After a hectic four days of partying and tourist-ing in La Paz it was time to escape and give the liver some time to recover. Five of us caught the night bus to Sucre, which is Bolivia’s second largest city but much more quieter than the country’s capital. The night bus was uneventful but long. I had the joy of sitting next to the toilet for 12 hours, which was a delight on the nose!
Reaching Sucre at around 10am, we stumbled out of the bus tired and starving. With no idea where to go for a hostel we were approached by a guy offering an apartment for 45 Bolivianos each a night (about $8AUD) Bargain! We snatched up his offer and caught a taxi into the city centre where the hostel was. The apartment was perfect for the five of us; we had a kitchen, two bathrooms and our own little balcony. It was going to be tough to go outside! However we were ravenous so we dumped our bags and heading into the main plaza in search of breakfast. Taking the easy option we went to a café and ordered a massive breakfast to celebrate our good luck with finding the apartment.
I’m not going to lie here, after breakfast we promptly headed back to the apartment and did nothing for the rest of the day. All of us were exhausted from the crazy time in La Paz and the grey, dreary day in Sucre wasn’t motivating us to go and play tourist. We only ventured out to the supermarket to cook up a feast for dinner that night and proceeded to buy the entire shop!
The following day was pretty much the same as the day before. It was Easter Sunday but it sure didn’t feel like it. I had managed to find some Easter eggs in the supermarket so continued my tradition of chocolate for breakfast! We lazed about for the morning before taking a little stroll through the city. It was a gorgeous little city, very European and clean. Much less hectic than La Paz but the overcast weather made it feel kind of depressing. While it was nice to just hang out in our apartment, Tommy, Alex and I were getting itchy feet again and decided to catch the bus to Potosi the next day, planning to meet the Austrian sisters in Uyuni.
The bus ride to Potosi was about four and a half hours through beautiful scenery and windy roads. We made friends with some Israelis on the bus and ended up booking the same hostel as them. Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world (4090m above sea level) and is famous for its silver mine, Cerro Rico. The main reason for travellers to come to Potosi is to go into this infamous mine which is exactly what we planned to do the following morning. I met up with Sean, my friend from Cusco and the four of us had pizza for dinner and planned our next few day’s activities.
I was a little hesitant about the mine tour, I hadn’t even heard of Potosi before meeting my friends and was only going there because I couldn’t say no to a weird experience like this! The following morning we met with our tour group and got kitted up into safety gear and driven to the miners market. The first part of the tour is to buy the miners some gifts. There are several different things you can buy such as beer, coca leaves or soft drink, but there are also some other things you can buy – such as dynamite and hard liquor! Stocking up on gift – yes we got dynamite; we were loaded back into the van and taken up to the entrance of the mine.
There are about 10,000 people that work in the mine and most of them will work there for their entire life. It’s common for miners to spend up to six to eight hours inside the mine, often smoking and drinking whilst working. Entering the mine was a little scary as you step into the damp, dark tunnel and am only relying on your head torch to guide you.
Our first stop was at ‘El Tio’, the statue that the miners make offerings to. It’s common practice to pour beer or alcohol firstly on ‘El Tio’ and then on the ground before taking a drink. This is to give thanks to the God’s and is an important ritual for the spiritual Bolivians. We gave our thanks and continued on the tour. Walking through the dark tunnel, feet sloshing in the mud was depressing, yet eye opening. I couldn’t believe that the miners could spend such long hours deep in the mine; I’d barely been in for 20 minutes and was ready to get out.
We continued on, crawling through narrow parts and climbing down precariously hung ladders. At one point I was terrified because we has to shimmy through a small hole and climb down a rickety ladder next to huge, dark holes. I hadn’t given a thought about safety regulations for the mine – I’d just assumed it would be safe-ish because it’s a tourist attraction. However I swiftly reminded myself that I was in Bolivia and there is no such thing as safety regulations and no efforts made in keeping the tourists alive.
This was definitely made apparent when we stopped and our guide asked if anyone bought dynamite. Tommy said that he had and our guide asked if we wanted a demonstration on how it worked. While I wasn’t particularly fond of being close to an explosion, I didn’t want to miss out on this chance. The others in the group were in the same boat and we agreed meekly to watch the dynamite explode. Our guide set up the dynamite and lit the fuse, he said there was about 3-4 minutes before it would go off and handed it around to us for a ‘photo opportunity’. Starting to panic slightly I wanted him to throw this thing far, far away. After we had passed it around he made us wait while we went deeper into the mine to stash the dynamite somewhere. He returned and told us to wait patiently for the bang. I was super nervous by this point and cowered behind Tommy and Sean with my fingers in my ears. We waited and waited and part of me hoped that he’d just diffused it and tricked us but as soon as I removed my fingers from my ears there was a massive BANG! And the walls around us shook. Pretty sure I squealed like a girl as my life flashed before my eyes, but we were safe. I was shaking like anything as we laughed, it had scared the crap out of all of us but it was funny that in a way we had dodged potential death.
The group was quick to move from this spot and we continued on the tour through the narrow tunnels. We met some of the miners along the way and exchanged the gifts we had bought. They were sad looking men of all ages, aged by the years of working underground. It was hard to comprehend that they spent most of their lives in this deep, dark mine – definitely not my idea of a good job. However they are paid well and some have no choice but to work here so they can support their family.
After about three hours of climbing through the mine I was ready to leave, I don’t usually get claustrophobic but after the scariness of the blowing up the dynamite and negotiating the tricky ladders and wooden bridges, I had enough. We watched the miners fill a cart with rocks and then we were led to the exit. Let me tell you, I have never been more excited to see the sun! Jumping for joy (literally!) we celebrated survived the man-eating mine of Cerro Rico. It had been an interesting experience and I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I was glad I had witnessed it.
After the mines we had to rush back to the hostel and get changed out of our dirty mining clothes and head to the bus station. We had a 2pm bus to Uyuni and it was nearly 1:30pm. Starving, we picked up some stale empanadas and chocolate from a shop across from the bus station and jumped on board. We were bound for Uyuni and the salt flats, something I was so excited for – this is why I wanted to go to Bolivia in the first place!