The Silver Mine and Colonial City that Funded an Empire – Potosi, Bolivia

In late March I arrived to Potosi from Sucre. Founded in 1545, Potosi, Bolivia is famous for its world heritage listed colonial city centre and its mine. The silver production from Potosi’s mine was so prolific that it financed a large part of the Spanish empire.

During Spanish colonial times, Potosi’s silver was mined by a combination of paid and slave labour. Local indigenous and imported African slaves performed much of the most dangerous work. One estimate has 8,000,000 people dying from mining or related work over the centuries.

The Potosi Mint was first established in 1572. Although the current mint museum is based in a later building, it tells a very impressive and depressing story.

Potosi, Bolivia

A display in the Potosi Mint Museum showing indigenous and African labour working in dangerous conditions to process silver ore

The historic centre of Potosi has impressive architecture with many grand buildings. The San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple has both great architecture and views of the city and mine.

Potosi, Bolivia

View from San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple of Potosi Hill (Cerro de Potosi), the mine location

Potosi, Bolivia

The San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple ceiling

While in Potosi, the city celebrated its foundingĀ 471 years earlier on the 1st of April with a parade.

Potosi, Bolivia

Bolivian soldiers parading in Potosi’s main square to commemorate the city’s founding 471 years earlier

Although Bolivia became independent from the Spanish almost 200 years ago, the Potosi miners still work in dangerous conditions. The minerals are now extracted by groups of miners working in cooperatives using their own infrastructure to mine their sections of the mountain. Today’s miners face risks of mine collapses, explosions, physical hardship and exposure to dust and heavy metals in the air. Despite this, many miners work up to 24 hour shifts seeking greater rewards than those available via other jobs.

I visited the mine with Big Deal Tours, a company run by former miners. My group’s guide previously mined until he hurt his back and his relatives still work in the mine. Prior to seeing the mine itself, tour participant bought supplies for the miners including gloves, soft drink and coca leaves. We then put on overalls, boots and helmets and toured an operating mineral processing factory. Even the factory was dangerous with few safeguards from moving machinery, chemicals and mineral ores.

Potosi, Bolivia

Moving machinery processing mineral ores at a Potosi factory

Video of operating machinery at a Potosi mineral processing factory

When the tour group arrived to the mine, several miners were working outside, fixing rail tracks they use to push carts filled with ore-containing rock from the mine.

Potosi, Bolivia

Miners fixing rail tracks that lead outside from their Potosi mine

After a briefing from our guide it was time to face one’s fears and enter the mine.

Potosi, BoliviaThe tour group being briefed outside the mine entrance

Potosi, Bolivia

The mine tunnel started out relatively roomy with well constructed walls

Potosi, Bolivia

The tour group resting and listening to the guide in an open section of the mine

At one point the mine tunnel narrowed and became almost vertical, continuing up for a further 50 metres or so. Entering this section, the combination of high altitude, narrow space and dust in the air made breathing more difficult and I returned back down. In the mine there is no magic escape button to press if things go wrong.

Potosi, Bolivia

Posing with a mine worker holding gifts he has received from the tour group members. Note both the miner and the guide (in front) are chewing coca leaves

Returning back, we stopped next to a shrine of Pacha Kamaq, a traditional deity and husband of Pacha Mama.

Potosi, Bolivia

The guide next to deity Pacha Kamaq decorated with streamers, bottles of almost pure alcohol and coca leaves

The mine tour was a unique experience and opened eyes. Potosi’s silver changed the world and the mine is still impacting locals.

Travelling from Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia by Taxi, Train, Minibus, Foot and Bus

From Sucre in late March I wanted to visit Potosi, home of the silver mine that financed an empire. My original plan was to take the ‘train’. The train between Sucre and Potosi more closely resembled a bus-on-tracks. People asked why I wanted to take the train instead of the bus or shared taxi as the train is slower and runs less regularly (three times per week versus several departures per day). I’ve always enjoyed train travel and views from rail are generally better than from road. The novelty of the single-carriage Sucre-Potosi train also attracted me.

The service to Potosi, Sucre’s only train, departs from El Tejar Terminal. I wished to catch the Wednesday, 30 March train, scheduled to depart at 8am. Waking up early, I farewelled the wonderful Beehive Hostel and hailed a taxi to what I hoped would be El Tejar Terminal. Instead, the driver left me in front of a semi-grand building that was formerly another train station. Realising I was in the wrong place, I took a second taxi. The second driver also didn’t know where El Tejar Terminal was, needing to ask other people. Eventually, I made it to the station, only to be confronted with an empty railway siding.

Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia

El Tejar train station building, Sucre, Bolivia Continue reading

Pujillay Festival 2016 in Tarabuco, Bolivia

I was lucky enough to be in Sucre for the third weekend of March. On this weekend, Tarabuco hosts the Pujllay Festival commemorating the defeat of the Spanish in the 12 March, 2016 Battle of Cumbate. Tarabuco is a town located 65 kilometres from Sucre, making a very pleasant day trip.

On Sunday the 20th of March I caught a bus from Sucre’s Plaza 25 de Maya to Tarabuco for the 2016 Pujllay Festival. In Tarabuco groups of locals, many wearing outrageous costumes, paraded from the town centre to an open field for further celebrations.

Pujllay Festival, Tarabuco, Bolivia

The 2016 Pujllay Festival parade in Tarabuco’s main square (the multicoloured flag is Bolivia’s second national flag and represents Bolivia’s indigenous) Continue reading

Sucre, Bolivia’s Constitutional Capital

Founded by the Spanish almost 500 years ago, Sucre’s historic rise and decline was linked to theĀ  Potosi silver mine. With its year’s round mild climate and lower altitude (2,800 metres), Sucre was the preferred place of residence for the wealthy involved with Potosi’s silver trade.

Sucre is Bolivia’s constitutional capital and home of the high court (La Paz is Bolivia’s seat of government). Sucre is also the capital of Chuquisaca Department. With its historic buildings, museums, good restaurants and pleasant climate, Sucre is a popular place to visit and stay. After Santa Cruz, Sucre became my home for four weeks this March as I took Spanish lessons (gracias Faby!) and enjoyed the atmosphere of the city in general and The Beehive Hostel in particular.

Sucre’s Mercado Central (Central Market) was a regular destination with its fruit and vegetable, general produce and juice stalls.

Sucre, Bolivia

One of many juice stalls lined up next to each other at Mercado Central Continue reading

Tropical Relief in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Being bedridden with altitude sickness in La Paz, I knew I had to escape to a lower altitude. My chosen destination was Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s second largest metropolitan area and home to the country’s largest international airport. Viru Viru International Airport lies away from city centre and on the taxi ride in, I saw several rhea, large flightless birds related to the emu and ostrich.

Santa Cruz is in Bolivia’s tropical lowlands and shares the same climate classification as Darwin, Australia. Although Bolivia is famous for its high altitude, two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass is actually lowland.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

The city of Santa Cruz as seen from my approaching plane Continue reading

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum, 21 February 2016 and the Evo Morales Personality Cult

On Sunday the 21st of February, Bolivia held a constitutional referendum. The referendum determined if the 2009 constitution should be modified to allow the president and vice president to serve third terms. President Evo Morales, after winning the 2015 election, could then nominate for the 2020 election and serve until 2025 should he win. Although Morales was serving his third term at referendum time, his first term did not count as it began in 2006, prior to the 2009 constitution.

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

An advert promoting referendum participation on the back page of the BoA airline magazine Continue reading

Mount Chacaltaya, Moon Valley and Altitude Sickness – La Paz, Bolivia Part 2

While in La Paz in mid February, I took a day tour to Mount Chacaltaya and Moon Valley. Little did I know what was to follow.

Mount Chacaltaya’s peak is more than 5,400 metres high. From La Paz the road is narrow and windy, passing landscapes both stunning and stark. The road ends at 5,300 metres where there is a refuge. My tour group experienced a bumpy voyage to the refuge in an ill-suited van. From the refuge one must hike to the top.

Chacaltaya was the world’s highest altitude ski resort until its glacier melted. Now the mountain hosts an observatory and is a tourist attraction. On clear days the views are amazing. The views this day were obscured by cloud, as is more likely during the summer wet season. In contrast, winter is colder and drier.

Mount Chacaltaya, Altitude Sickness, BoliviaThe narrow road up Mount Chacaltaya Continue reading

An Amazingly Situated City – La Paz, Bolivia

From Carnival in Cochabamba, in mid-February I caught a day bus to La Paz, Bolivia’s political (but not judicial) capital and most famous city.

Bolivian buses often feature salespeople temporarily coming on board to sell their wares, usually drinks or snacks. However, I have also been in the audience of a man selling a tonic (ginseng?) and cookbooks and a boy busker singing. On the Cochabamba-La Paz bus I bought Charque de Llama from a woman. Charque de Llama is a traditional Bolivian meal featuring dried llama meat, white cheese, corn kernels, boiled potato and hard boiled egg.

La Paz, Bolivia

Charque de Llama on the bus from Cochabamba to La Paz

The road to La Paz passes by spectacular Andes scenery and high mountain passes, including one over 4,500 metres above sea level, or twice as high as Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko. Continue reading