A Travellerspoint blog

Going down the mine in Potosí


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A few days later, I found myself on another night bus (I stopped counting) to a city further south called Potosí. Potosí is actually, as the Bolivians claim, the highest city on earth, at approximatively 4070 meters above the sea level and classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But that is not the main reason why one should visit this place. Potosí is also known for its mining activity and particularly silver mining.

Hundreds of years ago, Potosí used to be the richest city in the world, extracting silver from the Cerro Rico mountain and providing the whole America and also Europe with silver coins. The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain, which proved to be the world's more lucrative. Under the influence of Spaniards, millions of indigenous people and imported African slaves labourers were conscripted to work in the mines in very poor conditions, and millions of death occurred.

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Nowadays there is still a bit of silver waiting to be extracted but also other minerals. The problem here in Bolivia being that there is no industry to process these minerals, which means that everything is being sent abroad, therefore creating a loss of revenue for Bolivia. The current Bolivian president, Evo Morales, although having a good reputation abroad and with the Bolivian farmers (he used to be one) is now not very well seen from all the miners as promises were made during the electoral period but as often, nothing was being done to help the mining industry. This is one of the reasons there are often strikes in Bolivia (and generally in whole South America) to protest for better working conditions.

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In Potosí then it is possible to visit these mines and it's an experience not to be missed. So I took my helmet and prepared myself to scramble and crawl in low, narrow, dirty shafts and climb rickety ladders... I could actually meet real miners and realised that the working conditions have not improved by much since hundreds of years ago... Work is done mainly by hand with basic tools, and underground temperatures vary from below freezing to almost 45 °C. Miners, often exposed to several noxious chemicals, often die of silicosis pneumonia after 40-50 years old. But all of the miners I met (and I was being told it is the same for the rest of them) are really proud of their work and what they are accomplishing. It's probably one of the hardest job on earth but also can be really rewarding. They work the mine as a cooperative venture, with each miner milking his own claim and selling his ore to a smelter through the cooperative.

Actually one of the first thing you have to do before entering the mine, is to go to the market and buy some gifts for the miners you meet inside the mine. Gifts are usually coca leaves (which help to reduce fatigue, hunger and cold), soft drinks, cigarettes and even dynamite!!! Yes you have read well: it is totally possible (and legal?) to buy dynamite in the local market!!! I didn't buy any though nor seen any miner using it but I heard of tours where guides actually let you try it...

Anyway this was one of the most interesting tour I had done recently and if you are thinking of heading off to Potosí one day, I highly recommend the tour agency Big Deal Tours, run exclusively by ex-miners who were tired of other agencies organising tours and claiming to give a percentage of the price paid by the tourists back to the miners whilst actually they weren't. So here is the link to their agency: bigdealtours.blogspot.com

Factory where the minerals are being separated from the dirt and rocks

Factory where the minerals are being separated from the dirt and rocks


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El Cerro Rico, the silver moutain

El Cerro Rico, the silver moutain


Wagons used in the mines

Wagons used in the mines


Let's go inside!

Let's go inside!


Our guide Pedro, also an ex-miner

Our guide Pedro, also an ex-miner


Miners having a short break

Miners having a short break


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I think I would have fractured my head at least 10 times if I didn't have this helmet...

I think I would have fractured my head at least 10 times if I didn't have this helmet...


Wheel system which would be used to stamp the silver coins

Wheel system which would be used to stamp the silver coins

Posted by manolo84 05:49 Archived in Bolivia Tagged cities english mines Comments (2)

The deadly La Paz


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I don't know why but by coming to La Paz I had already some expectations and was sure I was going to like this city, the highest capital in the world, at an altitude of 3,650 meters. Unfortunately, instead of a charming city with tiny streets and market places, I was faced with noise, pollution and crowds like all the other world's capitals. Actually the pollution level is quite impressive here as there is a lot of traffic, especially buses, and as the city is built on the sides of the surrounding mountains, the cars and buses release a lot of exhaust fumes when going up.

But La Paz is not worse or better than the others really, it's just that maybe I had heard or read somewhere that it was a good place to spend some time. And to be fair, I have never been particularly attracted to big cities and also did not want to more than a few days so probably with another mindset, the city could have been more attractive, as many travellers I met afterwards told me it had been for them.

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These lama foetuses are supposed to be offered to the Inca gods...

These lama foetuses are supposed to be offered to the Inca gods...

Anyway as soon as we arrived in the city, we decided with some friends to book a bike tour to the "Death Road" directly the next day. Time now was running short and in order to be able to visit all the cities I had planned to until my flight to New Zealand in December, I almost couldn't afford to spend some days doing nothing.

The Death Road, like its name states, is a very dangerous mountain road which has seen an incredible number of deaths over the years because of its really narrow size and steep edges. Nowadays the Bolivian government has built a new road, on the other side of the mountain, wider and safer, and the old road is mainly used by tour agencies to organise bike tours from the top to the bottom of that road - 62km... There is no asphalt here and you start in the clouds with a more or less good bike with suspensions. The road can effectively be dangerous as there is almost no safety barriers but I'd say that it is mainly down to your speed. If you decide to go down like a snail, then you could wonder why people call it the Death Road. However if you decide to down that road like a rocket, using your brakes at the minimum, then yes, the danger is real... But it's a lot more fun that way!!! Anyway no incidents to report that day (I think the last death here had been in 2011) but only good sensations. It is also incredible to start above 4000 meters with almost freezing temperatures to end up a few hours later sweating a lot with 25-30 degrees and finishing the tour by swimming in the river! :)

This would be the only tour I would do near La Paz and would spend the next days planning my next month in South America and strolling around the markets in the capital, without forgetting a memorable Halloween party!

Starting among the clouds...

