Potosi and the Mouth of Hell

El Tio

Greetings all,

So I finally got out of La Paz and I made it to Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world, sitting at a solid 4200 meters. The bus here was amazing . . . remember how I mentioned that the Mexican buses put the Greyhound to shame? Well, the bus I rode to Potosi on puts the Mexican buses to shame. Get this . . . on the back of the seat in front of you, there is a section that folds down and creates a recliner for you!!!

Anyways, I’m not feeling too verbose at the moment as I’m very tired, so this will be a briefer post. Potosi is architecturally beautiful . . . look at the street pics I have provided. Looming over it all is Cerro Rico, or the Rich Mountain. Almost 500 years ago the Spanish realized it was totally loaded with silver, and, as my guidebook says, this sealed the town’s fate. During its height during the 17th century, Potosi was the largest city in the Americas, and rivalled Paris and London in population. The mountain looms over the town, but by now it has been thoroughly raped. It is a rust red from centuries of mining, but is quite a sight. The mountain is still the main attraction here, as one can go on a tour of the mines (which are still being actively mined).

The hostel here is not that great . . . it is B.Y.O.T.P., and even worse, there is no bar! Somehow I’m surviving.

During the days (this is day number three here) I’ve just been walking the city, and I went to a museum with a Belgian fella. This was the Casa de Moneda (House of Money), which is where the Spanish turned the mined silver into ingots so it could be taxed. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish so I didn’t learn too much, but I got some good photos, including one of me pulling a saint’s finger . . . heheheh.

But the coolest thing about Potosi I did today . . . a tour of the mines. Sadly I only have a few pictures of inside, as it was very dusty and hot. Being very lucky, I was the only person on the tour . . . I had a personal guide! You first go buy gifts for the miners so they don’t hate you when you photograph them (drugs all . . . coca leaves, giant Bolivian cigarettes, and the best, drinkable alcohol that weighs in at 96% liquor. That’s 192 proof. It burns.), and then head into the mines.

It was pitch black, except for our headlamps, and very low. Most of the time I was walking hunched over in half, and at one point I had to crawl on my belly through a tiny hole . . . I couldn’t stop thinking about cave-ins and whatnot . . . some parts were really quite scary. We met some miners (all of whom have a massive wad of coca in their cheeks . . . check out the photos), who were chipping away at the wall with pieces of rebar. Every time a rock broke off I cringed and looked around for the non-existant ceiling braces.

After more hunched walking, often along the edges of giant pits, we arrived at the shrine of El Tio, the “god” of the miners. Actually, he is the devil, but he is good for the miners. We “sacrificed” some coca and some cigarettes on the statue, and then had a seat. He explained the legend. Every time a miner enters the mine, he is posessed by El Tio. Mining, my guide told me, is a very sexual activity, as you are penetrating Mother Earth with your pick or whatever (hence El Tio’s giant penis), and is representative of fertility. Honestly, I don’t think the workers we encountered were thinking about that at all. But anyways, there we sat, next to this gruesome statue deep in the bowels of the mountain, drinking pure liquor (pure liquor for pure veins of silver, I’m told), and getting quite drunk. A weird experience to be sure.

Anyways, there is much more to tell about this, and sadly the few pictures I have don’t do the claustrophobia-inducing mine justice, but I’m tired. Tomorrow I leave to go on a three-day tour of Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. I also have a slight change of plans . . . my visa expires on the 16th, and when I inquired about buying 30 days more, I learned it would cost me 175 Bs. Way too expensive. So I’m going to swing into Chile for a night, head north to a volcano, and take a train back into Bolivia, thus (hopefully) renewing my visa for 30 more days. Then it’s off to Sucre, then Santa Cruz, then back to La Paz, then Lake Titicaca, then Cuzco, then the Inca Trail to Maccu Piccu, then to Northern Peru where I will lounge on the renowned beaches for a couple weeks, then it’s home!

One tip for any would-be travellers out there. Don’t buy traveller’s cheques! You will regret it . . . I sure do. Here in Potosi the cheapest rate I could find to change them was 15% comission. Ouch. Fortunately my other funds are still quite plush. Things are cheap here . . . the mine tour today (three hours) was about six dollars.

I’m spent.

Oh yes, the reason for the title “The Mouth of Hell” is because that is how one 18th century Spaniard described the entrance to the mines in Cerro Rico. I don’t know which entrance specifically . . . now there are 438 mines in this one mountain.

‘K Bye.

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~ by turvyc on February 7, 2008.

One Response to “Potosi and the Mouth of Hell”

  1. Hi Colin! We’re just back from Hawaii where we had a wonderful time. Just catching up on your amazing blogs… love them! Great stories and photos! But you mentioned that you’ve hardly had any emails. I had sent 3 or 4 before we left for Hawaii: apparently you didn’t get them? I’m using the new email you said to use, turvyc at gmail dot com, and none have bounced. Let me know the email address to use and I will resend them, and some new ones too! Ward dot strong at shaw dot ca. Love you, thanks for the great blogs, take care and be careful out there!

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