[ Caboose ] [ Introduction >> South America >> Bolivia ]
Copyright © 2003 Kevin O'Rourke
The site is a work in progress, the 'Album' page in each section contains some photos but only some sections have much text.
Tuesday 18 April 2000
Got up around eight and had breakfast at a nearby restaurant, chocolate pancakes. We walked along to the bus station, which was just an ordinary street where they nonetheless charged a bus station tax.
We got there on time, at 0930; the bus didn't appear until 1000 and then was gradually filled. A smelly old woman sat on the floor beside me, with several large bags that she kept pulling food out of, which smelt worse than she did.
The road was very rough, passing through several tiny isolated villages where the locals tried to sell us food and drinks. After seven hours of being shaken we arrived in Potosi. We retrieved our packs from the roof of the bus and got a taxi to the hotel.
We were put in a six-bed dormitory (BOB20 per person, per night) with Oliver, Claire, Giles and Tom (a classics student from Oxford). Once we had settled in we all went for something to eat and drink, I tried 'mate de coca' for the first time.
Wednesday 19 April 2000
Had a nice late start, stayed in bed until about 0930. I finally managed to get through to the consulate again but didn't get a word in edgeways before my phonecard ran out. It seemed the missing visa wasn't too much of a problem but might have required some bribery on leaving the country.
Had an American breakfast at Cherry's, the same as a normal South American breakfast but with eggs, it was pretty good.
Dugly and I found an Internet place but it was very slow. Dugly gave up in disgust and went to find somewhere else. I went to a salteña bar for lunch; salteñas are like empanadas but with gravy and a bit spicier.
I met Oliver there and Dugly turned up just after me. We went back to the hotel after lunch and I changed into my thermals for our tour of the 'Casa Real de la Moneda' (the Royal Mint), it's a big old stone building and very cold.
Before the tour we popped in to Koala Tours to ask about the mine tour. It sounds horrific but interesting, we start at nine tomorrow morning.
The mint was really interesting; the guide spoke excellent English and was quite entertaining. It contained lots of paintings, furniture, etc. as well as coin-related stuff.
Potosi has an interesting history as its silver mines were the source of most of the wealth of the Spanish Empire and the name of the town has become a byword for riches in Spanish. In the process of mining the silver huge numbers of slaves, both local and from Africa, were worked to death.
Afterwards we went to a restaurant. Claire, Giles and Oliver had some rather nasty soup, obviously out of a packet, Dugly had a tortilla and I had a very nice cheese omelette.
Our evening meal was at a restaurant with live music, the music was not too good and the service was worse.
Thursday 20 April 2000
We turned up at the café above Koala Tours for breakfast then went down to the office for our free mate de coca before being bundled into a minibus. It had been poorly converted from right-hand drive like many of the vehicles in Potosi; many have Japanese writing on the side.
The others in the bus were all on an organised tour of South America, mostly Australians with two Germans. Our bus stopped off in the miners' area of town for us to change into yellow plastic jackets, wellies, hard hats and miner's lamps. We also stopped off at the local store to buy water for the miners and explosives and detonators for a demonstration later.
Next we drove up to the mine entrance, one of many small holes leading into the side of Cerro Rico. We were handed coca leaves to chew, I noticed that most of the miners had huge bulges in their cheeks and were chewing constantly so I took some. It's supposed to numb hunger and exhaustion.
We walked into the mine, avoiding full ore cars coming out and unable to stand up for most of the way. Once at a junction we split into two groups, Dugly, Tom, Oliver and I in one, and the rest in another.
Our guide, Juan, showed us one of the statues of the devil (known as 'El Tio', the uncle), who is respected by the miners as the owner of everything underground. Every Friday, especially the first and last of each month, they bring him offerings of cigarettes and 96% alcohol. They then drink until unconscious and crawl out hours later.
Juan also explained that the arsenic in the rocks reacting with oxygen caused much of the heat in the mine. We could see asbestos fibres in the light from our torches, which provided the only light we could see.
He talked about the life of the miners, of which there were 300 in this mine (Candelaria) and about 7000 in total. He had been an assistant, carrying 50kg sacks of ore for one and a half years until he slipped and injured his back.
A week in hospital used up half of his BOB2000 savings; his wife used the other half to start up a business selling underwear in the market. A miner's average monthly income is about BOB2000, depending on the price the cooperative gets for the ore.
