Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting high in Potosí

And so my travels have come to something of a sprint finish. With notions of dipping my toe into the waters of Chile, Peru and Ecuador before I depart for home, travelling has begun in earnest once more and having spent two days exploring Sucre, Potosí is next on the list. It’s a remarkable city in that it’s found at a lung-bursting 4,070m above sea level, quite a jump from Sucre’s more bearable 2,700m. From now on in Bolivia it’s all going to be about getting high. Potosí is probably most famous for its co-operative mine in which miners work in Victorian-era conditions; its gnarly ladders, unventilated shafts and wildly fluctuating temperatures adding up to a miserable existence to the hundreds who try to make a living there. There’s a tour to the mines which is aggressively sold but which I steer clear of mostly to avoid coming across as a day-tripping western coming to mix it amongst the filthy masses struggling daily to make a living in life-threatening conditions. The fact that I’m claustrophobic and afraid of the dark has absolutely nothing to do with. Whatsoever.
Besides, there’s much to see and do in and around Potosí. The city itself is as undersold as the miners’ tour is oversold. In common with Sucre it has an old world charm, a beautiful, if gaudy, central plaza and some of Bolivia’s finest budget accommodation in refurbished colonial-era houses. There’s also some wonderful trekking in the vicinity so I trek up to the Lagunas de Kari Kari, in themselves unspectacular, but set amongst the rolling hills above the city and offering perfect views of the urban sprawl below. The trek also gives me my first close encounter with llamas. Dublin zoo probably has some llamas but in common with most of the animals there, they were probably ‘asleep’ on the day I visited as a youngster. Llamas are weird, having all the characteristics necessary to be a sheep but it’s that downright weird fucking neck which makes them stand out. I take some photos, self-consciously peering over my shoulder as I do for fear that some locals will laugh at me for taking snaps of what are, after all, the South American equivalent of sheep.
During my time in Potosí I was also encouraged by none other than Hugo, my Spanish teacher, to visit the city’s National Mint museum which was reason enough to give it a miss but I decided to check it out regardless. There’s a tour in English which is ideal because unless our guide wants to repeat instructions about how to order a hotel room or how to buy a kilo of oranges in Spanish during the course of the hour the tour lasts then I’d be completely lost. She turns out to be Bolivia’s most cantankerous woman. Having shown us a display featuring some of Bolivia’s coins from the past and having encouraged us to ask questions if we had any, I meekly enquire as to why - as she previously had alluded to - Bolivia doesn’t mint its own coins any more, she curtly responds “Because it’s cheaper in Chile.” Right. Thanks for that.

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