A Travellerspoint blog

Potosi & The Mining Tour!

overcast 15 °C

Our journey to Potosi consisted of a two and a half hour taxi ride from Sucre with our friends, Tobias and Lou. E-J and Lou were constantly engaged in conversation throughout the entire journey whilst the boys read.

We arrived in Potosi as it was raining and overcast and the place had a typical mining town feel to it. We could see certain buildings, which had once been quite beautiful during the wealth of its silver mining time and had now become rather derelict and run down. It seemed to have an almost ghost town feel about it, although towards the centre of the town, the buildings were better preserved.

Once we found a suitable hostel, Tobias and Lou went off to book their silver mine tour, while we were adamant we would not join them and decided to explore what else Potosi had to offer. After a half hour stroll around town and not in the best of moods, we discovered there wasn’t much more to explore...

We met up with Lou and Tobias in the evening and after a few persuasive encouragements they coaxed us into joining them on the mining tour the following day.

We then spent the rest of the evening in a cafe in the centre of town playing a new card game we were taught by Tobias and Lou, called ‘500’. This game immediately became incredibly competitive, as it was boys against girls!

Following a good sleep we rose to an early breakfast and made our way to the tour company for eight o’clock to meet our guide, a former miner. The first part of the tour consisted of us driving to the area where we changed into our suitable mining gear, which consisted of gum boots, black, baggy pants, an orange overcoat, a hard hat and the important head torch. We all looked ridiculous!

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The second part of the tour was going to the miners' market, where we bought supplies and gifts to give to the miners during the tour. As they are all self employed they have to buy there own dynamite and tools! Our guide also gave us a talk about the history of the mines, which opened in 1544 and he told us that more than eight million people have died while working there. Also, the life expectancy of a miner is no more than about 40 years old, yet these people still choose to work there as the pay is much better than any other job they could do around that area. Miners usually work ten to twelve hour shifts and throughout that time they will go without food to avoid any reason to stop working. They survive the day on fizzy drinks and chewing coca leaves, which apparently give them enough energy to work in dark, unventilated areas for long periods of time! They work in different groups sometimes as small as eight and others as big as thirty people. Our guide also talked about the different types of dynamite they use to blow up the mines and how all the labour inside is still manual. E-J became particularly nervous at this point, especially when he threw a piece of dynamite at her!

After buying our gifts for the miners, we toured the machinery areas, where the rubble goes through the process that turns it into silver and zinc. Don’t ask us all the technicalities, as we didn’t catch all of it at the time.

To finish with, we entered the mine and this was the part that E-J was dreading, especially crawling through a hole no bigger than half a metre in width and height. As we arrived, we saw a few old miners enjoying that Friday feeling by having a few drinks of 97% alcohol! This didn't help E-J’s confidence too much either!

When we first entered the mine of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), we became incredibly aware of the lack of air and dust that circulated around the area. Also the mines are literally mud holes with rubber pipes containing oxygen running through them. These are dug through the mountain with limited safety structures, so we felt they could collapse at any time.

We were also warned not to put our fingers in our mouths as the walls are covered in traces of arsenic and asbestos. Continually, as we walked through the tunnels in a crouched position, we would bump our heads on the top of the cave and be relieved to be wearing the hard hats provided. With the tunnels being pitch black we relied on the limited light of our head torches to see where we were going.

As we walked through at a reasonable pace, the guide would suddenly tell us to move, hurry up or wait, as miners and their trolleys were constantly passing through full of rubble.

During the tour we walked through three different levels. On the first level there was a museum, which housed a statue of a devil that the miners religiously visit and give offerings to. Our guide kindly showed us this by lighting a cigarette and placing it in the statues mouth! They truly believe that this devil protects them in the mines, although we thought a smoking devil probably wasn't a great idea!

On the second level we crawled through a tiny passageway on our way to the lowest point the third level. We were then taken into the area where the miners deposit all the rubble out of their trolleys. They then manually shovel the rubble into buckets on pulleys, which get sent to the top. This is all done extremely quickly to ensure that the next trolley load of rubble doesn't cause a backlog.

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This part was the most eye opening as you watched the strength and consistency of the miners in such poor conditions. They had no protection for their mouths and noses and it was blisteringly hot in the mines (at the time of our tour was 30 degrees but can reach up to 45 degrees!) We attempted the back breaking exercise of shoveling a few loads of the rubble into the buckets but immediately became breathless and exhausted, which wasn't helped by the fact that we where 4200m above sea level. As our guide spoke with his old work colleagues, he informed us that they were all set to do a double shift, meaning 24 hours in the mine! We also met the youngest miner there, who is sixteen years old and it was so sad to see someone of that age working in such hard conditions.