Juan's family income is BOB880 per month, which is a reasonably standard of living. BOB200 per month goes on the rent of a house with two bedrooms and a kitchen, including power and water. He explained that he has two children and doesn't intend to have any more, saying that 'condoms are cheaper than children'.
His father had been a full member of the mine (entitled to health insurance and a pension) he now has 85% silicosis at the age of 53. On average the miners die at 45 and only 25% of them are full members of the cooperative.
There are some privately owned mines with ventilation, lights and electric ore cars but the miners there are only paid BOB1000 per month and jobs there are difficult to get. A policeman or teacher earns only BOB200 a month.
Candelaria installed electric winches about six months after Juan's accident but they still have kids as young as eight pushing two tonne ore cars, four to a car.
Officially the miners are all supposed to be over 18 but this is not strictly enforced, large families need to send their oldest boys into the mine. Most of the boys in the mine are illiterate.
Occasionally two mines will meet (there's no surveying) and the miners fight, sometimes even throwing dynamite into each other's tunnels.
Before we went in any further Oliver decided to go back, a young boy who is part of the tour company led him back out.
The ages of people working in the mine were hard to guess. Juan is only 28 but looked in his mid-thirties.
We went down to levels two, then three. There we met another tour company's group, who had entered on that level and had hand torches. They were staying on level three, which is known as the gringo's level due to the high ceilings.
Our tour was already living up to the claim of being the hardest. I was sweaty and covered in mud already. It was also very difficult to breathe due to the high altitude, dust and heat.
Juan kept laughing at us stumbling along banging out hats off the roof; it's much easier if you're short. We continued down a series of slippery mud slopes and dodgy ladders through level four and down to five.
Once there we crawled to where the miners were drilling holes for dynamite using pneumatic drills but no ear defenders. We met the other half of our tour, one of the Australians had passed out and was being revived with smelling salts and orangeade poured over his head. Apparently he passed out again on the way out.
The noise, dust and heat on level five were incredible, I was glad when we started back up to the surface. Unfortunately we had to go back the way we came, up muddy 45-degree slops and rickety ladders and through tunnels where we had to crawl on hands and knees.
We stopped frequently to catch our breath, drink and hand out water to passing miners. During this time Juan got us to help him with his (already good) English. He plans to learn French and German next year.
I thought the climb out would never end but then we were finally back on level one and out. The miners at the entrance laughed good-naturedly at the wheezing, sweating gringos.
The other half of the group were already out, they had walked out at level three, so we had out demonstration explosion. It was on the surface so all we got was a big bang and a lot of dust.
We dropped off the hats, torches and boots and gave Juan a BOB30 tip, as much as he's paid per tour.
Once back at the hotel I had a shower then changed my clothes, by which time my trousers had set solid. The trip was excellent but I never want to do it again.
In the afternoon we went back on the Internet, it was much faster this time and I managed to reply to some emails. I managed to swap 'Like Water for Chocolate' for William Gibson's 'Idoru' at Koala Tours. I didn't realise until later that it was in German, Dugly was not happy about this.
Later we had dinner at a very nice restaurant, our last night in Potosi.
Friday 21 April 2000 (Good Friday)
Had breakfast at the Candelaria café, above Koala Tours. I spent a while feeling very ill but after a bit of rehydration I recovered.
We met the guide from our tour of the mint and discussed tourism. He used to work on the mine tours and is still associated with Koala. We swapped business cards and I promised to send him a postcard from Stirling.
The tourism people in Potosi were all amazingly enthusiastic and friendly.
Caught a bus to Sucre, this time along a paved road. Dugly and I bought humitas from a girl at the side of the road in one of the villages we passed through.
The scenery gradually became greener as we dropped to more inhabitable altitudes and we passed a few wealthy-looking estates before entering the city itself.
We caught a taxi from the bus station to Hostal Charcas, in the town centre. Dugly and I walked to the town square and watched a huge parade headed for the cathedral. We found the sloppy marching of the soldiers and the nervous looks the military police were giving the crowds particularly interesting.
The local bishop gave a sermon of some kind and we went for a cup of coffee, still Nescafe.
Back to the hostel for a bit, it's a lovely place with courtyards and a friendly, if slightly talkative, parrot.
Dinner was at a very nice but rather expensive pizza restaurant.