Starting among the clouds...


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The road has nearly no space for overtaking or crossing another car...

The road has nearly no space for overtaking or crossing another car...


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Posted by manolo84 11:34 Archived in Bolivia Tagged cities roads english biking Comments (0)

The infamous lake Titicaca

and Copacabana...


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Lake Titicaca is a place everybody has heard of, though maybe not as many people could locate it on a map. Located then just at the border between Peru and Bolivia, this majestic site is considered the world's largest high-altitude lake, covering 8400 square km and at an altitude of 3808m. The lake is also supposedly the legendary Inca creation site, with the Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side, the birthplace of the Sun in the Inca mythology.

I would have wished to cross the border and arrive a few days earlier in Copacabana, in Bolivia, but a strike in Puno (Peru) prevented me to do so for a few days as the only road leading to Bolivia was blocked. Apparently the Peruvian miners were contesting new laws introduced by the government against illegal mining. Fortunately the strike stopped for the weekend and buses were allowed to go through and this is how I ended up spending one night in Puno, then crossing the border and reaching Copacabana the following day.

Because Bolivia doesn't have access to the ocean, Copacabana, located a few hours away from the capital La Paz, is the prime destination for Bolivianos who come here to enjoy the fantastic views of the lake and get some tan (or sunburns as the combination of the lake's sun reflection and the altitude doesn't forgive...).

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And on the lake, two hours away by boat, lies the Islas del Sol and de la Luna, where as I already said the Inca mythology comes from. It was here that the bearded white god Viracocha and the first Incas, Manco Capac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo, made their mystical appearances. The Isla del Sol is actually quite small as within a few hours you can cross it from north to south but landscape is nice and the villages there have a few hostels, hence my decision to spend a night on the island, which actually allowed me to catch up totally by luck with friends I had met a few weeks ago... The world is small and the tourist trail often the same...

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The inca path linked the south and north parts of the island

The inca path linked the south and north parts of the island


El Jaguar...

El Jaguar...


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Rémi and Edu snapping....

Rémi and Edu snapping....


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Posted by manolo84 20:17 Archived in Bolivia Tagged lakes islands english treks Comments (1)

Arequipa and the Colca cañon


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One city I hadn't had the chance the visit when I first travelled to Peru two years ago was the colonial town of Arequipa, located near Cuzco and not too far from the Bolivian and Chilean borders. The city actually reminds a bit of Antigua in Guatemala, as it is surrounded by a perfectly cone-shaped volcano, El Misti (5822m), and others called Chachani (6075m) and Pichu Pichu (5571m). The town doesn't lack charm, as you can attest by looking at the pictures below, but is also a good place for several activities like trekking, mountain climbing, rafting, etc...

Arequipa's main square with the cathedral

Arequipa's main square with the cathedral


Pigeons (picture with drawing effect)

Pigeons (picture with drawing effect)


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Volcanoes in the background

Volcanoes in the background


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The volcano El Misti

The volcano El Misti


First time doing rafting in my life, it's quite fun!

First time doing rafting in my life, it's quite fun!

  • Cañon del Colca

One of the world's deepest canyons at 3191m, Colca ranks second only to neighbouring Cañon del Cotohuasi, which is 163m deeper. There are several trails around and into this canyon ranging from one to several days treks and I decided with other people met in my hostel to go down and sleep overnight inside the canyon in one of the "oasis" and to get back up the next day. I have never been to the Great Canyon in the United States so obviously cannot compare the two places but Colca canyon is definitely impressive with peaks higher than 6000m surrounding it.

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Condors circling around in the canyon...

Condors circling around in the canyon...


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An oasis down in the canyon where we'd spend the night

An oasis down in the canyon where we'd spend the night


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Serious picture with Mike, Dave, Jacek and Jolijn...

Serious picture with Mike, Dave, Jacek and Jolijn...


Then crazy one! <img class='img' src='http://www.travellerspoint.com/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Then crazy one! :)


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El Misti and other volcanoes in the background

El Misti and other volcanoes in the background

Posted by manolo84 04:01 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains cities nature volcanoes canyons english Comments (1)

The mysterious Nazca lines...


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After Huacachina, my plan was to go straight to Arequipa in the south of the country. However, in between the two locations lies Nazca, a desert-scorched town and its famous mysterious "lines". For those who have never heard or seen the Nazca lines on documentaries, it is believed that the lines, which can only been seen and fully appreciated from a plane, are more than two thousand years old and represent complex and weird geometrical figures. Nowadays we know how these lines have been created, by removing the sun-darkened stones from the desert surface to expose the lighter soil below, but no one exactly know for which purpose they exist nor by who they were created.

The lines were first discovered in 1939 by an American scientist -Paul Kosok- when performing a routing ancient-irrigation research flight in the area and since then they have been the subject of numerous theories. Some scientists believe that the lines have been made by the Paracas and Nazca cultures from 900 BC to AD 600 with additions of the Wari in the 7th century, as an astronomical calendar mapped out by sophisticated mathematics. Others believe that the lines were ritual walkways leading or connected to water, or even that they represent extraterrestrial landing sites... One thing is sure, no one really knows....

I wasn't going to let this opportunity to miss seeing this mysterious lines from closer so I decided to jump on a plane and to figure out by myself...

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The flight map

The flight map


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Nazca lines - Astronaut

Nazca lines - Astronaut


Nazca lines - Colibri

Nazca lines - Colibri


Nazca lines - Dog

Nazca lines - Dog


Nazca lines - Hands and Tree

Nazca lines - Hands and Tree


Nazca lines - Monkey

Nazca lines - Monkey


Nazca lines - Spider

Nazca lines - Spider


Nazca lines - Whale

Nazca lines - Whale

Posted by manolo84 11:45 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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