After we had observed this part of the tour, the reality of their lives started to sink in, we gave them the gifts and began our ascent to the top to exit the cave. It was during this point that Sam began to really struggle with his breath as he climbed through the hole, E-J on the other hand, was striding on a head with the adrenaline of fear inside her and hoping to avoid anymore feelings of claustrophobia.

When we exited the mines, it was then time to blow up some dynamite. These sorts of activities never cease to amaze us in South America, with the lack of health and safety precautions. We watched one of our guides put together some dynamite and then he lit it. He then passed it round the group for people to hold and take photos with. E-J was having none of this, but Sam rather enjoyed his near death experience.

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The guide then took it back, ran down into the valley, dug it into a hole and then ran back, all in the space of ten minutes before the whole thing below up. It was a pretty impressive explosion!

Sam’s comments: Crawling through the mine for me was harder than the Inca trail. I was slightly alarmed that I was the last to hold the dynamite, but very relieved to pass it back! An amazing experience and it will teach anyone not to complain about a hard days work!

E-J’s Comments: The mines were an incredible experience, especially to see that things like that still go on. The miners have a great camaraderie and are all mainly Quechan, so speak their native Quechan language in the mines. They all have one side of their cheek almost bursting with coca leaves and although it looks like a balloon, when you touch their cheek - it is as solid as a rock. It still shocks me that people still do this job and are allowed to so in such appalling conditions!

Posted by E-J 10:36 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Sucre

semi-overcast 27 °C

The ride to Sucre was not a pleasant one for Sam, as he was suffering from what seemed to be a constant illness when you are in Bolivia, 'The Bolivian Belly!' What also didn’t help, was when the bus driver decided to lock the bus loo during the journey with another six hours to go!

When we finally arrived in Sucre, Sam went straight to bed (after a good ten minutes of being in the bus station loo!). E-J decided to go off and explore the pretty, little city. It reminded E-J of Arequipa, as it too, was full of beautiful white buildings. The streets were also filled with beggars on every corner. There was also an abundance of chocolate shops and the chocolate tasted as good as in Belgium!

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By mid afternoon, Sam managed to venture out for a quick bite to eat and afterwards we bumped into Lou and Tobias, our friends that we had originally met in Cuenca and had planned to meet up with again in Sucre. We made plans for the evening and retreated back to our hostels as the weather was pretty miserable.

The next day we all agreed to meet in the Bike Ride Cafe to watch the football game and to our surprise found a couple that we had met on our Jungle tour. The six of us all sat together having a good catch up and trying to ignore the appalling defeat that England experienced against Croatia. We spent the rest of the day and evening there, having various beers and enjoying each other’s banter.

The next day we all re-meet in the cafe for a hearty breakfast, before we said our goodbyes to Veronica and Ben and set off for Potosi via taxi. We found this to be far more civilised than doing the usual painful bus journey and incredibly affordable too!

Sam's comments: Sucre was very relaxing, although the bus journey was the complete opposite! Sadly that will always taint my memory of a beautiful town.

E-J's Comments: Sucre is a very lovely place and the chocolate there is amazing! Sadly while we were there, there was a protest from the country people and there were a few riots which escalated into being very dangerous. We were lucky to be out of the place by then but we heard that the police got driven out of the town for a few days and a couple of young lads were killed in all the riots. It's scary to think that somewhere that looks so tranquil and beautiful can have such an under current of political issues.

Posted by E-J 10:37 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz, Again!

overcast -25 °C

After a smooth flight from Rurrenabaque back to La Paz, we arrived at our hostel around seven pm, tired, hungry and in desperate need of a shower and some clean clothes!

The next day was our admin day, cleaning clothes, shopping, posting a parcel home and checking the internet; All those unexciting things that people never tell you about when they’re travelling...

We met up with our friends, Dave and Angie and decided that we would do some ten pin bowling, which Angie had spotted on the main road in La Paz.

When we got there, it was literally liking going through a time machine, with wooden pins, and a few balls that actually bounced down the lane. There certainly wasn’t any MTV blaring out of television screens here! The scoring system consisted of paper and a pencil and with none of us actually knowing the rules, we enjoyed making up our own! However, the highlight has to be the way the pins were replaced. As we knocked them down at a hasty pace, a middle-aged man, cramped under the three-foot hole at the end of the lane, would dodge the balls and manually replaced each pin! Sometimes we thought he wasn’t watching and was bound to break his ankle, but to his credit he was extremely efficient!

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Due to the novelty and the cost of 75p each, we continued to enjoy a few more games over the next couple of days.

