Potosí & Uyuni, Bolivia

The trip to Potosí took five hours, quite a long trip for a distance of what looks like a stone’s throw on a map.  My bus arrived at a nice, new, modern (quite a step up compared to Sucre) bus station at 6:30pm.

Out front of the bus station I caught a ride in a collectivo with a taxista of about 60 who turned out to be perhaps the most disgruntled South American I’ve yet encountered.  Just giving the address was unnerving as he barked at me until he understood.  I wanted to get out and find another taxi, but my bags were already in the trunk.  During the ride, he honked at and cursed out nearly every other driver and pedestrian he came across.  The ride took place at rush hour, making it slow and painful.  Along the way he picked up two other passengers both headed to the main plaza.  They each decided to get out early to walk the rest of the way after realizing they’d gotten in el taxi del diablo.

Finally, the driver announced we had arrived.  To my horror, I realized he had misunderstood me or made a mistake, and we were eight blocks from the correct address.  I stated the correct address, and he growled as he realized the error, “Ya pasamos por alla!” (We already passed by there!).  He turned around and drove me eight blocks uphill in the opposite direction without too much protest.  I thought I was going to get chewed out way worse, but I think it was actually his error.  Or maybe he just wanted to get paid in full.

At a bit after 7pm, I checked into The Koala’s Den Hostel.  I dropped my things and then headed out to explore.

Potosí is a small city in the south central of Bolivia.  It’s another arid, cold, high altitude (4100m) city common in this part of the country.  It is a mining town.  That’s about all that goes on here.  It lies at the foot of Cerro de Potosí (aka Cerro de Plata, Cerro Rico), a mountain filled with silver, tin, copper, zinc, and a host of other minerals that has been continuously mined since the 1500’s.  Historically, it was a super-rich city thanks to the prolific mine, but eventually all the wealth relocated to the nearby capital city of Sucre leaving behind little more than a silver extraction site for the Spanish crown.  Most travelers use Potosí as a stopover or jumping off point for other destinations in the region.

There were a few pedestrian streets with many shops and restaurants, but I didn’t encounter anything like the gourmet cuisine available in Cochabamba and Sucre.  I found a decent enough looking place, Café a la Plata, on the main plaza, and had a bowl of consomé and turkey sandwich.

I bought some chocolate (mountain food) and headed home to hang in the living room with a few French (sooo fucken many French people in Bolivia, what’s the deal with that?) before the cold forced us into bed.

The next morning, I signed up for a tour of the mine.  Mining and geology is something that I’ve been interested in for years.  During 2013-2015, I bought what I considered to be hugely undervalued shares in precious metals mining companies.  In the course of doing so, I realized how much geology is involved in resource investing and mining.  Especially when speculating on ‘junior’ miners, or companies with little more than a stake of land that they believe contains troves of minerals.  Then there’s the different processes of taking the minerals out of the land.  I read a lot about the mining industry, but always wondered about a lot of what was described.  Naturally, I was excited to see a mine in person.

The tour van picked me up at 9am, and took me and nine other compadres to a house where we changed into our gear.  This included full body jumpsuits, rubber boots, bandanas, and a belt with battery-pack connected to a helmet with a light.  Then we were carted to the miners’ market where we bought gifts for the miners: water, soda, coca leaves, 96% alcohol, dynamite, and fuses.  Finally, we were driven 30 minutes outside of the city and up several switchbacks to arrive at the entrance to the mine about halfway up Cerro de Potosí.

The miners are an interesting bunch.  Many travelers boycott going on the mine tours, or say bad things about the tour afterwards, because they believe the miners are being exploited.  From what our guide told us, that’s pretty much the opposite of the truth.  The mines in Bolivia are nationalized, and the miners work their out of self-interest.  The miners earn a relatively high wage for Bolivia.  In fact, they’re Bolivian ballers.  That said, the life span of a miner is short.  Working underground, breathing dust all day gives them respiration problems.  Plus, the risk of cave-ins, landslides, dynamite mishaps, etc. and most miners don’t make it to 60.  Still, they feel the reward is worth the risks and work there voluntarily (and they make sure to live it up in the meantime).

Miners work in small teams, usually with friends, and decide their own working hours.  The teams decide where they want to work inside the mine, and stake out their territory to work on a particular site for months or years at a time.  The miners get paid based on how much they produce—the more silver and other minerals they find, the more they make.  A mining team working 40-50 hours a week, on average makes ~2x the average Bolivian salary.  However, if they find a particularly rich vein of minerals, they can make enough to retire after only a short time.  Similarly, if they choose a poor site, they may not find much silver.  (Joke/riddle among miners: Q: “Where is the gold located?” A: “The gold is where you find it.”)  As such, there is significant element of luck in mining.

