by Cassie, September 14th, 2011 | No Comments

Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4070 meters. The reason for its location is the mountain Cerro Rico, Rich Mountain, which was the richest silver mine in the world during colonial times. Now, most of the silver has been mined, and almost all of it was exported to Spain to finance their wars.

We took a tour of the mines with the agency, Real Deal Tours. The tour was very interesting, but it is definitely something you only need to do once in a lifetime. The Real Deal Tours is a new company that was formed by ex-miners that used to work for the other tour agencies in Potosi. However, they were tired of the corruption of the other agencies, so they decided to form their own agency. The other agencies say that they give 10% of their profits to the miners, but most of the time, this didn´t happen. Also, before entering the mines, the tours stop at the miner´s market where the tourists can buy gifts for the miners. However, the other agencies would take their tourists to shops that they owned, and they charged higher prices than the other shops in the market where the miners actually buy their materials for working the mine.

The miners work independently in cooperatives, so they must buy all their own materials themselves. This means that anyone can buy dynamite in the miner´s market in Potosi. Totally crazy! We bought a stick of dynamite as a gift for the miners, but it was unnerving to carry it in a bag on our backs throughout the mines until we finally gave it to one of the miners. The other main supplies for the miners are coca leaves, which they chew all day to suppress their appetite and to help cope with the difficult conditions in the mine. All the miners we saw had a ¨picchu¨, the Quechua word for mountain, of coca in the cheek. The other main supply for the miners is alcohol that is 96% proof, and it is almost like rubbing alcohol. It seems crazy that the miners are consuming drugs all day in the mine while they are using dynamite.

The conditions of the mines are horrendous. We spent two hours in the mines, and I can´t imagine spending 10-12 hours in the mines like the miners do. As we entered the mines, there was an electrical line running along the ceiling of the shaft, but our guide told us not to touch because it was live. There were also pipes carrying compressed air throughout the mine shafts to operate the equipment to drill holes for the dynamite. Our guide told us not to touch these either because they might be connected to the live electrical line. Then, our guide said that it would be better not to touch anything. Once inside the mines, it was really dark and muddy, and it was very difficult to breathe due to poor ventilation. As we descended, the air became warmer. The mountain is actually a volcano, so it gets very warm the farther you descend. Deep underneath the mountain, it gets so hot that the miners actually work without any clothes on, but we didn´t go there fortunately.

Once inside the mines, we stopped at clay figure of El Tío, the god of the mines who owns the minerals. We stopped to give a challa or offering of coca leaves and alcohol to the god for our safe passage through the mines. Apparently, we did not anger El Tío because we made it through the mines safely. It was amazing we made it through safely because there were so many accidents waiting to happen. Some of the beams that were holding up the shafts were broken. There was a lot of sulphur in the mines, and at one point we walked through a large pool of water. Our guide told us to walk slowly and not to splash the water into our eyes because it was acidic. Finally, I felt the air becoming fresher and colder, and I knew we were getting close to the top. Then, I saw some sunlight, and I was so happy to be out of the mines!

It was crazy to visit the mines after reading so much about them in my Latin American Studies classes. The Spaniards forced the indigenous people to work in the mines, and many indigenous people died due to the horrendous conditions in the mines. It is estimated that 8 million people died in the mines. The Spaniards would keep the indigenous slaves working in the mines non-stop for four months. When the indigenous slaves emerged from the mines, they had to cover their eyes since they were unused to sunlight.

The mines today are still very dangerous, but there are surprisingly few deaths per year. Only about 22 people per year die in mining accidents, but many more die due to lung disease from the silicone dust. Many boys start working at the mines at an early age, 10 to 13 years old. Our guide began working in the mines with his father when he was only 10 years old. However, our guide said that child labor is the mines is less now than it used to be.

After visiting the mines, we went to soccer game at the highest soccer field in the world. The Potosi team was playing the Santa Cruz team from the lowlands, so it wasn´t a fair match. The Potosi team won 5-0 since they had much more energy than the Santa Cruz team at the high altitude and dominated the game.

The next day, we visited the Casa de la Moneda, where all the silver from Cerro Rico was made into coins and ingots to be sent to Spain. It was a huge building with lots of well-preserved machines that were used for making coins. This was another place where indigenous slaves were forced to work, and the worst place was the ovens where they melted down the silver. Since there are no trees around Potosi, they had to use the pampa grasses and llama dung to heat the ovens, but this didn´t get the fire hot enough to melt the metal. So, they had slaves operating bellows to increase the temperature of the fire. This was difficult, hot labor, and the slaves did not last long in the job. The Casa de la Moneda also had several enormous machines for pressing the silver into sheets for making coins. They used mules to power the machines, and the mules didn´t last very long with this work either. They only  survived about 3-6 months, so they had to import thousands of mules from all over to power the machines.

Because Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world during the colonial period, there are many colonial era buildings, and there are many parts of the city that are very charming for walking. There is a pedestrian area near the central plaza that reminded us of places we visited in Europe. We enjoyed our trip to Potosi, and we´re very glad it worked it to go there on our second trip to Bolivia.

Uyuni Train Cemetary

by Cassie, September 14th, 2011 | No Comments

We finished our tour of southwest Bolivia in Uyuni, which is a military outpost on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. Now, it seems that Uyuni´s main purpose is tourism. There are currently 80 agencies and counting that offer tours to the salt flats. But, other than arranging your tour of the salt flats, there isn´t much else to do in Uyuni. The main attraction besides the local museum is the train cemetary consisting of a bunch of rusting trains just outside town. Some of the trains are very old, and they have steam engines that date from the 1930s and earlier. The trains are also covered in graffiti, and some of the graffiti is very high class with physics equations from Einstein and Newton. Some of the other graffiti is not so intellectual saying that a certain tour company sucks. It is surprising that these trains are left there to rust since the metal from the trains would be worth a lot of money if it was recycled.