We also visited the outside of the famous San Pedro prison, which is the setting for the book ‘Marching Powder’. The Bolivian government obviously thought long and hard about the location of this high security prison, as we found it no more than 100 metres from the main road of the city centre. Here, amongst a picturesque park and hotel, sat some of the most dangerous men of South America! Quite unbelievable. Having heard that anyone seen taking pictures, has there camera immediately removed, we decided not to risk it and took a walk around, noticing all the little cabin huts selling Johnny Walker whisky in stalls around it and we observed the many women and children going inside San Pedro.

We finally said our goodbyes to our kingpin friends, Dave and Angie and look forward to seeing again, when their travels reach London.

Sam Comments: Great city, with very friendly people, although don't know if that friendship is seen in the prison.

E-J Comments: I’ve loved La Paz. It’s a dirty and busy city but, it has the most beautiful view of the mountains right behind it. It’s a fascinating place to observe, with both the modern day and indigenous people work side by side, and as you walk down the main road there is a constant aroma of frying meat from practically every street vendor along and around the corner!

Posted by E-J 10:36 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Rurrenabaque & The Jungle!!

sunny 39 °C

Awaking at 5am, we headed for the airport. We were all set for a one-hour flight to join our tour at 9:30 am, but upon arriving at the airport, we were informed that due to bad weather and previous delays we would not be flying until 12.30 pm. Slightly frustrated, we headed back to La Paz for our free pancake breakfast and rearranged our tour for the following day.

We were back at the airport at 11.30 with a second attempt to catch our flight and were then informed that it had now been delayed until 2pm. At 2pm we were greeted with the news that we would leave at 3pm. With the small airport full of raucous Israelis, fatigue setting in from yesterday’s bike ride and an unnecessary early start, we were tempted to sack it all off and head back to La Paz!

Finally, we boarded the plane and set off at 3.30. The cramped plane, along with 20 shouting and singing Israelis didn’t fill us with the greatest confidence, especially as E-J was struggling to find us two seats together! Once in the air, we both relaxed and EJ took in the views.

On arriving into Rurrenabaque, we landed smoothly onto a grass landing strip surrounded by thick Amazon forest. We quickly passed through the customs hut and set off for the town of Rurrenabaque, ready for an early night in preparation for our tour the next day.

On exploring the town, full of dusty, red roads and mopeds or motorbikes coming in all directions, we realised that there was not a lot to do here except drink! We ended up sharing a few drinks with a couple of French lads who had recently finished working in Cumbria, much to Sam’s delight! E-J began to worry about what lay ahead as they revealed their stories about their recent trip into the Pampas and how one of them had ended up with a frog on his face!

We settled down for an early night, but that was abruptly stopped when what sounded like half of Tel Aviv decided to have a party along the corridor of our hotel from 12am until 5am. This sent the red mist over Sam, who ended up shouting at them to be quiet in a very impolite way!

The next morning, Sam was in his usual pre-tour mood; grumpy about the thought of sharing a few days with people he may not like. After a good breakfast we were relieved to find an enjoyable group of three Irish girls and an Australian couple.

The first part of the tour was a 3-hour drive in a rather small jeep along a dusty track to the town of Beni, which was on the edge of the National Park. The ride was incredibly bumpy and every so often rocks and pebbles would fly up at the Jeep, adding an element of worry to the journey, that if they flew through the windows they might do some serious damage to one of our heads! After lunch we set off on a three-hour boat trip down the Beni. This was incredibly relaxing and as we lay back in our seats and drifting down the river, took in the sights of turtles, alligators, caiman, monkeys and the amazing surroundings as the sun beat down on us at 35 degrees.

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We arrived at our camp, which was a few wooden rooms built together on stilts (though the river was a good 5m below the riverbank) and quickly dropped our bags in the dormitory. We then set off for a well deserved beer at the Pink Dolphin Bar and watched the sun go down, sipping our amazingly chilled beers. After seeing the sunset, we set off down the river (with a bit of difficulty getting back into the boat in the pitch black and after a few beers) and spotted the fireflies flying in the sky and the glow of alligator and caiman eyes´ floating in the river.

