Sucre, Potosi and Drinking with Miners

After our lazy few days in La Paz it is time to join our group trip and depart the busy city.  Our itinerary over the next three weeks will take us south through Bolivia into Argentina and Chile, and leave us in Santiago in early July.  We booked the trip to enable us to travel a tad quicker than we tend to travel on our own.  In preparation for the rumoured freezing conditions further south Diane buys a small hot water bottle, which later proves well worthwhile.  Our group leader ushers us to the main bus station in La Paz well in time for our overnight bus, but the local miners have other ideas – they have been in dispute with the authorities for some weeks and we find out they have blocked the main road south with huge boulders.  So, we turn around, go back to the hotel and wonder what to do next as there is no sign of the dispute ending quickly.  We end up spending a couple more nights in the city before taking a short internal flight to Sucre.
The atmosphere and the traffic here are relaxed, making a great change from La Paz, and there are many beautiful buildings built from white stone hence it’s nickname as the White City.
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Sucre has a fabulous local market, including amazingly cheap fresh fruit and juices.
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Next day we take a shorter bus ride, only four hours this time, to Potosi.  At 4,300 metres it feels incredibly cold and Diane is really pleased she bought that hot water bottle !  According to our guidebook “Potosi shocks” and we need to find out why.  In the 1500s silver was discovered in the nearby Cerro Rico mountain and slave labourers worked in appalling conditions.  The silver deposits have now been depleted but today thousands of miners still work there to extract various minerals.  We decide to take the controversial tour to a local mining co-operative the next day, and here we are dressed up with the mountain behind us.
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Our guide is a miner and relates many stories, explanations of the long working hours and the necessity to chew coca leaves and drink 96% alcohol called Ceibo (sometimes mixed with Fanta) to enable them to work 12 hours or more at a stretch – apparently eating food is over-rated.  We all take a small swig of the alcohol, but it’s not a great experience. Our guide explains that there are still some mining operations run by the government and they have a few rules: for example the age boys can start work, the maximum hours which can be worked and even health insurance.  But the co-operative mine we are visiting has no such rules.  Our guide had started working in the mine at age 12 !
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We are shown sticks of dynamite, fuses and detonators, all of which are legal to buy in the miners shops – but take those items outside that street and you will be arrested by the police.  We are asked to buy gifts of coca leaves, alcohol, Fanta and gloves to give to the miners we will meet.  We’re warned that our safety can’t be assured and that the fumes might cause us breathing problems, so we don masks.
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We walk into the mine via an extremely small entrance littered with pipes and other obstacles at awkward angles, and also used by miners pushing carts filled with heavy crud containing raw minerals.
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We walk quickly through muddy and sludgy tunnels, bending constantly to avoid the pipes and other protrusions and the helmets come into their own as we’re always banging our heads.  It quickly becomes dark and we are pleased of our bright headlights.
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After a few minutes some of our party, including Paul, manage to climb and clamber up a gruelling slope, needing both guts as well as upper body strength.  Not everyone can manage this and Diane and others stay on the lower level listening to stories from one of the guides of the harsh working conditions.  Several miners pass by, pushing carts full of heavy rock: each cart weighs one ton empty.  Paul carries on up into the individual seams worked by the various teams in the cooperatives, and shares more alcohol with the miners.  This involves a ritual whereby each person drinks two rounds of alcohol, sharing a bit each time with Pachamama, mother earth, for luck.  Many miners are killed by rock falls: the cooperatives don’t communicate, they compete, so one team could be dynamiting a seam, and another could be ten feet away when it goes off.  The combination of coca, 96% alcohol and dynamite is probably quite explosive, also.  Here we all are in a seam.
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On the way out we pass by the effigy of Tio, the spirit worshipped by the miners and who it is hoped will protect them from the hellish working conditions.  His head and chest are covered with green coca leaves and cigarettes are placed in his mouth as an offering.  Other occasional offerings include alcohol and llama blood !
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Suitably briefed on the appalling working conditions we are desperate to escape the dirt and darkness and retreat back to our hostel for a hot shower, knowing that the miners inevitably have many more hours of hard work in front of them.  Tomorrow we’re setting off on a journey onto the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.

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