salt Mine Expeditions and I grabbed a quick empanada on the plaza as we headed toward the Casa Nacional de Moneda (the mint). The empanada from the street vendor was amazing! 1 boliviano (15 cents) and filled with a perfectly spiced mix of veggies.


Unfortunately, the mint (which only offers 2-hour tours) was closed for lunch and wouldn’t re-open before our mine tour. However, we got to see some adorable girls in costume for a perfomance, and then visited the mestizo church of San Francisco, with its famous facade of moons, suns, and the bounties of mother earth (Pachamama ).

Iglesia de San Francisco, Potosí

We entered during a service so we didn’t have a good look inside. Then we went to lunch at Kaypichu, noted for having healthy, vegetarian lunches. I ordered the Pizza de Verduras, which ended up being whole-wheat English muffin pizzas. Four flat rolls topped with veggies.

Next up: the long anticipated mine tour. Rough. Dangerous. Shocking. Important. The Andes Salt Expeditions office gave a better (more detailed, selling) sales pitch than the equally reputed Koala Tours, so we went with Andes.

The infamous mine

However, our guide left a bit to be desired. She was not an ex-miner as we were lead to believe our guide would be, and spoke mostly in harsh, reprimanding English. It was unclear whether this was due to a serious lack of mastery of the language, or her own personality. Explanations were sparse, and she seemed more interested in hooking her buddies in the mines up with the gifts we were encouraged to buy them, than educating us about the mine.


Therefore, the tour was a bit more like a spelunking expedition in an active mine. We started out being lead from the bright, friendly office through the city to the back room an anonymous building several blocks away. There, we were given yellow suits, boots, and hard hats.

Tammy entering Cerro Rico. HeadingDown

Our guide with miner's alcoholThe guide was brash from the start and offered no introduction or explanations as she led us to the van. Our first stop was the “miner’s market” which was actually just a single storefront where she explained the importance of various supplies such as pure (96%) alcohol, coca leaves, dynamite, and these exotic, hand-rolled cigarettes filled with nutmeg, cloves, coca, and some tobacco.

Then we were “left” to buy gifts for the miners, while our guide kept a careful inventory of our gifts.

Miners pushing 1 ton cart out of the mine.In the mines, we were lead down a puddled path, and occasionally pulled to the side as a trolley of ore passed. We climbed a bit, and due to her sharp, nonspecific instructions, we slid in a lot of mud.

25 year old miner, son of mine's owner.The miners were friendly, which was probably helped by our generous gifts and the owner’s son was happy to speak with us at length regarding our questions about his work.

A British couple bought dynamite at the miner’s market (because “that’s the whole point of going on a mine tour, to make explosions”), and our guide helped them detonate it after leaving the mine. Tammy took a fabulous photo of me holding the live dynamite. My camera was already on the fritz.

Jenn holding live dynamite--really!

The explosion was fun, identical to a movie, but with more oomph. The three Brits enjoyed it immensely, answering Tammy’s question after reading about the detonations in the brochures, “Really? Do people care?”

So, while I found the experience emotional in the sensitive material being covered so blithely by an inadequate guide, it wasn’t as personally shaking as I had expected. The miners seemed well adjusted to their fates.

After the intense (and dirty) tour, we washed up at the coffee shop, Cherry, which focused more on pastries than coffee. However, we needed to have an early dinner before another overnight bus ride, so we didn't get to sample the goods.

We had an early dinner at 4060, a restaurant/pub where I once again got my Mexican fill with Huevos Rancheros, which appeared rather soupy in their tomato sauce, but tasted fabulous with the restaurant's homemade salsa.

Our bus to La Paz was overwhelmed by Brits, but otherwise incredibly comfy, giving each of us thick, warm Bolivian blankets.

Bolivia Itinerary: Villazon, Tarija, Sucre, Potosí, La Paz, Santa Cruz

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