by Jerome au Perou
Fri Aug 17th, 2012 at 08:08:38 PM EST
My last note was that we were blocked in Sucre by a local strike (which, in Bolivia like in Peru, often take the form of road blockades) - with a short comment a bit later that we had managed to get through.
Here's that tale, along with pictures of Potosi and, the next day, Uyuni.
Here's what our trip looked like for a (thankfully short) while:
The reason being this:
The road was blocked over a 10-km stretch, with all traffic impossible between the various blocks. Thankfully, our travel agency arranged a local driver, who knew of a side dirt road which brought us within a few hundred meters of the final block. The car stopped a few hundred meters before the junction to the main road (so we had to carry our suitcases over that stretch), which was itself blocked, but we had no trouble as pedestrians (our son's walking cast was also a useful argument there). After that, we walked on the main road, as shown above, for a few hundred meters, passed the blockade without any problem, and found a car on the other side to take us on the rest of the trip.
After the fact, it's quite an adventure to tell about, but there were a few worrying moments (the risk of being stuck for an unknown period, missing some of our visits, the side road was barely passable with the cars available, and the first contact with the blockade on the side road looked a bit tense initially).
I did not get detailed info about the content of the strike - wages at a local factory, apparently.
- - - -
So, back on the road towards Potosi:
Pretty mountainous roads, with rather arid landscapes, but, again, a lot of terraces to exploit any piece of land worth it (and lots of stone walls again) - and a railway again...
A lot of not easily identifiable mining activity along the way.
We arrived in Potosi mid-afternoon and were able to visit the city with nice lights:
The usual central square (with an unusual statue of liberty-lookalike here),
cathedral and church facades:
There's a lot of political graffiti in the streets (i nfact, together with love messages, it's alsmost the only form of publicity visible in most towns):
Altogether, Potosi is a quite compact and lively town, with lots of schoolchildren in the streets. The narrow streets are full of pedestrians and (smelly) buses vying for space in a usually friendly manner.
- - - -
The next morning, we went to visit the silver mines. The whole mountain dominating the town is a mining area - and has been so for the past 5 centuries - this is one of the (in)famous) sources of Spanish silver.
We were first taken to the local miners' market, where they eat and buy goods for the day at work - apparently, workers need to bring their own equipment themselves and you can buy dynamite freely in the stores, among other pieces of equipment (we bought some, more about this this below). They also buy coca leaves, alcohol (96 proof!), and special cigarettes to make the time in the mines more bearable:
We were driven to the entrance of an active mine, with wagons of material coming out at regular intervals:
We went in and had to navigate he wagons coming in both directions:
There is absolutely no light inside, so we had our own to walk in the 1.5m (or less) galleries:
Safety rules were generally rather non existent, and equipment similarly basic - this is a pulley to get men down shafts 10-30m below:
Exploitaiton is not run centrally, but by small teams, which get daily concessions from the mining cooperative for small zones, which they work on for 8 hours each day with, as noted above, their own equipment. Here's one team we saw.
They bring about 20 tons of material (of varying quality) out every day, and can expect to earn about $100 per day for that work (which makes $600 or so per person per month, which is definitely on the high side for the country).
As a side economic activity, they get their mining activity "subsidized" by the visiting tourists who walk around their galleries: when we were at the market, we were asked to buy some dynamite, coca leaves and drinks, and we gave these to various miners as we walked through the mine...
The mining product is dumped right outside the mine entrance in special areas presumably to be picked up and treated (but we did not visit that side of things). It was quite an experience to be in these dark galleries in the middle of active mining activities...
- - - -
Following that, we took the road to Uyuni. More mountains, more dryness, another train line (with a train this time, briefly caught around a bend), and the power mainline showing us the overall direction:
There was really a strange mix of desert and wetness along that road, with plains where one could see at the same time completely desertic areas (with sandy dunes) and swamps with llamas and alpagas grazing -within a few meters:
The land became a lot flater, and after a last curve, we finally came into view of the Uyuni plain - and Salar - to be shown in more detail in the next post...