Saturday 22 April 2000
Got up at nine, for no apparent reason. Giles and Claire were both ill, something must have disagreed with them.
Dugly and I went to the airline offices and got prices for flights to La Paz and for trekking trips out of Sucre.
We thought it would be nice to have a burger for lunch, but after five minutes of being ignored by the staff walked out and ended up in another burger/chicken place. I had 'pollo broaster', chicken fried in a nice coating but unfortunately served with fried bananas.
There wasn't much to do in the afternoon. We walked to the Parque Bolivar, which contains a miniature Eiffel Tower and a septic boating pond. Small children were circling the park on petrol-engined go-karts.
Down at the railway station it was obvious that there had been no trains for years, grass was growing all over the tracks and the station building had been turned into a bookshop.
Spent a while just lying in our hostel room reading then went across the road to the market for tea (as not recommended by the guide books). At the first place we had fried chicken, chips, rice and salad. It all looked a bit dubious so we only ate the cooked bits.
Then we saw Oliver at another stall and joined him for beef stir-fry. Afterwards we wandered along to the 'Bibliocafe' for a few beers. Dugly left with stomach pains after one beer but was feeling OK by the time I got back.
Sunday 23 April 2000 (Easter)
Claire and Giles were feeling much better, seems to just be a 24-hour thing. I slept until lunch, which we had in the same place as yesterday.
After that we went to the pizza place for iced coffee, very civilised.
About the only thing we could find to do was to walk up a local hill, along a road with the Stations of the Cross. At the top was a large statue of Jesus, surrounded by rubbish. It looked like there had been a large party involving the consumption of strong alcohol.
We returned to the town by a circuitous route just in time for me to suffer an attack of the skitters, Dugly had the same trouble a bit later.
After a detour to the pizza restaurant for real lemonade we went back to the hotel and read for a while. We decided that I'd stay in Sucre and try to learn some more Spanish while Dugly went off trekking out of La Paz with Giles and Claire.
Tea was in a vegetarian restaurant. My spaghetti in chestnut sauce was OK but the staff didn't really seem to want us there and the place was empty.
Monday 24 April 2000
Got up, had breakfast. Booked flight for 3 May to La Paz.
Went to an Internet café but the (Windows NT) computer kept crashing, so we gave up. Walked up to another one and got some information on gadgets, car hire, etc. in preparation for the States.
We had lunch at the "Kultur-Café Berlin", part of the German cultural institute. I had a very nice gulasch. After that I went to the Bolivian-American association and signed up for Spanish lessons, starting tomorrow at USD5 per hour.
Back to the hotel for a bit, then out for a coffee before tea. We had tea at "La Vieja Bodega", a meat, cheese and potato fondue and two (8 glass) goldfish bowls of beer between us.
We met Dana and Paul in the restaurant, Dugly now seems to have decided to spend a week climbing with them during our American tour!
Tuesday 25 April 2000
I got up early to check out of Hostal Charcas and into Hostal San Marcos (half the price) with Oliver. We had breakfast at a nearby bakery the Oliver went for his first Spanish lesson. When he came back we had lunch at "El Germen", a vegetarian place run by a German woman, BOB12 for a very nice set lunch.
My Spanish lesson with Sra. Dirpic, conducted in a mixture of English and German was a bit overwhelming at times and I got homework.
The San Marcos was full of people learning Spanish, so we all went out for tea together to El Germen. After a long wait I got a lasagna so filling that I couldn't finish it.
Wednesday 26 April 2000
Slept in and had a shower. Bought a hairbrush. Web surfed for a while.
Went down to the chemist and bought some antibiotics for the diarrhoea, didn't even need a prescription.
Had lunch down at the pizza place on the plaza then across it to the "Casa de la Independencia". The tour was very interesting, especially the gallery of presidential portraits. According to the guide about 35% of them were dictators. The youngest was Sucre at 30, most since have been pretty old. I had to leave early for my class.
Sra. Dirpic is very keen on grammar, it's a bit scary but will hopefully get better with practice. I went into town afterwards and bought a shirt, my first bit of clothes shopping in two years.
I'm still not used to being stared at, a tall gringo with long (wild) fair hair tends to stick out a bit here. Sucre isn't quite so bad, it seems to have more of a mixed population.
Went out for tea with Oliver at a Swiss restaurant, had a sort of kebab with röschti. I started feeling ill immediately after the meal and returned quickly to the hotel. My diarrhoea was much worse and I threw up.
