Walking at altitude is hard at the best of times. Add some hills and our backpacks, and we were in for some fun.
When we arrived to get our bus from Uyuni to Potosi, due to a Bolivian bus blockade just outside of town (for reasons our limited Spanish didn’t understand), the bus company ran a shuttle service to the edge of the blockade and we then had to walk through the blockade to find our bus. The town of Uyuni has an altitude of 3700m and we’d assumed it would be a 5-minute walk through the blockade. We were wrong.
We’ve long since learnt that if you’re in doubt as to where to go or what to do, follow the locals. So we followed them through the blockade (which actually wasn’t all that exciting – 10 people and 2 cars) and on we went. We had to stop every couple of minutes to catch our breath – it was very hard going.
After walking for over ½ hour without any sign of our bus, the locals decided to give up and parked themselves on the side of the road, and so we followed suit. Thankful for the little bit of Spanish we have, we understood when an irritate local called the bus company and demanded to know where the bus was. Sure enough, 5 minutes later it finally arrived.
We were glad we’d already been in altitude for around 10 days by the time we had to make the walk, as we were breathless but okay. Other travellers struggled to keep up, with one girl in particular getting altitude sickness during the walk, which included coughing up blood. Not good.
The bus ride itself was stunning, twisting and turning through the Bolivian countryside. We’d read a lot of horror stories about the Bolivian buses, but our bus was so old it struggled to make it both up and down the hills, which actually made us feel safe as we were going along at such a slow speed.
Altitude in Potosi
At over 4000m above sea level, Potosi is one of the highest towns in the world. Not it’s only claim to fame, Potosi also used to be the richest town in all of South America, back when the Spanish were mining the silver from Cerro Rico. The silver from the mine is famous for bankrolling the Spanish monarchy for generations. When the silver declined, overnight Potosi became a shell of its former self.
Potosi Mine Tours
The town still lives under the shadow of Cerro Rico, the once great silver-producing mountain/mine. The locals still work the mines in horrific conditions, and we were surprised to learn watching the miners at work was the main tourist attraction in town. The miners work in some of the harshest conditions imaginable – it’s cramped and claustrophobic, they are surrounded by toxic air (including asbestos) and there is a real and constant threat of mine collapse. And they risk their life for so little, as the silver has long gone from the belly of the beast.
The tour takes you into the mine so you can see the miners at work and experience just an hour or so of the same conditions. While travel is all about understanding how other people live and their local culture, to us the mine visit sounded like travel voyeurism of the worst kind. So the tour wasn’t something we were comfortable doing – not just because of our claustrophobia.
Even though we knew we didn’t want to visit the mine, we were still interested in visiting this once-great town, and we are so glad we did.
Around Town Potosi
We spent the afternoon wandering around town admiring the architecture. You could tell that in the past, when money (and silver) was available, it was spent helping to make this the most beautiful town in this part of the world. Sadly such extravagance is now a dream.
Like all South American towns, Potosi comes alive at night. People fill the streets that were empty earlier in the afternoon. We took a gamble and tried some Bolivian street food (deep-fried within an inch of it’s life to avoid possible food-poisoning) and were also treated to the music of the local Bolivian army band with very strange blue-fringed hats.
We ended the night enjoying the views across Potosi from our hostel. It was just a short stop, but one we’re glad we made.