|Tuesday 15th July 2014
Potosi, Bolivia (highest town in the world)
Today we woke up late and had breakfast in the hotel. We then went out to the town for a walk. Really feeling the altitude today. This town is 4,090 m. above sea level (13,418ft) and is the highest town in the world. It truly makes you feel breathless just walking around. We walked up and down looking for a place to sit and people watch, but the two main squares are both surrounded by corrugated iron fences - they appear to be renovating them. Anyway we couldn't find anywhere so we went to the supermarket back near our hotel (uphill from the square) and bought a couple of large bread rolls and two bottles of local beer, cheese and bananas. Everything is relatively cheap here in Bolivia. Back to our room to eat our feast. This afternoon, we went on a visit to the mint, a vast building where in the old days coins were minted here from the silver that was dug out of the ground and belonged to the Spanish monarchy. Because of the arid climate, most of the old machinery that was used from the 1560s until 1951 was still there and the town has done a great job of restoring this building and all its associated relics. It is a huge place, all stone with many rooms and extremely high ceilings and great displays. We took a guided tour that lasted for about an hour and a half. There isn't a great deal more to see in town (apart from the ever present churches) and only a few dismal souvenir shops so we went back to the hotel and had a briefing at 6:00pm for a visit to the silver mine tomorrow. Lynn is going with most of the group - David isn't, due to his concerns about enclosed spaces. After the meeting, we went out with most of the group to town for dinner. It was a nice restaurant and we all chatted away the evening. David felt unwell and almost lost his voice over the course of the evening. Back home to bed at the hotel at about 10:45pm. Today was fine but quite cold especially in the morning and evening.
Wednesday 16th July 2014
Up earlier today for breakfast and then Lynn and the others were picked up at around 9:00am for the trip to the mine. While Lynn was away, David went out for a walk and took some photos of the town. It has quite a large colonial historical centre and there are many old (some crumbling) buildings. Meanwhile Lynn & co were taken to the Tour Agency's warehouse where they were all provided with grey trousers and red jackets to both protect their clothes and also to identify them as tourists. Then they donned rubber boots and next received helmets, lights were fitted to the helmets and battery packs strapped to their waists on belts. Once ready, they were transported to the street where the miners buy all their equipment so they could shop for gifts to take to the miners. Lynn chose to buy a stick of gelignite, a metre of fuse (5 minutes), and a bag of powder used to assist the burning. She has always dreamt of buying gelignite.... She also bought a large bottle of soft drink and a bag of coca leaves. They then drove to the mine entrance, turned on their head lights and set off down the tunnel which was quite narrow, not very tall, and calf deep in water. Every few metres the ceiling was too low to walk upright and much of the journey was spent stooped over. Water dripped down, there were frequent puddles, wood stuck out of the walls, and low beams had to be avoided. The air was quite dusty although hoses running along the wall occasionally hissed out air. After about 500 metres, 3 of the group decided they had enough and returned with the assistant guide to the surface. The rest carried on as before - occasionally miners dragged carts along the rails and they all had to jump aside to let the carts through. Lynn was walking slower than the others and several times found herself walking by herself with just a glimmer of light ahead in the darkness to follow. One time she approached the group who were resting and was told "run! get off the track!" because a laden cart was fast approaching. Whenever a group of miners was reached, or a cart was pushed past, some of the gifts were handed out. At one point the tunnel was so low, the group had to crawl - and as it was over a rocky floor it was quite uncomfortable. Fortunately this stretch only lasted about 50 metres. Finally they reached the end of the tunnel where the rock was being dug out - about 1.5klms from the entrance - by now it was quite hot so no-one was unhappy to turn around and start walking back to the entrance. Eventually the air got quite fresh and cool and the entrance was reached. During their tour of the mine they had come across miners moving carts loaded with rocks, miners filling large rubber buckets which were being hoisted up 50 metres to the next level, and miners shovelling fresh rock into the carts. The conditions were very poor with little evidence of safety. Lynn was told that the miners work in consortiums who employ some miners on salaries but who mostly just share in any profits. Each consortium keeps information about the silver veins secret from other consortiums and sometimes rockfalls occur when 2 or more consortiums are digging in the same area, thus weakening the levels. The mine has 400 entrances and 160 klms of tunnels and has been operating since the 16th century although Lynn was also told that they fear there may only be a few years of silver left. The miners health is not good and they often have poor lungs after only 10 years of work, although Lynn met a miner who was 58 years old and had been working since he was young. The current youngest miner is only 13 years old. The group was exhausted at the end of their tour which had been a very interesting experience but extremely thought provoking. In the afternoon, we went out and bought supplies for the bus ride to La Paz tomorrow and then went out to dinner in the town and had a very nice meal. Back to the hotel to pack and to bed about 9:30pm.