Accordingly, the miners worship the spirit of the underworld, ‘El Tio’.  This is essentially a devil-like spirit of the underworld.  Doing so provides both protection while underground in the mine and rich yields.  Something I thought was an oddity among the miners turned out to be explained by El Tio: the miners consume 96% pure grain alcohol.  The superstition is the purer the alcohol they drink, the purer the minerals El Tio will grant them.  There are several makeshift statues of the horned, goat-headed deity complete with big erection (a very important part of El Tio (fertility), according to our guide), and surrounded by decorations and offerings of alcohol, coca leaves, cigarettes, joints, etc.  The miners visit the statues and share a cigarette or drink every day before work.

The miners live by the ethos ‘work hard, play hard’.  Every other Friday, the miners have a big fiesta on the mountain.  They get their bulk material assayed and paid for the minerals.  Once they get the cash, they ball out with a LOT of partying and copulation taking place (it’s not uncommon for a miner to have 3 or 4 wives, and 12 children).

The tour into the mines was super cool.  It turned out to be one of my favorite tours I’ve taken on my trip.  We went underground for about 2.5 hours.  Once underground, tunnels branch off in a maze of chutes and ladders.  We descended through narrow passages, climbed up through dynamite rendered apertures, inched across planks over 40m deep holes, and crawled through fox holes.  Along the way, we stopped to talk to the various teams of miners we encountered in the mines.  Our guide would interview them, and translate any questions we had.  Though the work is hard drudgery, the miners seemed to stay in good spirits by joking and horsing around a lot.  Afterwards, we’d give the miners ‘gifts’ we’d purchased in the miners’ market for being good sports and enlightening us about their lives and their craft.

After the 2.5 hours underground, I was quite ready to get back to the outside.  Just navigating the innards of the mine, let alone swinging pick-axes all day, was tiring.  When we emerged from the tunnel, I was covered head to toe in a thick coat of dust.  I had to give my beard a rubbing to remove all the shit.

Once outside, I empathized with the miners.  I was ready for a cigarette and a drink.  Luckily, there was a group of miners that had taken the day off partying near the barracks.  They were already drunk at 1pm (that day it was the second Friday of the month).  They were happy to share a cig and some grain alcohol mixed with a splash of lemonade with me, and watch in glee and laugh as I made a face when taking it down.  They were blown away an American wanted to drink with them.  They wanted to ask me several questions, but I was having extreme difficulty understanding them.  I kept having to ask them to repeat themselves, “Como??”  “Otro vez?”  The guide explained they were speaking a local mix of Spanish and Aymara, a language of the Andean indigenous in Bolivia.  OoOhhh.  Anyways, it was cool to knock one back with the miners.

Back at the hostel, I took a well-needed hot shower.  I ate a light lunch, then chilled on the couch reading with the housecat on my lap before I dozed off.  I wouldn’t make it as a miner.

After I woke up, I headed out in the late afternoon to explore a bit more.  After 20 minutes of wandering, I felt like I’d explored almost the entire city and settled on a park bench in the main plaza to read until sundown.

In the evening, I wandered the streets looking for a nice place to eat, eventually finding La Trufa Negra, one of the few upscale restaurants in town.  I had an excellent bacon wrapped filet mignon and some wine.  The tab came to ~10 USD.  Nice.

The next morning, I packed up and took a taxi to the bus station.  I arrived at the bus station and enquired about tickets to Uyuni, only to be told buses to Uyuni depart from the other, ‘old’ bus station.  I headed back out front and caught another taxi to the ‘La Estacion Vieja’.

Halfway, the taxi started sputtering and died briefly.  The taxista restarted it and drove another few blocks, before the taxi died again.  The taxista popped the hood and went to work, but five minutes later he still couldn’t get the ignition to turn over.  He told me the bus station was only another three blocks ahead.  I took my bags and gave him half the prior agreed upon fare, “Por la esfuerza.” 

The three blocks turned out to be about 10, including some 200m straight up a big hill.  At the bus station, I only had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus to Uyuni.

The ride took about five hours, and I arrived at 3:15pm.  I stepped off the bus to be mobbed by people handing me flyers and trying to sell me various tour packages of the salt flats.