Got very little sleep, with gut cramps and running to the toilet all night.
Thursday 27 April 2000
Had to send Oliver off to get some shopping for me (water, sugar, salt, fruit juice powder and toilet roll) as I couldn't stray far from the toilet and had terrible cramps.
Felt really bad right up to about 1500, when things started improving. By about 2000 I felt well enough to eat.
Friday 28 April 2000
Feeling much better, slept as well as I can on the conrete-like mattress. Spent two hours on the internet, sorting email and reading the news.
Back to the Spanish lessons, more high speed grammar, taught in Spanish. Bought some food down at the market, almost certainly being ripped off in the process but it's still very cheap. I avoided the meat though, I didn't think brushing the flies off with a whisk is very effective hygiene.
I cooked tea at the hostel, which was very short on plates, utensils, etc. Dugly took mine off to La Paz with him. Fortunately a nice Israeli girl loaned me a couple of plates and some cooking equipment.
Had a couple of beers with Oliver and one of the Israeli guys.
Saturday 29 April 2000
Feeling bad again, maybe beer wasn't such a good idea. Stayed in bed all morning.
Went across the road for lunch, to a traditional 'barbecue huge slabs of meat' restaurant. I hardly ate though, my abused digestive system couldn't handle it.
Returned to bed until my Spanish lesson at 1500 and I was feeling better by the end of it.
Pizza for tea.
Sunday 30 April 2000
Did some Spanish homework, had lunch, did more Spanish homework and sat in the courtyard reading in the sunshine. Most of us Spanish students spend our days doing this, with the occasional foray out for ice-cold beer or Magnums.
Tea was back at the Swiss restaurant, this time röschti with bacon and egg. It was very nice but I still wasn't up to big meals.
Monday 1 May 2000
More hanging around the hotel. Lunch was a lentilburger at El Germen, it was OK but would have been better with some meat in it!
Spent the afternoon reading and doing Spanish homework in the courtyard.
For a bit of variety we had tea at the Chinese restaurant. The food was very good but the service was very slow. Back to the pizza place on the plaza for a Café Helado dessert and on to a bar for some beer and whisky.
Tuesday 2 May 2000
Took my last load down to the laundry then went to the University museum. It had an odd mix of colonial and modern art, with an anthropological section as well.
Pancakes and coffee preceded some more web surfing and my last Spanish lesson, the subjunctive.
Went out to "La Vieja Bodega" for tea, it wasn't terribly good. One of the American girls had problems finding anything vegetarian on the menu, the waitress seemed to have difficulties with the concept of a meal with meat.
Wednesday 3 May 2000
Had breakfast at El Germen then checked out. Got a taxi to the airport for BOB20, took about 10 minutes.
We checked in and paid the airport tax then had a drink in the restaurant. Sucre has a fairly small airport, one departure gate and one arrival gate.
Our 727 arrival at about 1225 and as soon as arriving passengers had got off we were loaded on. A high-speed landing at La Paz followed a reasonably pleasant and comfortable flight. We missed a lot of the scenery flying in as somebody seemed to have cleaned the windows with Brillo pads.
The taxi into town cost BOB45, descending a steep dual-carriageway with no lane markings or slip roads at high speed. Booked into the Hostal Austria and went to McDonald's for lunch.
In the evening we went to see 'Erin Brockovich' at the cinema, it was much better than I had expected.
Thursday 4 May 2000
Got up around 0900 and moved Oliver's stuff along to the Hostal Republica. His girlfriend is coming to meet him and he wanted to stay somewhere a bit nicer with her. We had a pretty good breakfast there.
Next it was across to Plaza Sucre and San Pedro prison. We stood in line for a bit then a guide appeared among the crowd on the other side of the gate. We were a bit dubious when he told us to just jump the queue (not to bother with the paperwork for entering) and go through to be searched. The only official involvement was the signature of the lieutenant on our arms.
We had to leave our cameras and knives with the guard and then were led through into the main courtyard. Fernando (our guide) took us through to his gang boss' cell and explained a few things.
The tour cost BOB40 plus BOB1 for the 'taxi', the prisoner who had seen us and gone to fetch the guide. The fifty guards only prevent escapes (by shooting escapees), they do not enter the prison, which has a population of around 1500 prisoners and their families.
