The road to Potosi has been paved recently and the southern road is definitely being prepared for it as well. So far Bolivia has been the country with the worst roads, but it seems there are serious actions being taken to improve the infrastructure. Not just the roads. In every city we pass through, even the small ones, there are lots of half finished houses. Some being worked on, some not. We cannot determine if there is a boom in the building sector or if the half finished houses are remnants of a boom that never came, and in two years they will still be there, taken over by animals and plants.
After the 200km of demanding gravel road driving to Uyuni the perfectly smooth road to Potosi is a welcome change. I do find myself missing my bike again as it is a 200km twisty bonanza. C’est la vie.
Upon leaving Uyuni we pass the checkpoint where we pay 10 Bolivianos and get our little piece of paper to be stamped at the following checkpoints. We have quite a giggle about that. Given the extent of the work needed to construct a road like this, it is totally acceptable to pay a toll. It is the way it is administered we find a little funny to say the least. At this first checkpoint we are asked how far we are going. We say Potosi, pay 10 Bs and get a receipt. You would think we could then go to Potosi before the next checkpoint, but that’s not how it works. Twice on route we pass other checkpoints where we simply show the receipt and then get a stamp on it.
Ok, move on.
On the long section from Santa Cruz to Tupiza we at some point had so many stamps on our receipt, we started wondering where they would put the next only to see the next checkpoint cut a hole instead of stamping. After that we decided to get a game going. When we arrived at a checkpoint we would bet on “stamp” or “cut” only to once again be cheated as we watched the attendant attach another piece of paper (without having to pay extra) which was then subsequently stamped and cut accordingly. By now we have quite a collection of various receipt with random holes and stamps on them. Definitely a job creation project of some sorts.
On the positive side we never had any problems at the checkpoints. Contrary to Lorraine’s experiences in Russia where she was simply pulled over and had to pay made up tolls or fines, all the Bolivian checkpoints are official and there have never been any issues or corruption to be paid. Even at the ones where we had to show a drivers licence as well, the Swiss one worked fine. We both had international drivers licences made beforehand, but no one seems to be interested. They study the Swiss licence a bit and look at the pictograms and then go “ok” and that’s it.
At an average of 4050m Potosi is one of the highest located cities in the world. I say average as it is located on a very hilly section of the mountain. The roads are quite steep and also quite narrow. The little engine in the Suzuki is clearly short of breath as are its passengers.
Some of the narrow streets our little Suzuki had to navigate.
I’ve put my bike in many a hostel or hotel foyer while travelling but this is a first for our car.
The Bolivian ladies still wear traditional skirts and hats with the traditional blankets wrapped up and hung over their shoulders. These are mostly used to carry babies in but often other good.
At this altitude just walking to a store and back gets me gasping for air and I apply the simple principle of walking at half pace than normal. Takes a little longer, but keeps me from getting exhausted. Potosi has an interesting history. The city is located at the base of a mountain named Cerro Rico also known as “the rich mountain” as it contains the largest single deposit of silver ore known to mankind which is also the reason why the city exists at all.
In the colonial days the silver mined in Potosi was the largest single source of wealth for the Spanish empire. We get the entire story about how it was mined, processed and minted into coins at the colonial mint, which is now a museum. One of the best I have ever visited. The guide has obviously done his homework and explains in perfect English how complex the whole process actually was. Just as an example the presses used to press the values onto the coins were designed and built in Austria before being shipped on galleons across the Atlantic and then carried on mules or lamas more than 2000kms from Buenos Aires to Potosi. Horses apparently have problems coping with the altitude. There are samples of original silver coins, tools and scales from back then and lots more very interesting items on display. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area. If you are interested in architecture the building alone is worth a visit. It is stunning.
One of the original presses used to press the silver plates that then go to the coin presses
The mine is still in use today and two days later we met a German geologist, Anton, who had done a tour of the mine two days before we arrived. He was appalled by the conditions in the mine and the complete lack of overall coordination. Each team of miners is simply given a target quota and can then start blasting where ever they feel fit. The result is not surprisingly frequent cave-ins which have resulted in the mountain also being known as “The mountain that eats men”. It is normal practice to bring gifts to the miners if visiting. Preferred is alcohol or dynamite. Potosi must be the only place in the world where you can go to a kiosk and buy an ice-cream, a cold drink, a bag of unprocessed coca leaves and a stick of dynamite.
As for the coca leaves they were also available at the hotel as part of the breakfast buffet. They help cope with the altitude and no, you don’t get high from chewing them. They actually work and the tea is quite tasty to boot. The coca leaves tea is available everywhere on the Altiplana and we consider bringing some home with us as more of a novelty really, but decide against it. Not all custom officials may find it amusing.
Since it was Christmas time in Potosi the city square was very well decorated. It was fantastic to see the effort put into Christmas in Bolivia, the decorations and the donations to the poor. We came across queues and queues of people lined up to get Christmas gifts for their children from the local charities. It made us think about how these kids would probably cherish this one gift for the entire year, compared to many kids we know who would receive so many gifts they wouldn’t even remember who they were from.
I felt more sorry for the old or crippled people in Bolivia who seem neglected. Everyone gives to the cute kids.
The St Francis monastery
Dead baby lamas in the local market (not sure what they are for)