July 18, 2013 by 2sorefeet
We couldn’t believe our luck when we arrived in Uyuni. Straight away we found a taxi that was willing to bring us (Marie & I, and our 3 new friends from the Salar tour, Rowan, Clara & Kristin) 2 and a half hours north east to Potosi. Unfortunately our luck didn’t last long. A common form of protest in Bolivia is a ‘bloqueo’. “What is it?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s like a strike, but with the added annoyance of people blocking all the access points in & out of a city. Luckily our taxi driver knew another “road” out of town.
Fast forward one hour later and we are lost in the middle of a desert, on a dirt road that was not fit for a donkey, completely lost. Also there was the added complication that we had all failed to notice that our taxi driver actually looked like a demented serial killer. It wasn’t too long before we were stuck in the sand/mud, so we had to get out and push the minibus, all of us. Imagine the look on our faces when we saw the minibus continuing for 200metres… with all our luggage on the roof. Thankfully our taxi driver was not as mean as he looked. Lesson learned, for the other 7 occasions we had to push the car, we left Rowan in the passenger seat as collateral.
7 and a half hours later we arrived in Potosi, not the last thing we needed after spending 4 days in a jeep, but at least we were still alive! Potosi has the title of being the highest city in the world (with more than 100,000 inhabitants) so thankfully we had all acclimatised to the altitude over the course of our trip in the Salar, because believe me- walking 20 minutes to your hostel with 12 kgs on your back above 4000metres is tough work.
Potosi is a charming town with a dark past. Towering over the city is the Cerro Rico (seen in the background of the picture below). This inconspicuous looking mountain has a history as rich as the miners it made. In the 16th century an abundance of silver was found on the mountain which led to a mining campaign that still exists today. What are the effects of 500 years of extensive mining? Well firstly, 60,000 tons of silver have been extracted from the mountain which financed the Spanish Empire for hundreds of years and made Potosi the richest city in the world. The bad news? An estimated 3-8million people, mostly slaves died in the mines. And until this day, although the silver has long run out, (other minerals are now being mined), miners as young as 15 years old are continuing to die due to terrible working conditions, asbestos and explosions. In fact, a recent investigation by a US geologist has found that the mountain as effectively hollow and it is ready to collapse.
Despite all this, one of the main tourist attractions in this city is to visit the mines. For numerous reasons, we decided against this particular tour and instead opted to head for the Casa de la Moneda (The Mint Museum). If anyone is ever in Bolivia, we would highly recommend visiting this museum, which lonely planet calls “one of the best of South America”. As all the silver in the Spanish Empire was mined in Potosi, it made sense that the coins were also minted here. From using some incredible techniques (which also resulted in the death of more slaves) at the beginning to more sophisticated and humane methods as technology advanced, all means of minting are all shown in detail here.
2 days later, we made a group decision (now we were 4- Kristin had gone her separate ways) to head towards more agreeable weather and higher temperatures (it gets bitterly cold at 4090metres!) Thankfully no psycho taxi driver this time, we arrived in Sucre without incident and were immediately impressed by the beautiful white washed buildings and electric buzz in the city.
There is a lot of discussion about the “actual” capital of Bolivia. For us Europeans, we assume that it is La Paz. However, there is much debate in Bolivia about this. For some, it is La Paz, for others it is Sucre (depending on where you are from). It is a tricky and, as we found out by talking to the locals, sensitive subject, with Sucre being the constitutional capital and La Paz the ‘de facto’ capital, which is a source of great aggravation to the Sucre locals.
Regardless of all this, the city is beautiful. So much to do, so much to see, great restaurants and bars abound, we quickly got the impression that this is a place that you could easily get stuck. And in fact, that is exactly what happened. In total we spent more than a week here. Passing the first 4 days with Rowan and Clara, exploring the city, eating some great food and just general hanging around… which was well earned after all our jeep time! I also took this as an opportunity to brush up on my Spanish skills, so I attended “Sucre Spanish School” (which I would highly recommend) for a few days. Ah yes, this cultured Irish man can now order a beer in 3 languages😀
Goodbyes said to Rowan and Clara, who were both travelling on to La Paz, we got an email from an English couple who we met in Chile saying they were in Sucre and if we fancied meeting up, so the next few days were spent with even more shameful socialising and eating. This travelling business is tiring work!
Eventually that little feeling that backpacking creates reared its head again and the urge to move resurrected itself, so we found ourselves at the bus station awaiting our 12 hour bus journey to La Paz, which would actually turn out to be in excess of 20 hours due to dodgy engines and a lack of replacement buses. This travelling business really is tiring work…
John & Marie