We left Tupiza for the fabled city of Potosí with the expectation of four tough days of riding. Our ride planning app, MapOut, indicates the elevation gain/loss on our proposed route, and the ride to Potosí had one big climb after another, each to a progressively higher elevation.
The first day started with a 2.5 hr climb and shortly in to it, Claire had an anxiety attack, worrying about her ability to do the climb (see Claire’s account below).She was completely drained by the top and then, quite mysteriously, my knee started acting up. Claire called it a ‘sympathetic pain’. All I know is that it hurt like hell and I could barely pedal. We stopped at a house to rest and pop some ibuprofen. The young woman at the home immediately produced a ‘pomada’ she insisted would help (lidocaine, it turned out to be) and after a good rest we limped into our destination, the tiny village of Ramada. At first it looked like we were going to have to camp but, if patient, something eventually turns up. We ended up staying at Doña Claudina’s, a widower about my age with a few rooms at the back of her ‘tiendacita’, a small store with the typical offerings of pop, cookies, a few canned goods and little else. The town consisted primarily of old ladies and, I suspect, will be abandoned before long. Given accommodation in these small towns is so inexpensive ($8 -15/night) and slightly more comfortable than camping with a lot less effort on our part plus the promise of a cold shower we are now opting not to camp if possible.
The following day was another big climb then a fantastic rip down to Tumusla, the site of the last battle in Bolivia’s War of Independence but now primarily a quick food stop for long distance buses. The only rooms on offer in town were above the small restaurant that fed the bus passengers. it would have been better to have camped! It was dirty, noisy and awkward, to say the least (see photos). We learnt a lesson, namely, avoid rooms above restaurants!
Another climb and descent got us as far as the small market town of Vitichi but we still needed to do another 20 kms (primarily climbing) in order to have a manageable fourth day for the big and final climb to Potosi…..but we were both pretty spent….and then, a bus pulls into town, we look at each other, nod affirmatively and before you know it, our bikes were stuffed into the bus (panniers still attached) and we’re watching the countryside roll by as the bus steadily climbed the last 80 kms to Potosí. The last few kms were a denuded high altitude landscape scarred by countless small mines. At the summit (4300 M), the infamous Cerro Rico, the mountain that changed the world, came into view. We drove by and descended into the city, still captivated by what we were seeing and failed to realize that we were being dropped off at the ‘new’ bus terminal at the very bottom of town. The subsequent 4 km climb up to the centre of town, in heavy traffic, choking on the exhaust fumes of the countless ‘micros’ (small, diesel buses brought in second hand from China belching out poorly refined Bolivian fuel) was our inauspicious intro to Potosí. See video example below of Potosi traffic.
Cerro Rico has been mined for over 500 years and is now reputedly riddled with a similar number of mines. It produced 85% of the silver that fuelled the Spanish empire and at its height Potosí was one of the largest cities in the world and undoubtedly, the richest. The insatiable appetite for silver by the Chinese fuelled trade that many say was the start of international capitalism. The number of lives sacrificed to mine the silver is beyond belief. Once the local indigenous population had been decimated, African slaves were brought in (+/- 10 thousand/year). They quickly succumbed to the cold, altitude and brutal work conditions but somehow surpassed the 3 month work-life of mules. The mines represent an appalling history of mans brutality to man. Apparently 15,000 miners still work the untold numbers of unmapped mine shafts that riddle the mountain (How safe is that?). The miners, working in small collectives, extract the ore, primarily for tin, zinc, lead and other trace minerals which is then trucked to large, private processing plants. It is largely hand labour in primitive conditions with little or no health, safety or environmental oversight. The avg. lifespan of the miners is less than 50 years. It is a grim place.
Of course, we did the tour. We got dressed in rudimentary protective gear, donned headlamps and followed our inimitable guide, a woman immersed in the life and culture of the miners, deep into a very old but still active mineshaft. We walked in approx. 1 km on a slowly descending grade. It was hot, dusty, sulphuric at times, very low ceiling, bent over much of the time and claustrophobic for some in our group (2 French, 4 Bolivianos and us) It was also 4100 M above sea level, so hard work for the unacclimatized. We met some miners pushing/pulling an ancient mine-cart loaded with 2.5 tons of ore and others loading a cart. We gave them the obligatory gifts of pop and coca leaves. The highlight of the tour was crawling through a short stretch into another chamber where a papier-mâché figure of the miner’s deity of the underworld, El Tio‘, sat on a ledge covered in offerings of cigarettes, coca and small bottles of 95% pure ethyl alcohol, the miner’s drink of choice! As our guide made an offering she explained in a reverent and theatrical manner, the significance of El Tio. The tour was a unique experience.
Despite the sordid history, the rain, the cold, altitude and exhaust fumes I kinda liked Potosí. We took a room in the historic centre, visited the remarkably well preserved and famous Casa de Moneda, the mint that produced coin (pieces of eight) for centuries and wandered the streets and markets. We found the population friendly and in good spirits.
The two day ride from Potosí to Sucre, the capital of Bolivia (but not the seat of government – a source of on-going contention with La Paz), though involving a significant net loss in elevation, was still a grunt. The first day, our longest to date, we covered 100 kms. The much shorter second day involved in total, over 1500 M of climbing. Sucre, La Cuidad Blanca (White City) is worlds apart from Potosí, more tourism friendly, a centre for Spanish language classes but we will leave it till our next post.
Claire: I started the climb like I always do…..“ok, let’s spin slowly”. Normally, I get into a rhythm of pedalling that matches my breathing. I can go quite slow and with stops along the way, make it to the top. But I was finding it harder and harder, utterly unable to get into a rhythm. I kept stopping to catch my breath. I thought “perhaps we had been off the bike too long ie. 6 days”. I also thought perhaps the altitude was getting to me but I also started thinking “can this be bloody anxiety?” I was struggling with my internal dialogue while Jim said “it must be anxiety Claire, the slope is no worse than what you have done before”. And so after many small stops and unable to get my breathing, feeling my chest tight, I broke down on the side of the road, cried and hoped that this would provide me a release. It was not easy. I was so exhausted but determined that if I could only get to the top and do some spinning, I would be ok. Jim had to push my bike for a short distance just before the top. I can’t describe how wasted I felt. I had nothing left and we had 30 km to go. With Jim now being handicapped, I had no choice and nothing is better than focusing on someone else! He drafted behind me while I rode on sheer will power.