The next day was again full of heat and humidity. We started the morning with a trip to a local Anaconda field and started trekking through thick mud and sludge. E-J quickly realised that this was another rather daunting challenge for her; fashion and style were out the window and gumboots were a necessity! As we walked through the muddy sludge, the stench of stagnant water was unbearable and the heat and humidity seem to enhance it. A couple of times we would get our boots stuck and with a slight panic, manage to release them. E-J had also managed to find a pair of gumboots with a massive whole in one of them, so that each time she walked, she could feel the sludgy water squelching around in her socks. There was also a point where the swamp got so deep, that everyone had to trek knee high in watery sludge, apart from Sam who had, had the smart idea of trapezing his way along a thin piece of fencing, which crossed the field. Occasionally, we would worry as our guide wandered off into the pampas in a desperate search for anacondas, leaving us to fend for ourselves. However, we weren’t as unlucky as the other group who were trekking along at the same time as us. Their guide literally left them stranded. We heard screams and cries, when two of them got slightly lost and managed to walk into a hornet’s nest! They eventually decided to join our group to their great relief!

After walking two kilometres through the stinky field, we finally returned to our boat without seeing a single Anaconda (much to E-J's relief!), However we did managed to come across this:

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After a good meal and a siesta, we woke up our guide (who was a lazy little lad) and spent the afternoon Piranha fishing. Sam's fly fishing technique looked rather spectacular and he thought it was only a matter of seconds before he managed to catch a big one. However, much to Sam's annoyance E-J soon managed to catch two! Sam on the other hand was struggling to catch anything. Being the last of the group and much to his relief, Sam finally managed to catch a couple within seconds of each other and was incredibly proud of himself!

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After feeling rather pleased with ourselves, we all enjoyed a beer and settled into a lovely evening meal before an early night, with the idea of waking to see the sunrise. Sadly we woke to torrential rain so missed the sunrise. After the weather started to clear, we took in the amazing sights for the last time and much to E-J's pleasure spotted a few pink dolphins under an overcast sky before heading back.

On the way back, we passed the oldest alligator in the river, known by the name of Pedro. Much to our amazement he also answers to it. Slightly skeptical, we tested this by waiting for the alligator to swim away before we called him again and watched him return. Our guide then greeted him with his usual pat on the nose, treating Pedro like some kind of friendly dog...

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On heading back to Rurrenabaque the journey was a testing one with the weather turning the brown dirt tracks into mud baths. Our driver was exhausted by the end of the day and twenty minutes before arriving into Rurrenabaque, this was revealed as he pulled out of the petrol station in to another car! Fortunately, everyone was fine (though a little shaken up) and via a short de-tour to the police station we finally arrived back into Rurrenabaque. We spent the night enjoying a few beers in a local bar, re-living our great experience.

The next day we enjoyed a morning in Rurrenabaque, in the unbearable heat before enjoyed a relaxed flight back to La Paz. We were lucky to get our flight, as again there had been some delays due to weather and we both were ready to escape the jungle after the mosquitoes had seriously attacked Sam’s back and E-J's bottom!

Sam Comments: On the flight in, I thought my time was up, twenty Israelis and E-J and I and I couldn’t see the airport. After feeling relieved it was brilliant, Piranha fishing was fantastic, would love to have stayed longer but the hole in my mosquito net didn't help !!

E-J Comments: Rurrenabaque is an amazing and chilled out place and being so close to the wildlife in the Pampas is such a humbling experience, although I am pleased I didn’t know about the seriously dangerous tarantula outside our dormitory until after we left!

Posted by E-J 10:09 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Cocacabana, La Paz and Death Road..!

sunny 24 °C

After crossing the Peruvian/Bolivian border we arrived into Copacabana. Unimpressed with the place we stayed there for one night and then head on to the capital, La Paz.

La Paz is 3600m above sea level and with it being set in a valley, we found ourselves constantly walking up and down steep streets, feeling incredibly breathless!

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Our first night in La Paz was pretty uneventful and despite the fact that we enjoy each other’s company, we felt we needed some more people to add more fun to our nights out. The next day we moved to a much more upbeat hostel called Adventure Brew Hostel, which had this brilliant deal of giving it’s fellow travellers as many pancakes as you can eat in the morning and a free beer in the evening! We took full advantage of both. We filled our day chores and spent most of it organising the famous bike ride, known as ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World!' for the following day and a three-day jungle tour in Rurrenabaque for the day after. Pleased with accomplishing both and Sam managing to buy a Rolex for three pounds, we decided that we would have a chilled out evening, ready for the bike ride the next day. However, when E-J entered the bar for her free beer, she was suddenly overcome with excitement to find Angie one of the Australian’s from the Inca trail, having a beer there too. Within minutes Sam, E-J, Angie and her boyfriend Dave were in full flow of conversation and excitement to see each other again and decided to make a night of it!

