|This morning we have booked a tour into the silver mine on the Cerro Rico mountain (4,700 metres),towering over the city of Potosi. It is known as 'mountain that eats men' because of the large number of workers who have died in the mines. Estimates are that up to 8 million have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century. Janice, Phil and I are doing the tour as Eilis is not too well. We are collected from the Hotel at 8.30. First we are taken to a miners shop where we see the basic equipment used in the mine. We handle some dynamite and the guide shows us how the miners attach a 3 minute fuse to the dynamite stick. One stick will blow up about a metre of rock and it costs 20 boliviano about A$4. There is alcohol sold here too, 96% proof, supposedly used as an offering to El Tito, the god of the mine, for prosperous yields. Honestly I don't know how much goes to El Tito and how much is consumed by the miners themselves. We are asked to buy something to give to the miners in the Casco Mine that we are going into. Dynamite or alcohol did not appeal as I didn't want to be responsible for what happened to the miner that used it so we opted for a couple of 2L bottles of Fanta and some coca leaves. Janice does not get anything for the miners - embarrassing!!
From the shop we go to the guides house and we put on some rubber boots, some outer pants and a shirt to protect our clothes from the dust and a plastic hard hat with head light. We get back into the vehicle and are driven to the mine site. Near the mine entrance are some small buildings and the rail tracks that the miners push their carts, filled with rocks from the mine, to be stockpiled and then loaded into trucks by wheelbarrow and shovel.
As we approach the entrance out come two miners running behind a cart pushing it on the tracks by hand. There is not much machinery used here. We enter the mine and it is dusty and dark and quite low in places, where we have to duck and watch we don't hit our head. There are electrical wires to give light and some pipes which carry compressed air for some of the drills they use but generally most of the hard work is done by hand. We go in about 80 metres and then veer off to the left. In this tunnel two miners are working, one pushing down semi crushed rock from above and the other one below, with the cart, loading the rock into it. When the cart is full they run behind it pushing it back towards the opening. Their's is a hard life though. The only safety equipment used is a hard hat. The miners don't wear masks even though there is asbestos and silica dust which they breathe in everyday. No steel cap boots either, they use rubber boots. Today, the life expectancy is between 45 and 55 years of age. There are about 1,500 miners working in over 400 mines over Cerro Rico and last year there were 50 deaths from accidents and falling rocks.
We then go down another tunnel where there is a statue of El Tito, the mine god and he has lots of offerings from the miners around him. Phil and I do not want to risk our health by staying in the mine any longer as we have been there about 45 minutes but Janice, who can't stand dust, decides to go on further. We leave the mine with the assistant guide and wait for Janice and our guide in the vehicle. They appear about 45 minutes later so we rush back to the Hotel as we need to catch the public bus from Potosi to Sucre at 1 pm. The driver that took us to the mines in his van also takes us to catch the bus near the outskirts of the city, at a petrol station. When we arrive there are many buses lined up along the road but not going anywhere. Not a good sign. We unload our bags while Marco goes to check what is going on. He returns with the news that there is a bus strike. Some drivers have been driving the Potosi - Sucre route without the proper authorisation and so now, no buses are running. Whilst we are occupied a group of 5 men walk past the other side of our vehicle and then stop and look at the windscreen, laughing about something. They have recognised it is a turistic van and have slashed the left rear tyre. We load our bags back in the van for security and we each stand at a tyre, so no others can be slashed, while the driver changes the flat. Marco negotiates with the driver to take us to Sucre and we need to pay 100 boliviano or A$20.00 ea, cheap in my book, but you know who, Janice, had a whinge. I lost it and told her to just pay up!! We were a bit nervous for the first part of the journey as we were not sure if there were road blocks ahead but we were lucky and had an uneventful trip. Being in the small van enabled us to have two stops, one for a panoramic view as we headed down from over 4,000 m to 2,800 m and also the spectacular bridge built by a wealthy Bolivian who had a house in Sucre and wanted to ensure he could travel to Potosi crossing the Revelo River. It's medieval in style and quite out of place in the countryside of Bolivia. It would be more at home in Europe. Quite bizarre! The van comes in handy as a toilet stop is required. $20.00 well spent.
We arrive in Sucre at 4.30 and Marco did a little orientation tour and at the end of that Eilis, Phil and I ended up in a bar overlooking the main square for a drink or two.
It is our last night together and so Eilis, Marco, Phil and I, Janice is too tight to buy a meal, go out to Joy Ride Restaurant for dinner. A fantastic meal, good atmosphere and good company. And of course a bottle of red!