Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2012, 30th October – 1st November: Sucre & Potosí, Bolivia

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:


Of the few cities that I visited in Bolivia, Sucre was by far the most picturesque. Its old district, centred on the main plaza, is a pleasant spread of whitewashed colonial buildings.

Near to the city is Parque Cretácio where earth excavations as part of the production for cement works revealed many dinosaur footprints. Shifts in the earth´s crust tilted, what was previously sedimentary rock from a horizontal muddy plain, near vertically. As such, the footprints now ´climb´ the wall.

Dinosaur Footprints in a Near-Vertical Face



Potosí, at 4090 metres (13,420 feet) is one of the world´s highest cities. It has a long history of metal mining (since colonial times). Indeed the local mountain Cerro de Potosí is now significantly lower than it used to be, having had so much of its surface removed by open-cast mining. Its interior is now honeycomb like as there are so many mine routes from hundreds of years of ´chasing the mineral veins´ of silver, zinc and tin amongst other metals.

Processing of Silver Ore

The city of Potosí is not a tourist destination in itself as it is not attractive; the main tourist draw is the opportunity to visit working mines that are operating in very basic conditions. My visit coincided with a national holiday so there were few men working the mines – at least that meant that the dust underground was at a manageable level.

Entrance to a Mine in Cerro Potosí
(Those Carts are Pushed, Full of Rock, Manually to the Mine Entrance)

Each of the many mine ´routes´ underground is owned independently or by cooperatives, with many of the miners working freelance.  The result is an apparently unregulated chaotic mix of different mines chasing diminishing resources. Each mineral vein is ´owned´ by whoever gets there first, so at times two different teams of miners can be chasing the same mineral vein (a story by my guide, an ex-miner, illustrated this). Sometimes the two teams can be blasting with dynamite when the neighbouring team is in a separate tunnel just metres away – they better hope that they hear your warning shouts in time.

Tim in a Mine in Cerro Potosí with Plenty of Room to Stand Up
(The Black Hoses Carry Compressed Air to the Drills)

The work is predominantly manual and must be back-breaking; even during my few hours underground the low tunnels started to drive me nuts (mind you I am a lot taller than the average Bolivian). Their drilling is aided by compressed air supplies, other than that all the work is manual, with buckets of excavated material being hauled and lifted up vertical shafts by hand (rarely by electric winch). Once in the ´larger´ tunnels, the carts of rocks are pushed manually along the tracks to the mine entrances.

One of the Carts Which are Pushed Manually
Along Tracks to the Mine Entrance

The majority of the miners suck on a ball of coca leaves to give them the boost necessary to cope with the very tough working conditions. The mines are at an elevation of around 4,200 metres (13,780 feet) and the temperatures underground are in the range of 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit). If that mix of rarefied air and high temperatures in low tunnels does not get you, then the dust surely will (many miners die by the age of 40 from lung conditions). Given the many dangers present in such conditions, the miners show a great reverence to their god (El Tio).

A Shrine to the Miner´s God - El Tio
in a Mine in Cerro Potosí

Bolivia is a poor country. I believe that the average monthly salary is in the range 2,500 to 3,000 Bolivianos (around £230 to £270 or US$350 to US$410), with the minimum wage being far, far less than this. I understand that the miners make in the region of 3,000 to 3,500 Bolivianos per month, with this rising to 5,000 for a while if they hit a good mineral vein. So really, those poor guys are not really making ´big bucks´ as compensation for the back-breaking work which is literally life-threatening. One miner who was working underground during my visit told me that he was working to save for a car (over a number of years), that is a lot of high-risk work just to save the cash for a car. It is quite apparent that many Bolivians never really manage to get a foothold above the financial level associated with a basic lifestyle; (I avoid using the term ´poverty line´ as I think that poverty has to be judged by more than just your bank balance).

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