August 2023

At the beginning of August we left Sucre behind us on the way to Potosi. However we realised that this would also mean leaving Bolivia behind us pretty soon. Since we were having such a great time in Bolivia we decided to take a detour and see more of this beautiful country. So we decided to drive through the mountains to Cochabamba. On our way there we found a nice little gorge with some water to enjoy during the heat and it was safe enough for Binkie to go off leash again.

Cochabamba is a nice city with lots of facilities, but very few camp grounds. We had contacted a campsite that was supposed to be really great and asked if their dog would be OK with our cat as one of the reviews said the dog didn’t seem to like other dogs. The owner responded that it shouldn’t be a problem as there were some cats on the property. So we were looking forward to our stay. However we left within in an hour of arriving. Turned out that whoever wrote the review knew the dog better than the owner. We ended up camping some nights near a city park. Not ideal, but we’ve had worse although it’s not the most relaxing environment. The park is an known overlander spot and we even met some other Dutch travellers, which is rare. We checked out the city and also took Binkie for a full medical at a very good vet. We had noticed that Binkie had been drinking some more lately and didn’t know if this was due to the climate or a health issue. Since we often change climates rather quickly, Binkie’s behaviour, eating and drinking can change quickly too, so its hard to monitor. Fortunately everything was fine, so it’s just the climate.

We then wanted to drive another mountain road to Potosi. But here the locals had decided to make their own toll roads every few kilometres… We paid the first but managed to drive past 3 more, refusing to pay. Twice the barrier was already lowered although we were obviously supposed to stop and one we just quickly did it ourselves, which led to one angry woman. Real toll roads are one thing but this was just a scam. When we paid the first one (thinking that was it for the entire road) we got a little ticket saying “thank you for contributing to our school”… So we decided to leave this road earlier than planned and take the main road. This meant driving through Oruro, which might well be the worst and ugliest city in South America, at least so far. This part of Bolivia really wasn’t worth the detour and actually reminded us more of the horrible north-west Peru. So we had some regrets about our detour. However we were still looking forward to our mining tour in Potosi and after two days of driving we arrived at this mining town.

Now Potosi itself isn’t exactly great either and very difficult to drive. Lots of very narrow and steep one way streets. This led to some stressful driving and the van even got a little souvenir 🙁 We found a wild camp spot outside of Potosi which was nice but very cold and the drive up there was difficult. The city is build at 4000masl and we camped at around 4250 masl for several days. Potosi is build at the foot of the mountain Cerro Rico, which means rich mountain. They mainly mine silver and zinc. Some (former) miners now offer tours and we chose a tour with one of them. The evening before our tour they let us camp in their garage, so we wouldn’t have to drive the difficult road down early in the morning. Camping in a garage was a new experience, also for Binkie who found the garage and everything in it very interesting! It was also warmer in the garage 🙂

The following morning we got protective clothes and a helmet and followed our guide. First to one of the processing plants where the silver and zinc is extracted from the rocks. Nowadays practically all metals are exported. Here we also learned that all the waste, including many heavy metals and dangerous chemicals, is dumped in the rivers… There is also no environmental protection at the plant itself, the soil must be pretty polluted as well. As a former environmental inspector I will admit that this was a bit of a shock. I obviously hadn’t expected any European standards, but this… And Potosi is build on a mountain slope so any pollution will make its way easily down. “Fortunately” the area is not suitable for agriculture so all the produce is grown elsewhere. We did decide that for a while we would only be drinking bottled water as we doubted our filtering system would be able to handle this. It’s better to not drink the tap water in Bolivia anyway, but since we always use our own filtering system we hadn’t had any problems so far.

After the processing plant we drove up the mountain to one of the mines. The mines employ around 10.000 people and this mountain has been mined for almost 500 years! However the silver and zinc are quickly becoming less and although nobody knows for sure, the expert opinion seems to be that the mountain will be “empty” within 50 years. That will probably be devastating for Potosi as there aren’t many other opportunities for work in the area. The whole area is dry, bare and mostly consists of hard rock and apart from the mines there is nothing here for tourists. All the mines are operated and mined by hand by families. There is no big government or big company operation. The miners form cooperations. Families work in it for generations and if you want to work in a mine then you can only do so if your family has mining rights. Only men can work in the mines, women work in the processing plants or other related industries. This is partly because of the heavy work and partly for religious” reasons; they don’t want Pachamama (mother earth) to be jealous. Think of this what you will but I feel the women are lucky! We saw some statues in the mine that represent mother earth and the devil (who rules under the earth, which is where the miners work) to which they pray and sacrifice things like coca leaves and also 90% alcohol. The idea with this is that you offer the purest alcohol as is possible to please the gods and not “pollute the mines by diluting the source: it should promise rich veins full of silver. The miners drink this stuff as well…

Mount Cerro Rico and part of Potosi. We couldn’t imagine living here.

