Tupiza to Potosí
We woke refreshed and ready for another great day. Here are two photos of our lovely hotel:
Maurice had scheduled this day as a “vacation” day; we would ride to the mining town of Potosí this morning and then have the afternoon free to tour the mine or just relax.
David, in the light pink helmet to the right in the above photo, would be our leader today. Gérald, who had seen a Tupiza doctor yesterday, was in severe pain this morning and had decided to return to La Paz today by airplane for surgery. Maurice, who is a pilot with a Bolivian airline, was staying in Tupiza this morning to make the necessary travel arrangements and to ensure that Gérald remained in good hands. I would miss Gerald’s sense of humor and kindness during the rest of the trip.
Maurice told us that the government was currently paving the road between Tupiza and Potosí and that we should watch out for road construction and unpaved sections. However, Maurice NEVER told us that less than an hour away was our own personal curving race course! We started out on dirt roads (with David leading)—fast, twisty sections that were just plain fun. Then we hit the newly paved road, where the cement was so smooth and seamless that it was unreal. The paved road snaked around the mountains, up and over and around, for miles and miles. For me, the hour or so where we rode hard in a pack, like one fluid being through all of the curves, with an almost perfect rhythm, was so magical that I never wanted it to end. The conditions could not have been better. Whoever was in charge of paving those roads was exceptionally gifted. I felt like a little kid who had discovered a big and wonderful secret. We were having too much fun to stop during the twisties to take photos.
Here I am (still smiling) at a brief stop on a new bridge:
As we got nearer to the city of Potosí, the road turned to asphalt, became more crowded and had some straight sections. For the last 25 miles into Potosí, the rain poured down, with icy hail that felt like needles piercing my face. Potosí sits at over 13,100 feet above sea level—the highest city in the World. The air was cold. But this time I did not delay in stuffing a chemical body warmer into the back neck of my jersey, along with hand warmers in my gloves. Ahhhh, much better.
A brief stop as we near Potosí:
We arrived in Potosí around 1:45 p.m. We checked into our hotel, Hostel Colonial, where we had a spacious room with good heat and hot water. Our hotel:
View from our room:
We had an excellent lunch nearby with the group, and then Ben and I walked around a bit. Here is Ben in front of the Cathedral, which was a block from the hotel.
A close-up of the Cathedral:
When we first arrived in Potosí, we had stopped our bikes on a street where every sign was for a lawyer’s office (“abogado” or “abogada”). Since I was a lawyer at the time of this trip, Ben wanted to take a photo of me on this street:
We then headed to the hotel for a short nap before our tour of the mines. To the south of Potosí is a conical mountain called “Cerro Rico” that currently has hundreds of mines in it.
In the seventeenth century, Potosí was one of the wealthiest cities in the world due to the silver that was mined from the mountain. Many indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work in the mines under appalling conditions. It is estimated that 9,000,000 of them died. Today, miners extract tin, lead, and other minerals under conditions that are still pretty atrocious.
Maurice had arranged to have a guide, Johnny, come to our hotel and take whoever wanted to go on a tour of the mines. Ben and I were the only ones who chose to go. Our first stop was a miner’s store, where we bought gifts of crackers, coca leaves and other things for the miners and their families. The miners spend over 8 hours in the mine without eating, and they chew coca leaves to ward off the hunger and fatigue. Johnny also showed us the 95% alcohol (190 proof) that the miners drink. We then received mining gear to wear—boots, pants, jacket, hat with light, and belt with a battery for the light.
We took a taxi to Cerro Rico and visited a few families who live on the mountain. Here are some of the miners’ houses above the mine that we would be visiting. The entrance to the mine is that black hole with the pipes across it.
View of the miners’ housing across the mountain:
We handed out crackers and things to several families. Here are the children from one family:
Now I am all set to enter the mine:
The walls surrounding the mine entrance were stained with dried llama blood, from an annual ceremony for good luck.
The mine entrance:
The mine tunnel was fairly narrow, and the ceiling varied from very high to so low that you had to crouch to get through. Here are Johnny and I:
Johnny showed us some asbestos on the wall.
He explained that most miners die around the age of 45 from the air and other hardships imposed by the mines. His father was a miner for many years, but he finally quit and became a bus driver. Johnny was a miner for two years before his mother said, “That’s enough!” So five years ago, Johnny started a tour guide business. He created a small museum inside one of the mines, with photos, clothing, figurines, and other items. Here I am looking at some museum objects in the mine:
Deep inside the mine, we visited “El Tio”, the deity of the mine, who is believed to have the power to take or preserve the life of a miner. Johnny gave an offering of coca leaves:
Ben and I with El Tio:
We did not see any miners working today because it was Sunday, the miners’ day of rest. The darkness of the mine, and the narrow tunnels, made me very relieved to walk out into the fresh air once again. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in the Appalachian mountains in Kentucky (where I was born); visiting the mines in Potosí inspired me to reconnect with that part of my family’s history, and I traveling back to Kentucky to visit the mining areas there (and many of my relatives) shortly after I returned home.
For dinner tonight, I was craving . . . a hamburger. Yes, I hate to admit it because I don’t eat too many hamburgers at home, and I really enjoy trying different foods when we are traveling. My stomach was still a bit tender from being ill, and I had spent the last seven days eating various types of Bolivian food; now I just wanted the comfort of a hamburger. Ben was craving pizza. He said he was envisioning a really good thin crust pizza. I told him, “This is Bolivia.” And he said, “Don’t destroy my dream.” So off we went in search of a hamburger and pizza. There were a lot of people out walking, so we joined them, strolling along and looking for a place to eat. We finally came upon a restaurant sign that read: “Pizzeria Italia”.
We went up a flight of stairs to a large room where we were the only customers. I was thinking that things did not look promising. But then a nice woman appeared, and she gave us menus and made us feel welcome. The menu even had hamburgers! So I ordered a hamburger, and Ben ordered “Pizza Americana”, which had chorizo instead of pepperoni. While waiting, we could see the woman making the pizza dough by twirling it around above her hands. My hamburger came first—it was very similar to an American burger, and I was quite pleased. Then Ben’s pizza arrived—it was drop-dead delicious, with some of the best thin crust I have ever had—light and crispy. Ahhh, the surprises of Bolivia! We walked back to the hotel very content.
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