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Perched at 13,343 feet above sea level, Potosí, Bolivia is one of the highest cities in the world. Mount Rico looms over the city, reminding everyone of the glory days when silver poured from its mines, funding the Spanish armada as the crown jewel of the empire.
As you wander the city streets you notice a few things, the steep-slope streets, charming houses with bay window balconies, everyone carries everything in colorful textiles tied around their neck, and the incredible amount of “abogado” or law offices, like the one above, at every turn. There are enough accidents inside the mines and disputes over mineral rights, that the army of lawyers is never short of work.
As luck would have it in this sunny Saturday in Potosí, it was a very important Saint Day. We had no idea their was a parade brewing, but in our exploring we ran into a slew of costume-clad men, ladies dressed to the nines, fireworks, and instruments bringing the streets to life.
The outfits were so ornate and well done that we thought we’d be teleported back to Carnival in Rio.
Bolivia was never short on culture and traditional dress. Women wearing bowler hats wrapped in colorful shawls were definitely the standard over jeans and t-shirts.
This processional of cars rounding out the parade was too good not to share. The first few cars were draped with mystical comforters and silver serving sets (see the slide-show for that goodness) and the second slew of vehicles was adorned with offerings of giant teddy bears and miscellaneous stuffed animals…for which reason we are just not sure.
Though to get a true handle on Potosí, I had to visit the mines. A tour though the treacherous mine shafts didn’t sound as appealing to Anne for some reason, so she sat this one out but I had a day I’ll never forget. (Above you can see the houses where the wealthier miners lived at the foot of the mountain.)
Here, our tour is geared up for the mine with rubber suits, wellies, miners helmets, headlamps and battery belts. At first, we felt like our get-up was part of the show and a bit of overkill but upon entering the mine, ducking under broken wooden roof supports, shimmying up and down slippery mine shafts…we quickly realized they were 100% necessary.
To get a sense of miner culture, we went to their underground “church,” a four-foot tall room with a Virgin Mary altar. Full of superstition and fear of god, they say this is the one place in the mine not owned by the Devil. It is also ironically the place where the miners congregate to smoke and take sips of their 192 proof liquor. Above you can see one of the miners creating a cup with an old bottle and a hacksaw.
Out of respect, and partly because they kept regaling us with the most harrowing stories, we participated in the Church festivities for well over an hour…entering the lives of the miners, if only for a day. Little did we know the next few hours would be spent navigating around 75-foot deep holes (seen above) with buckets of nickel and iron ore flying by, and literally running from lit dynamite.
When the miner passed around the stick of dynamite we were intrigued, when he pounded a three-foot spike into the ceiling we were captivated, when he lit a fuse we chuckled nervously, but when our guide started sprinting away from the mine shaft we knew this was no joke. Run or die. (Video of that experience coming soon).
The light at the end of the tunnel…the good kind.
After hearing the dynamite explode in the very area we were sitting a few minutes earlier, and escaping the mine with nothing more than a hang-over and some dirty clothes, we were all smiles.
We were nothing short of humbled by the tremendous risk these miners take to provide food and shelter for their families. Though you must have a brush with death to understand this town, this tour was the best way to understand Potosí.
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