A miner makes around 4000-5000 bolivianos per month, this is more than a waiter (2000) or a police officer or teacher (3000). But most miners have lots of children to feed. Children used to work in the mines as well, starting as young as 12. Now you have to be 18 to work in the mine although a 16 year old can be found working there on the weekends. It is heavy, dirty, unhealthy and dangerous work. Everything is done by hand and sticks of dynamite are used to blow up the rock wall. Around 20 people per year die, which isn’t as much as I expected. It can be quite dusty and not a single miner was wearing a mask or something. Dust lungs are common. They have a helmet with a lamp and that’s it. All gear must be bought by the miner. The wheel barrows can weigh up to 120 kilo’s and most miners are small so its really heavy. They have to bend a lot. To me it also looked like really boring work. They all constantly chew coca leaves. Coca leaves can be healthy and they also have a religious and traditional use, but it looks like most miners are addicted to them. They suppress things like hunger and pain and act as a mild stimulant. We were inside the mine for about two hours where our guide showed us the veins that contain the silver and zinc. We saw how the rocks with more silver etc. inside them where hand separated and put in bags. The less promising rocks are thrown in a wheel barrow and emptied outside and collected by a truck which takes it to the plant. Although all mining families have their own shafts, the government owns the mountain so they have to pay tax to the government to be allowed to mine there. The government has build the miners their own hospital in Potosi. It depends on who you ask but life expectancy for a Potosi miner used to be around 40 years, now it could be up to 64 years but that’s not very common. When a miner can no longer work due to injuries or dust lungs they can receive a small pension from the government. Every now and then the government inspects the mines for danger. If an area becomes to weak and there’s the danger of it collapsing, the family has to find another area to mine. After two hours in the mine we were really glad to be outside again in the daylight and where we could stand up straight again. I can’t imagine doing this for years but our guide told us he and most miners like being in the mine. I guess you get used to it, but still… It was very interesting though.

After Potosi we drove in the direction of Uyuni. We stopped half way at the lowest point in the area, near Pelca at “only” 3400 masl. We had been staying at high, windy and cold altitudes for a while now. These circumstances make it very uncomfortable or even impossible (with strong winds) to use our shower which is outdoors. So it was a relief to be able to have a shower here, after TWELVE days. It was sunny and not too windy. We were lucky to catch this break from the wind because the following day it was too strong again. We stayed at this spot for 3 days since it had everything we needed. It was peaceful and quiet, with cellphone reception good enough for internet and it was safe enough for Binkie to go off leash and there was still some water in the river to do laundry in. This river was not down stream from Potosi by the way ;).

After this rest we drove on to Uyuni, you can read all about our amazing time here. After Uyuni we drove the Laguna Route in to Chile. We drove in to Chile on the 27th of August and after the beautiful but hard laguna route we treated ourself to a nice relaxing stay at a hotel for three days at San Pedro de Atacama. A very nice touristy town close to the border but with a nice warm climate. After three days we also spend a few days wild camping in the area and Kilian went on one of the best bike rides ever! Although the Atacama desert has many tourist attractions, we didn’t do any of them. We felt that we had seen enough lakes, dry desert and rock formations lately and we just wanted a rest. We relaxed at the hotel, ate some nice foods and wandered through the streets. We especially enjoyed the warmth (20-25°C) as for the past 2-3 weeks we had been at high altitude with strong, cold winds and low temperatures. Repeatedly we woke up with ice on the inside of the windows. We had seen and done some great things but it was also hard! If you’re a creature of comfort, van life may not be for you. We also gave everything a thorough clean as since Oruru the whole area had been dry and dusty, so especially with the strong winds, everything was covered in sand. After San Pedro de Atacama we felt ready for the rest of Chile, you’ll be able to read about that in our September blog.

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