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Potosi

the day we nearly died three times.....!

sunny 12 °C
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Near death experience 1: Suicide Taxi Driver:

From Sucre to Potosi it's normal to share a taxi, it's only 4hrs away. We'd had enough of buses for a while so our B&B owner arranged our taxi ride. Our cab driver was mental. He must have got his license free with a box of cereal. As soon as we'd paid our 50 Bolivianos and passed through the town boundary military check point, he set off like it was the green light at Silverstone. He seemed to keep drifting to the side of the road, I was going to have to watch this idiot didn't fall asleep. The Chinese guy in the front seat fell asleep, as did the smelly fat Bolivian next to me and so did Mel. I envied her ability to assume an ignorance is bliss approach. The driver opened up a carrier bag full of coca leaves. We hadn't really read up on the effects of chewing coca leaves yet, but at least it might keep him awake. Woooa, swerve to avoid the pigs, well done. He was accelerating into corners on less than perfect tarmac, crazy taxi style. Nevermind the 300metre sheer cliff. The road itself was amazing, stunning scenery, winding through the mountains. It would have had Richard Hamond in a Zonda squeaking like a hamster. We passed a footy pitch in the middle of nowhere, pigs, cows and donkeys. We passed Bolivian women herding goats: why are Bolivian women always fat? -they are always working and they always wear aprons. Maybe that's it, they wear the aprons as they are always cooking and eating; one empanada for me, one to sell by the roadside, one for me, one for the roadside?! While the men are always asleep...maybe they have Spanish ancestry? We narrowly missed hitting a couple of guys on a scooter carrying 3 large wooden window frames. I thought about asking the driver for some of his coca leaves; if we were going to go off the side of this mountain, then I'd rather not be sober. Two hours into the ride and my arse was numb, I was drenched in nervous sweat and the fat Bolivian guy's knee was digging into my leg. Fortunately the Chinese lad's phone rung and he started speaking in Japanese to someone,.. At least I recognised the language. He then struck up a conversation in Spanish with the driver which seemed to wake him up and slow him down a bit.

When we arrived in Potosi the streets were closed off, so the driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere. We had to hike for 40mins (with back packs on) to find where we were and get to our hostel. This was hard work at 4,100m - Potosi is the highest city in the world. Lots of people were sat around next to signs, holding banners and streets were shut off. It was a bit strange for the middle of Monday.

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Near death experience 2: Van Attack.

Our tour started at 14:00hrs and we had to meet at the agency office in the main square. We were a few minutes early and waited for 3 others to join our silver mine tour. Our guide went off to look for the late comers and left us to go with bus driver. The van was old and from the back seat, I had to lean over and open the front door for the driver. We set off up a street to be confronted by three cars with flags on the roof and a few guys in the back of a pick up truck. Our driver started to reverse down the street (only wide enough for one car), but he hashed up the T junction and went into the curb. Suddenly three of the lads jumped out of the pick up and ran at our van shouting, I thought they'd slashed our tyres as the driver found first gear and just made the corner and sped off. As we reached a passing, our driver waved and shouted at the other cars 'attack, attack'. The cars were beeping and we were speeding up a dusty road away from town centre with hissing tyres, we didn't know what was happening. Our driver turned left and brought the van to a halt in an empty street. He was talking to himself and got out of the van walked down the road on his mobile. The cars with flags and the chaps in the back fortunately turned right and disappeared, as our driver walked off. So we're sat in an old van, lopsided with two flat tyres, a driver that doesn't speak English has run off and we are left sitting in the van, tired, confused and shocked, in an empty dusty street, in the highest city in the world, in Bolivia. Little bit scared. We got out, I didn't fancy hanging around. Then about 30 lads came out of a door on to the street behind our van and started chanting and running down the road?? Our way back to the main town square and the 'comfort' of a military presence, was the way that the attack had come from. It was the only way to go and we made it without seeing anything else of concern. The travel agency also wasn't concerned at our apparent shock and demanding to know what was going on. The guide was now there with 3 old Spanish ladies, who, had they been on time, would have meant we'd have been long gone before our van tyres were let down, bloody Spanish timekeeping. We never saw the driver again. The guide explained that there was a strike on that day, with road blocks, which meant we could only go a certain way. We were still not happy and a bit uncertain if we should go on; what if we met more idiots who wanted to do more damage than just to the tyres? Our guide assured us that there was no problem and we reluctantly went on, this was our only chance to do this.

Near death experience 3: Mine Shaft Collapse.

The mountain looked like a big pile of dirt, no longer covered with flora, just an inverted quarry. Holes peppered the slopes of the Corro Rico. This was once the treasure that enticed 300,000 people here and made it the largest city in South America. The Silver boom times of the 1500's brought wealth and with it fantastic Colonial architecture which looks beautiful in the town centre. The wealth that was created here is tainted with the hardship that the labourers endured. The terrible conditions that the slaves had to work in down the mines led to 9 million deaths. The silver was mined out and, even after a short period of resurgence for the town with tin mining, has left it with only approximately 30,000 remaining inhabitants. It's still a working mine but only with small operators, extracting small quantities of metals to scratch a living on.

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With a hard hat and head torch on, we walked into a hole in the mountain heading down a wet track.

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We carried fizzy soda, funky cigarettes, coca leaves, almost pure alcohol and dynamite sticks as gifts for the miners we were expecting to meet. I tried some of the alcohol and my mouth was on fire! We stooped our way underground for what must have been a good couple of kilometres. We met some miners filling trucks and chewing their faces off with coca leaves.

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I tried some, as I was starting to feel extremely claustrophobic, with no effect, it just tasted like chewing leaves. We pulled ourselves up and through tunnels in this swiss cheese labyrinth. We met a mine god statue which was decorated with coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol, all good luck offerings. The wooden roof supports were broken, cracked and sagging. All the time there was the loud hissing of leaking oxygen pipes.

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Our guide asked us to stop as there were five or six loud explosions, the whole place shook. We were walking down a track passed an old blocked up truck filling shoot, when there was another explosion and the shoot began to unblock. Rubble streamed down on to the track and piled up,...we shuffled back. We thought of the 80 days it took to dig out the Chillian miners. Fortunately it stopped with only a quarter of the tunnel filled. At that stage we'd seen enough and made our way over the pile towards the light at the end of the tunnel. This mountain is literally collapsing: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077641,00.html

What an amazing place to see and completely unexpected after the start to the day we'd had. Probably the most dangerous place we've ever been, but extremely interesting and certainly an unforgettable experience.

We had an awesome steak for dinner and restaurant called '4,060' in reference to its height above sea level.

Our bus to Uyuni took 5hrs through some incredible Andean scenery. It had been raining in the town. The place wouldn't look out of place in a news item about Afghanistan. Our Salar de Uyuni tour is booked for tomorrow.

Best travel purchase: Camera.
Most practical travel purchase: Dry bag.
Thing we regret not bringing: Corkscrew.

Posted by Graemeandmel 19:34 Archived in Bolivia Tagged mines bolivia potosí potosi_mines taxi_to_potosi

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