We really liked Tucuman and spent one day there exploring the city, swimming, eating good food and watching a local soccer game with the locals at a corner pub. We then caught an overnight bus back up to the Bolivian border. While crossing the border we met a couple from Scotland, Alex and Lauren, who are cycle touring with their two young children - Ash and Poppy. They have been on the road for around 6 months having ridden through New Zealand before flying to South America. Cycle touring with children is a whole different story and Alex and Lauren do an amazing but exhausting job. We also met up with a guy called Sam who we had met a few weeks earlier on the road. Sam had also been working for the Peace Corps in Paraguay. He is hoping to cycle through to the United States, but has had a few hiccups along the way including an African Killer Bee attack and having his Bob trailer bag and all its contents stolen. Despite this Sam generously gave me a spare set of brake pads as we have the same model- Thanks Sam!! Through his cycle trip Sam is raising money to help save the threatened forests he had been working near in Paraguay....if you are interested in reading more or making a donation his website is.... We had a great day hanging out with Lauren, Alex, Sam and the kids.
I´ll hand over to Kate (the historian) now to write....
We took another overnight bus to Potosi - the highest city in the world (about 4100m). Unfortunately the bus broke down and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for several hours in the night, but eventually we got there. We were looking forward to visiting Potosi as we had both read quite a bit about its fascinating history.Potosi was founded in 1545 as a mining town after the discovery of pure silver in the mountain (now called Cerro Rico "rich mountain") which towers above the city. It soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming the largest and wealthiest city in the world. People flocked there...huge buildings, theatres, and nearly one hundred churches were built. There was such an excess of silver that the streets were lined with it!! It is from Potosí that most of the silver shipped through Europe came. According to official records, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. It is a typical example of how the European powers exploited, raped and pillaged other nations. Despite being one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, Bolivia is the poorest South American country and poverty is rife. The local indigineous population were forced into labour in the mines and died by the thousands, from exposure, accidents and brutal labour (a person typically lived for only three or four years once working in the mines). To compensate for the diminishing indigenous labour force, the Spanish began to import African slaves and an estimated 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí throughout the colonial era. Over 8 million Indians and African slaves died mining in Cerro Rico, and that is why it is also called "the mountain that eats men".
Nowadays the mountain is depleted of most of its minerals but continues to be mined for silver, zinc and tin. Due to poor work conditions the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them dying from silicosis around 35-40 years of age.
We visited the mine and it was an eye-opening and unforgettable experience. Runway trolleys, explosions, falling rocks and carbon monoxide poisoning are just some of the daily occurrences down the mine.....its pretty scary! The mine is not regulated at all, and children begin working there from as young as 8 years old. There is also no organisation as to where each group of miners work, they just blow up dynamite wherever they want and follow veins of mineral. This means that the hill is like a honeycomb and some experts have predicted that the whole thing will collapse in about 15-20 years!!
We wore hard hats and gumboots and walked deep into one of the mines. There was lots of scrambling, crawling in low, narrow, dirty shafts and climbing down a series of rickety ladders and slippery planks...OSH would not be impressed at all!!! We met and talked to miners, watched them work, and gave them some gifts. Miners chew coca leaves and store them in their cheeks for hours while down in the mines. The coca is supposed to ward off hunger, pain and give them energy to work very long hours.
You can buy sticks of dynamite in the shops in Potosi for around NZ $4. We bought some and blew it up on the side of the mountain after coming out of the mine. The explosions were bigger than I thought and I only wish that we had Anna´s bunny or Didymo to make it even more fun! Yesterday we rode our longest and perhaps toughest day. We started from Potosi at 7am with a steep climb out of town amongst the snow-capped hills. We rode 160km through to the beautiful city of Sucre (the judicial capital of Bolivia). The first 50km were cruisy downhill, but after lunch we had a good 50km of climbing having dropped well below the 2800m altitude of Sucre. It was gruelling hot day, nine and a half hours of riding, with multiple dog and people chases (see below), not quite enough water, mild heat-stroke and a sore back. Matilda didn´t find the day too bad- but was up all last night vomiting! Sucre is a lovely colonial town with amazing architecture and perfectly manicured gardens in the plaza. It has a number of universities and the centre of town is buzzing with young people, cool bars and cafes. The contrasting scenes you see in Bolivia sometimes make it hard to believe you are still in the same country.
A few photos...
Biking in rural Bolivia....this "cute little old lady" was soon chasing Kate with a whip demanding money! Fortunately we could bike a bit faster than she could run! The older, rural Bolivian women are really suspicious and hostile towards us.
This is a typical picture of the Bolivian propaganda you see everywhere (on buildings, the road and rock faces)- we`ve seen nothing other than politically related graffitti about the current president Evo and the recent constitutional elections.
Typical looking Bolivian Mum and baby.
Here is an update photo of the "mullet". Kate has been getting a few compliments lately..."I love your haircut", followed by us saying "really??" with astonished looks and laughter!! I let Kate cut my hair in Salta and she actually did a pretty good job!