Uyuni is a small pueblo in southwestern Bolivia.  It comes out of nowhere, lying at the northern head of the flatlands as you descend from the Andes.  Every day, clear blue skies make it sunny and warm for a few hours around noon, but it returns to freezing cold as soon as the sun sets.  The place is entirely unremarkable: arid, all one or two-story concrete and cinderblock houses, dusty dirt roads, nothing of significance to see in the town except a few small parks and playgrounds.  And stray dogs and roaming llamas.  However, just outside of town lies the Salar de Uyuni, or the Bolivian Salt Flats.  Every traveler who passes through Uyuni is there for the salt flats.

“Ya tengo tura! Ya tengo tura!” (I already have a tour!) I repeated to all the people badgering me as I got my backpack from the luggage compartment.  I didn’t have a tour booked, but they were coming on too strong.  I just wanted to find a hostel and get settled for a moment before making any decisions about booking a tour.

I found Bunker Hostel a few blocks from the bus stop on the main street in town.  I headed to various tour agencies in town, and after stopping at four different places, realized all the tours are essentially the same.  Only minor details are different between the various tour companies.  You’re essentially just negotiating price.  And deciding who to give your business to.  I gave my business to a sweet lady at Tours Mary.  She was the agent who was kindest to me and didn’t just treat me like a walking dollar sign.  She gave me a good price too: 750 Bolivianos, or ~$110, including a transfer to Chile at the end.  The two-night, three-day tour was to leave at 10:30 the next morning.

In the evening, I went out to eat at Minuteman Pizza with an Australian girl and British guy with whom I was sharing a dorm.  I had a spicy llama pizza, which was actually good (this place had a brick oven), and a couple beers.

After dinner, I broke off from the other two to get supplies for the tour.

The next morning, I met the rest of the group for my salt flat tour.  There was Evan (23, Pennsylvania), Carlo and Julia (24, Germany), and Jonas and Elizabeth (32, Belgium).  Plus, our Bolivian guide, Alex.  The tour is basically piling into a Toyota Landcruiser, or other such 4×4, then driving southwest over some pretty gnarly terrain for six hours per day, enjoying the Bolivian countryside and stopping at various sites along the way.  As such, the group and I would all become good buddies along the way.

The first day, we stopped at graveyard for trains just outside of town.

Then we went to the Salar de Uyuni.  It’s incredible.  The vastness of the salt flats is something like being in the open ocean or high in a mountain range—it makes you feel small, insignificant.  Sublime.

We stopped at a lodge made of salt, the home base for the long distance, marathon Dakar rally races held on the salt flats, to have lunch.  Having a fast motorcycle or suped-up dune buggy to rip around on in the salt flats would be awesome.

Dakar Rally race. I imagine it something like the desert race in Fear and Loathing in LV.

Then we set out for more salt flats exploration.

Julia, me, Carlo, Evan, Liza, Jonas.

We stopped at ‘La Isla’ (Isla Incahuasi), a big, cactus covered rock hill in the middle of the salt flats that looks like an island emerging out of a sea.

Evan had a disc golf driver, so he and I played some super long range frisbee at dusk.

Getting cold!
Playing disc golf with Evan.
Sunset on the slat flat.

After sunset, we headed to a hostel made of salt where we had a lovely chicken dinner and a bottle of wine before turning in.

The next morning, we breakfasted at 6am, and were on the road by 6:45am.  We headed south along the mountain range that forms Bolivia’s western border stopping at several different colored borax lakes along the way.

We also stopped at Arbol de Piedra, a site with huge rocks littering the countryside.

In the late afternoon, we made it to Avaroa Parque National, and stopped at Lago Colorada in the park for sunset.

Laguna Colorada which has a distinct reddish color due to algae.

In the evening, we holed up in a super basico hostel for the night.  We were at an altitude of some 4800m.  Others in the hostel were struggling with the altitude, but I didn’t even notice it.  We had a pasta dinner with a bottle of red wine before it was time to bundle up, fully clothed with hat and gloves in our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning, we woke at 4:15am, breakfasted, and were on the road by 5am.  In the predawn, we stopped at Sol de Mañana, a site with dozens of geysers.

As the sun was rising, we made it to hot springs aside Laguna Verde.  We went through the unpleasant process of disrobing in the freezing dawn before we were rewarded with the soothing pleasure of the volcanic springs.


Finally, we stopped at El Desierto de Dali, named such because it looks like something out of one of Salvador Dali’s paintings.

At 9:30am, we arrived at the border with Chile.  Jonas, Liza, and myself said goodbye to the rest of the group and were left at the border.  It was a quick rubberstamp process to exit Bolivia.  Outside the immigration office, I found my shuttle to Chile.  It was a different shuttle than the Belgians’, so I said goodbye to them as well, loaded into my shuttle, and was on my way into the 11th country of my voyage.

See ya on the other side.  Peace!1
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