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Islands, Sunsets and Mines

Potosi, Bolivia

After Puno, I jumped on a bus to Copacabana, along with Kim & Eric who were heading the same way. We crossed the border into Peru, and found a dirt cheap hotel to spend the night in. Copacabana is a very chilled out, lake-side town, a lot nicer than Puno on the Peruvian side. We spent the first night climbing a nearby hill (always easy to forget how difficult climbing is at nearly 4000m above sea level!) and watching the sunset. Despite the fact that it was hard to find an empty perching spot at the top, due to the legions of fellow gringos, we weren't disappointed – the sunset was spectacular.

The next day, we took a trip to the Isla del Sol, where the Incas believed the Sun was born. We took the world's slowest boat to the northern part of the island, checked out a small museum, wandered around the Inca ruins, and trekked to the southern part of the island (about 3 hours), where most of the good places to stay are. The walk was interrupted on 3 separate occasions by locals asking us to buy tickets for the trail. It seems there are 3 main towns on the island, and each of them wants their cut of the gringos. It only amounted to about £3, but it was quite amusing being told the current tickets we had were no good, and having to fork out for new ones.

We found a very cool hotel for next to nothing, had some beers on the veranda, and watched another amazing sunset. The lady in the hotel also offered us tickets for a boat back to Copacabana that was supposedly much quicker than the one we'd come over on – only 1.5 hours instead of the 3 it'd taken to get there. On the way over the next day, we discovered this was a bare-faced lie, and it took us almost as long, even though it was closer and we'd paid more.

Not to worry – we'd left ourselves plenty of time to sort out a bus to La Paz for later that day (only a short 3 hour trip). Only none of the tour agencies would sell us a ticket for that day, saying the bus was “full”. They'd only offer us tickets for the next day at a pretty inflated price. It seemed there was a strike, closing the road between Copacabana and La Paz. I was sceptical at first, because often taxi drivers will tell you there's a strike to charge you more, but once we realised everyone was telling us the same story, we resigned ourselves to another night in Copacabana (not such a bad thing), and bought tickets for the next day via an alternative route.

Yes, the alternative route. To get to La Paz, we had to take a minvan back the way we'd come (yes back across into Peru), cross the border, jump in another mini van to another border crossing back into Bolivia, queue for about an hour to get another exit stamp from Peru, and once in Bolivia, jump in a bus to La Paz, stopping once at an army check point to have our passports inspected. The total journey time: 6.5 hours.

But we got to La Paz safely, and checked into a hostel. I'd been carrying around a cold for a few days, but arriving in La Paz seemed to make it worse. I also started to get a few stomach problems to go with it. In fact, by the second day, I needed to be within 10 metres of a toilet at all times. Kim & Eric weren't too happy with the hostel we were in, so they moved to another while I stayed put. After a couple of days of doing very little, I decided it was time for some antibiotics, which – fortunately in Bolivia – are over the counter, and very cheap. That sorted me out pretty quickly, and since I'd lingered in La Paz for 5 nights, I decided it was time to move on. Kim & Eric were heading north to the jungle, but I wanted to go south, so I said my goodbyes (via email) and jumped on a bus.

I passed through Cochabamba and Surce, two very nice cities (the towns in Bolivia seem to be much nicer than those in Peru for some reason), but where I did very little of interest. My main aim was to get to Potosi, the worlds highest town (at 4060m), famous for it's mining industry. Arriving in Potosi, I jumped off the bus and into the usual taxi to get to the hostel. The driver was pulling away when another guy stopped him and jumped in the back with me. It was a little odd, but sometimes they pool taxis to make it cheaper.

Then the driver told me it was going to be 10 Bolivianos (more than I expected) and demanded I pay now. Hmm, also odd, I thought, but handed over the cash. Just as we were pulling away again, yet another guy sporting a very fake looking “Tourist Police” badge jumped in the front seat and started talking to the driver. As we took off, I thought this was far too suspicious (have heard far too many dodgy taxi stories). “Por favor, pare!” (please stop) I announced, and – maybe as we were in a fairly busy area – the driver complied. The “police man” tried to convince me to stay, but I was having none of it, and jumped out. It cost me 10 Bolivianos (less than £1), but it earned me a good story.

Potosi is a pretty interesting place – once silver was discovered in the Cerro Rico (the “Rich Hill”), the Spaniards turned it into one of the largest towns in the world (bigger than London or Paris at the time), and forced slaves (both locals and Africans) to work in atrocious conditions in the mines. The conditions haven't changed a lot, but now most of the workers are part of a cooperative, keeping a share of any metals (silver, zinc, copper) they find.

The main attraction in Potosi for travellers is to do a tour of the mines, unique in the world because it's a live mine – i.e. there are people working there while you're inside. Also, it's a Health & Safety officer's wet dream. Before entering the mines, we visited the miner's market where we bought gifts for the miners – cigarettes, coca leaves, dynamite, and – most popular of all – large bottles of Coke. The dynamite, by the way, can be bought freely, including by kids. That's probably because of lot of the miners are actually kids – they start as young as 13.

After checking out a refinery, we entered the mines themselves. Only a few metres from the entrance, it was already difficult to breathe. And we were to descend to the fourth level, about 80m below. It's hard to describe how the combination of the dust, lack of oxygen, darkness and claustrophobic passages – some requiring crawling on hands and knees – made you feel. We could scarcely believe some of the miners pulled 24 hours shifts – we were only there for an hour and a half, and that was gruelling enough. We spoke to a lot of the miners, a lot of who could barely talk due to exhaustion. It was pretty sad to see how some of them lived – and most of them have no real choice in the matter. Makes you realise how lucky most of us are to be able to work a run-of-the-mill office job.

We left the mines, and the guide wanted to light some dynamite for us. I guess we were running a bit late, so he prepared and lit the dynamite in a huge rush, threw it to a “safe” location (again, where was Health & Safety?), and had us run far enough away to see (and feel) it go off. We jumped into the bus, headed back to the hostel (most of the tour group was from the same hostel), and made a bee line to the showers. By that stage, it was definitely necessary for all of us.

permalink written by  Sam_C on November 22, 2009 from Potosi, Bolivia
from the travel blog: Epic Detour
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