Backpacking Potosi

 Back in Patacamaya we spent some time in the towns only internet organising a new shock absorber for the BMW. This time we were leaving both bikes behind and changing our transport mode for buses. Donning backpacks we caught a bus to Oruro and changed there for Potosi. The scenery we were now seeing for the third time! On the last busride a chat with a neighbour led to the discovery that Potosi had been under a blockade for the past two weeks. Mine owners were letting nothing in or out in a bid to dissolve a tax. They had even dynamited the tax building! We had been completely oblivious to this fact - that's what happens when you don't read the papers. We have since discovered that keeping up to date with politics (and fiestas) is an important aspect of travelling in Bolivia what with the popularity of the chaos-causing marches and blockades and the present unhappiness with the Evo Morales government.

So luckily we arrived in Potosi in the aftermath of the fires and the blockades to find a calm and completely gringo free city. Potosi immediately charmed us despite its altitude and the cold. Beautiful colonial buildings lined narrow cobbled roads, numerous historic churchtops gave views over the old city and onto the famous Cerro Rico. New Spain history was everpresent in it's convents, churches and courtyard framing architecture and for these reasons it's also a UNESCO world heritage site. We visited the 'Casa de Moneda' or 'the Mint' which together with Mexico and Peru supplied the most reliable and popular currency in the world for the 17th and 18th centuries. These coins were known as Pieces of Eight (or Reales) with the name deriving from the fact that the coins could be quartered to make smaller bits. Pieces of eight are still closely associated with piracy as many got rich attacking Spanish Galleons loaded with silver returning to Spain (remember the nine pieces of eight in Pirates of the Caribbean?). Also housed in the mint were mummies of children recovered from church crypts which had been preserved by the cool dry air of the altiplano. A section where baroque church altars and mestizo style paintings were being restored further helped create a picture of how life was in Potosi at it's peak. Another integral part of life was catholocism, we visited a convent of the Carmelite nuns and our guide described how devout noble families would send their second daughters to the convent to never see them again. There they had to give up all the luxuries and fineries of their former life outside of the cold convent walls to live an ascetic life.

 You can't come to Potosi without visiting the mines whose now exhausted mineral ores is what the town was built on. Potosi at it's height was bigger than the Paris or even London of those days. Willy, a miner of six years now working in tourism, was our guide. First we stopped off at the market of the 'mineros' where they breakfast, stock up on supplies, tools and coca leaves. There we bought coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to take along and give out to miners on our tour. Incredibly we also bought dynamite, the same stuff they used to blow up the tax building! Inside the mines the shafts were wet, narrow and precarious looking and lower down steaming hot. We were trying out the coca leaf chewing for the first time and it definitely gave us an extra surge of energy for the crawling, climbing and hunched-up walking we were doing at 4000m of altitude.  Our first stop was at 'Tio' a statue of the devil that the miners pay tribute to with coca, cigarettes and alcohol before entering the mine. The subterranean world was his reserve whereas outside it was Pachamama and the Christian church. Willy introduced us to miners and encouraged us to talk to them at times translating from or to Quechua. He tried to give us insight into their lives, beliefs and hopes which was one of the nicest aspects of our tour with him.

We found the mines so fascinating and Willy such a good guide that we decided to go again with him for a personalised tour deeper into the mines. More in the photo essay that's coming: Cerro Rico - the mountain that eats men.