Many wives and children are brought into the prison, as they cannot afford to live outside. On arrival the prisoner pays a fee to the head of their section, there are five sections with varying prices. They then buy a cell, these vary from a hole in the wall to the penthouse three-room apartment belonging to a drug-dealer living in the former political prisoners' section.
There are shops, restaurants and video game arcades, all run by prisoners using stuff brought in by their families. Drugs are freely available, we were offered anything we wanted and told we wouldn't be searched on leaving but it sounded dodgy.
A few foreigners including one from Liverpool are in San Pedro, on drug-related charges.
The government has announced that all the children would have to leave the prison, after the recent rape and murder of a young girl. The other inmates battered the rapist to death. It seems that paying other men for sex, or even raping them, is acceptable but wives and children are special.
We were glad to get out, at first glance the place seemed fairly civilised but our minders were constantly warning us where not to look and telling us about areas we could not enter.
Afterwards there was the huge contrast of walking down the Prado, past international hotels and expensive restaurants. Oliver went off to collect his girlfriend from the airport.
I went for lunch and bought a couple of books (about USD34). In the afternoon I visited two museums in town, the Tambo Quirquincho was a good mixture and had some fascinating old photos of La Paz but the Tihuanaco museum was very dull.
Met Dugly back at the hotel and discovered that all my stuff had been moved to a different room, which we're sharing with some unknown person. The combination of this and the bedbugs made me determined to send an anti-recommendation to the South American Handbook.
In the evening Oliver and his girlfriend, Milo (another Dutch person), Claire and Giles for a meal. I had lots of pasta but was unable to finish. Dugly and I carried on to the cinema to see the atrocious 'Fortress 2' starring Christopher Lambert.
Friday 5 May 2000
Got up at 0700 to catch the bus to Copacabana. We all squeezed into a minibus and were glad when we were later transferred to a proper-sized one. Drove out past the airport, through El Alto. It's very poor looking, lots of unfinished but inhabited houses on a desolate plain above La Paz.
When we arrived on the shore of Lake Titicaca we left the bus and crossed a narrow part of the lake in a launch. The bus followed on a raft only just big enough for it.
The village also had a Bolivian Navy base consisting of a few launches and a hospital boat.
The bus then continued round the coast to Copacabana and we started looking for accommodation. We eventually found our way up to "La Cupula" and checked in. Our room was nice but expensive at USD16 per night.
I was surprised to meet the news editor from Plymouth who I had met back at Torres del Paine, it's definitely a small world when you're on the Gringo Trail.
Wandered around town, bought tickets for a boat trip out to Isla del Sol. We're planning to stay there tomorrow night. Had lunch in town, BOB7 for a three course meal and we were rather surprised when Kev and Nige from Rothera turned up in their North Cape jackets and molies!
We ate in the hotel restaurant, very nice although it's another vegetarian one.
Saturday 6 May 2000
Had breakfast in the hotel, some lovely pancakes then confirmed our reservation for Sunday and checked out.
The boat to Isla del Sol was incredibly slow, in fact the departure from the shore was powered by a small boy with an anchor and rope. On the boat we met the Kiwi guy from Casa Evelyn back in Puerto Natales. We walked from the north of the island down to the south and met the boat again.
The island was pretty but not very exciting, so we decided to return to Copacabana. There were lots of ruins but no attempt at explaining them and lots of kids selling things such as miniature reed boats and the usual 'artesiana' or offering to have their photo taken with a llama.
The journey back seemed to take even longer but we eventually reached Copacabana and checked back into the hotel, getting the room we had reserved for tomorrow. This was slightly smaller and cheaper, at USD12, but had a gas shower. I had my first really hot shower and warm shave since Chile.
We had real coffee and a BOB18 meal at the "Sol y Luna", part of the Hotel Gloria. I really enjoyed my pejerrey (a.k.a. kingfish), for the second time that day.
Sunday 7 May 2000
An idle day. Got up around 1100 and wandered into town for a Coke and an ice cream. Spent the afternoon lounging in one of the hammocks at the hotel, reading 'Lake Wobegon Days' by Garrison Keillor. Once it got too cold I retired to the room.
Down to Sol y Luna for another coffee at 1800 then back to the hotel for some very nice fresh trout.
journeys/SAmb.html last updated: Fri Feb 29 14:17:19 2008