Intellectual graffiti of a physics equation from Einstein

Bolivia Southwest Circuit Tour

by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

We went on an amazing four day tour of southwest Bolivia! We traveled through an incredible variety of scenery. We started in Tupiza, which has landscapes similar to the southwest of the US.

El Sillar outside Tupiza

On the second day of the tour, we began entering the salt flats. However, the first salt flat consisted of borax, not salt. The borax was being harvested for export to Chile where they use it for manufacturing porcelein.

Laguna Hedienda, which means lake that smells because of the sulfur


Laguna Verde and Volcan Licanabur

Laguna Verde is the beautiful green color due to the minerals in the water. However, the water is toxic, so you cannot drink it. Volcan Lincanbur is one of the highest mountains in Bolivia at 5,890 meters.

Geysers at almost 5,000 meters

These geysers are part of a volcanic system, and the smell of sulfur pervades the air around the geysers. Some of the geysers are pools of bubbling mud, and it is mesmerizing to watch, similar to a lava lamp.

Laguna Colorada with lots of flamingos

Laguna Colorada is a red color due to the algae in the water. The lake is full of flamingos! Normally, you associate flamingos with warm, tropical climates, but these are high altitude flamingos that are adapted to the cold weather. When we drove by Laguna Colorada the next morning, it was partially iced over!

Arbol de Piedra: Tree of Stone

The Arbol de Pierdra is next to a bunch of volcanic rocks. The Arbol de Piedra has eroded so much at the bottom that it is amazing that it is still standing. We got to climb on the other rocks, but it was not allowed to climb on the Arbol de Piedra. 🙂

Lake with lots of flamingos!


High altitude flamingos!

On the third day of the tour, we stopped at a few lakes, and each one of them had lots of flamingos!

On the final day of the tour, we got up early to watch the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni from the Isla Incahuasi. The sunrise was beautiful, and the salt flats seemed like a big white sea.

Sunrise at Isla Incahuasi

Gigantic cactus at Isla Incahuasi

Isla Incahuasi used to be a coral reef in the ancient sea that covered the Salar de Uyuni. Now, it is covered in gigantic cacti. The current largest cactus is 9 meters tall, and it is 900 years old. The previous largest cactus died in 2007, and it was 12 meters tall and over 1200 years old!

Crazy photos on the Salar de Uyuni

With the white of the Salar de Uyuni, you can take crazy photos where the perspective is totally unreal! We had an amazing time our our tour of southwest Bolivia! Check out the rest of the photos!



by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

Tupiza is in the far south of Bolivia near the border with Argentina, and the landscape is similar to the southwest of the US. Tupiza also has cacti that are similar to the Saguaro cacti in the Sonora Desert in Arizon and Mexico. Nearby Tupiza is the town of San Vincente, and this where the famous train robbers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were finally cornered and killed by Bolivian soldiers. We spent a couple days in Tupiza arranging our tour of the salt flats, and we hiked through a canyon outside the city. Our hotel had a pool, and in the afternoon, the temperature was perfect for a swim!


Train from Oruro to Tupiza

by Cassie, September 10th, 2011 | No Comments

After our third try, we finally made it on the train from Oruro to Tupiza! Last year, the train was shut down by the road blockages from the border conflict between Oruro and Potosi. We also tried to go to Oruro from La Paz the previous Friday, but there was an auto race that shut down the roads. But, we finally made it by bus to Oruro, and we bought our train tickets to Tupiza. However, trains in Bolivia were not as nice as we expected. The train car was supposed to be heated, but there was no climate control at all. We boarded the train in the afternoon, and it was stifling hot in the car. At night, as we crossed the Altiplano, it was freezing cold in the train car. The experience on the Bolivian train made me appreciate Amtrak for all its problems. And, I have been on an Amtrak train when the engine broke down and passed by an Amtrak train crash on my way out of Chicago. When we finally arrived in Tupiza at 4am, we were really ready to get off the train and get warmed up. But, we made it to Tupiza, and it is the farthest south we have ever been!

View from train of Lake Poopos south of Oruro, and there were flamingos in the lake!

We finally arrived in Tupiza at 4am!

Bike Ride down World´s Most Dangerous Road

by Cassie, September 1st, 2011 | No Comments

We had a lot of fun biking down the World´s Most Dangerous Road! The road got its title because about 300 people per year died driving along the road, and as a result, they built a newer road between La Paz and Coroico to prevent road deaths. It would definitely be scary to drive along the road, but it is a lot of fun to ride down the road on the bike. There are sharp curves with steep cliffs on the edge of the road. The scenery is beautiful starting in the snow covered mountains and descending 3,500 meters to end in the jungle. Since the new road has been constructed, there is barely any traffic on the old road, so it was safe to ride down on a bike. In fact, most of the traffic on the road now is tourists riding bikes. We only encountered two vehicles while we were riding down the road. We ended the ride in Coroico, and we spent a day relaxing at a lovely campsite there.

Starting the bike ride in the high mountains

World´s Most Dangerous Road winding its way down the mountains

Our taxi from Yolosa to Coroico broke down right before we got to town. The car made a horrible noise and stopped running, and then, it wouldn´t start again. It wasn´t too big of a deal, and we just hiked the remaining way to Coroico.

Relaxing at our lovely campsite in Coroico with WiFi!

View of the Yungas mountains