After a great meal, we headed to a place where we could hear booming music coming out from the windows and thinking this would be a happening place to go, entered the doors. When we reached the top of the stairs, we were confronted with a mass of Bolivians celebrating their Saturday night. The place seemed to almost stop and stare at us four gringos and feeling the pressure we meekly bought a couple of beers and stood in the corner of the large room, terrified to cause any animosity. Five minutes later a group of partying Bolivians, beckoned us over to join them and before we knew it we were all in the full swing of Bolivian love, being bought an abundance of rounds of rum and coke and all toasting ‘La Paz, number 1’ and ‘Salud Bolivia!’ Both Angie and E-J found themselves being constantly asked to dance by one Bolivian after another until they were both totally warn out. Finally, at three am we managed to drag ourselves away from the place after many hugs and kisses goodbye and mutual love and appreciation. Angie and E-J had managed to be reasonably sensible with their consumption of alcohol, but both Sam and Dave were simply staggering back after too many drinks with the locals, including one particular chap by the name of Fidel Castro Rodriguez!

The next day, E-J with difficulty, managed to awake Sam at six am and we both staggered to the bike shop to start the tour of ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World’. E-J was only really tired from the night before, but Sam was definitely struggling with blood shot eyes and the constant need to rehydrate himself with water. The first part of the tour consisted of us driving for two hours to begin the bike ride. This was a good time for Sam to sober up as best he could!

The group, who had booked the tour consisted of three incredibly agile Norwegians (we had actually met previously during the Inca Trail) and a Scottish son and father who were fanatic mountain bikers. It was at this point, that E-J started to question her abilities, what with being the only girl in the group and with a load of sporty, competitive men.

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The first part of the bike ride was pretty straight forward cycling, or should be say free wheeling down a tarmac road as fast as you could go. There was the occasional truck or car that passed us, but nothing to make us worry and we had the knowledge that there was a guide at the front and at the back and a minibus constantly following the group.

It was when we got to the checkpoint that things started to change. Sam, who had (for the first time) been in charge of the wallet containing the only credit card we could use, had somehow managed to misplace it. After several angry words from E-J and the guides’ kind suggestion to drive back up to the top of the road and search the whole track, Sam then discovered that it had not fallen out of his pocket, but was on the floor in the minibus. The next hurdle was when E-J realised that the actual Death Road was on gravel and not tarmac. Having never ridden over gravel before, this came as a little shock to her as she found her wheels flying in all directions. One of the guides then advised her that she should go slowly if she had little experience of this terrain as the road was incredibly dangerous (funnily enough) and falling off the edge of this steep cliff could be fatal. This was when it dawned on E-J that she had not actually ridden a bike since she was fifteen years old, and before that, not many times either, so that her abilities as a cyclist were probably similar to that of a six year old and as she started to descend down the steep, rock filled, precarious road, she started to plead to the above 'Please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die..!'

Sam on the other hand, realising that his abilities were way above E-J’s, had left her with the back guide and was flying down the cliff right behind the front guide, with adrenaline pumping. A couple of times, he found that his back wheel would swirl out of control as he hit a rock or two and he would then question the strength of his insurance but other than that he was having a whale of a time!

E-J, not only hated every minute of this four hour, 65km ride, but also was in absolute agony, as she seemed to bump over every single rock along the way. Several times the guide at the back, seeing her pain, would suggest that she get into the minibus, but being as stubborn as ever, she was determined to complete the ride, no matter how much pain she went through. What hadn’t helped E-J’s confidence was that within the first ten minutes of the actual gravel part of the Death Road, three girls had fallen off their bikes, hurting themselves badly, including one poor girl who had broken her femur!

The boys were incredibly patient with E-J, stopping for forty minutes or so to let her catch up with them, before they all shot off again. Finally, we reached the end of the ride and all the boys were pumping with adrenaline, while E-J was just relieved to be alive! We had a lunch in the beautiful town of Coroico before heading back to La Paz. By the time we reached La Paz, E-J had developed the movements similar to that of a decrepit eighty year-old and would let out a little yelp each time she had to sit down. Sam was just exhausted after a late and alcoholic night before and an exhilarating day.

When we finally reached the hostel, we had a take away Pizza and an early night in preparation for our early start to the Jungle then next day.

Sam’s comments: Amazing, great time in the bar, Bike ride was fantastic, would definitely do it again! However, was concerned with E-J constantly swearing at me when she reached the bottom!!

E-J’s comments: I absolutely hated Death Road and had I known there had been a death in March from someone falling off the edge, I would not have stupidly done it! Also for the last two days, I have felt like I have the bike seat permanently stuck to my bottom! I really hope that our next tour is more enjoyable, but I am pleased to say I completed it, though I won’t be riding a bike again for a VERY long time!

Posted by E-J 10:07 Archived in Bolivia Comments (3)

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