Back in time in the Silver Mines

Cerro Rico – The Silver Mine, Potossi

I could have torn up every unsatisfied memory, erased every written complaint, rewound and taken back any voiced disdain in my past about any previous job or working condition I thought myself “slaving away in”. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t complain about their work at least once ever now and the. But crawling across blasted rock, breathing life threatening mineral dust, dodging tonnes of rock pushed in metal wagons by young men with cheeks full of cocoa leaves is a humiliating slap in the face as to what “slaving away” to make a buck really could mean.

A bit of history if you will: in 1825 when Bolivia won over their independence, the mountain mines throughout the Bolivian Altiplano  were almost exhausted, having been extensively mined and exported to Europe under the Spanish empire since 1545. To exacerbate the bleakness of the once ridiculous natural richness of the Bolivian mountain, was the crash of silver prices leaving the once incredibly rich city of Potosi to quite literally continue digging into the dirt for a chance at “wealth”. Now Potosi is by no means a rich city, but you can see semblances of her old wealth simply from the city streets.

The Cerro Rico, [Rich Hill], is Potosi’s main mine and probably one of the cities biggest tourist attractions. The mountain of once unimaginable riches, now nicknamed the Mountain that Eats Men, towers over the city of Potosi, a looming icon of both bountiful wealth and abysmal suffering due to antiquated and appalling working conditions. She still yields tin, zinc, lead and silver, however our Koala guide (an ex-minor himself called Milton) reckons the mountain had 7 years left. You can imagine things get pretty desperate in her cold tunnels, digging ever deeper for the remaining mineral lines. Today there are around 12,000 workers who mine her everyday. Working for 100 – 150 bolivianos ($20 – $30 NZD) a day, or 27 bolivianos ($5.50NZD) per kilo of “good minerals” in working conditions that most I imagine would need to be tortured in order to submit into working here. Yet these men (men only) volunteer 7-9 hours a day, 6 days a week, in an environment where there is no sunlight, no food, and a toxic air that will kill you before you turn 55 ( and those are the lucky ones). Every month, around 14 men are killed in “accidents”. Give me a mundane desk job any day thanks!

Of course this is my easily offended, western precious perspective on things. For some minors this is a family a business, a lifestyle, a profession to be proud of. Yet still, the thought of working  in these mines, where things are probably as good as they ever were in 1545, I feel sick, and I feel humbled, and I want to buy these men all the soda water they could ever ask for.

Tour info: Potosi silver mines are a must do if you manage to make a stop in this high altitude Bolivian city! As part of the tour experience you are required to buy gifts for the minors to help them out with essentials that they don’t have to buy themselves. We took a tour with Koala tours who had a good price (110 bolivianos) and a good rating on line. The experience was very real, our guide Milton was super chill and a bit of a legend. We climbed mine shafts (legit need some balls for this one), met some of the characters who work in the Cerro Rico tunnels, and got to sit under a dynamite blast, counting the booms. I know two people who chose to back out early, but i guarantee if you keep calm and trust your guide you’ll be right as rain. Well…. as long as they don’t accidentally bomb between tunnels…anywho, i would recommend them!

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The Magic Of Salkantay

Standing at the top of Mount Salkantay had me considering whether to toss up every single (sensible?) life decision I have stacked up in front of me, in favour of chasing glacial lakes and mountains for the rest of my life.

Trekking the Salkantay path is one of the most popular alternatives to the wallet wrenching Inca trail and is notoriously challenging. The trek spans 5 days of hiking over Salkantay mountain (at 4600m), into the jungle and onwards up to the City of the Incas, Machu Picchu. Through freezing temperatures and snowy peaks into the humid mosquito laden heat of the jungle (in the space of no more then an hour!), along sun baked and dusty roads, inching across foot wide cliff edges or moving along jungle covered tracks until the final destination, Machu Picchu. The diverse terrain offers a sensory assault of delightful smells from the surrounding flora and fauna, and the most magnificent views of Peru’s stretch of the Andean Mountains. It’s hard to not fall in love with her magnificence. Not to mention this trek is like the double orgasm of adventure tours. First, Mount Salkantay, then Machu Picchu. How could you not?

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Horses in the clouds

Mount Salkantay is the highest peak of the Vilcabamba mountain ranges in Peru and it is damn sweet to find yourself on top of. A condor flies over head, unexpected snowflakes swirl to the tide of your panting breath, the other trekkers fade to distance and time just stops. For a moment your mind might drift to the countless times you doubted yourself, not just over the hike but over the dreams and ambitions you deemed to good for you. As you descend from the clouds, invigorated for the next leg ahead, the warm acknowledgement of your own strength emanates from yourself and the rest of the squad. Turns out climbing a mountain can be a great reminder that you are more than you think you are. That is the magic of Salkantay.

If you choose to do the Salkantay trek (on a budget), or you think this kind of adventure might be for you, here’s a few things to prepare for:

Early starts. We were up and getting breakfast in us before 6am every day. Some days earlier. On the bright side, being woken up by our friendly Peruvian team with fresh hot cocoa tea delivered straight though our tent zips became kind of delightful. “Cocoa tea amigo? Cocoa tea?”. Alternatively, you may be woken up by an arrogant cock who thinks 3.30am is the crack of dawn…

Cocoa leaves. Whether it’s brewed in hot water or being held in your cheek, these cocoa leaves are a bit of a lifesaver. As a natural remedy against altitude sickness, and a warming drink for the chilly days and nights, you will grow to appreciate this humble leaf. Watch out though as eating them or biting vigourosly can have a laxative affect. I mean, thats what they say anyway…

The Party Bus. Blasting the best techno and r&b hits circa 2008, the loud banging beats serve primarily as a distraction from the fact that the bus driver is scaling cliff edges, sometimes at full pelt, on a barely one way sized track ( i refuse to call it a road). [insert snap chat]. If you are thinking about or are already travelling South America, chances are you know all about what to expect on a South American bus. Of course before we even took our first steps on the trek our bus had a minor breakdown. Never have I ever seen such a precariously magnificent hill start attempted in such a shunky bus. The road to St Theresa Hot springs will have you questioning whether or not you value your life enough to jump out before the whole bus plummets over the edge. Oh and just wait until you get to the teeny, nailed together wooden bridge across a water fall that looks like it could barely hold a Llama, let alone a packed bus. Good times.

Snow. Shit gets real 4000+ metres above sea level folks. On our trek in early October we had a night of below 0 degrees and it snowed on us once we reached the peak of Salkantay. Gloves, beanies and extra thermals will make things a lot more comfortable. A good sleeping bag as well. On the mountain on night one i slept in everything i owned, snugged up next to my travel buddy so tight I am luck she did not punch me in the face.

Heat. Just when you think you could not be more frozen, as you struggle against viciously icy winds to get back to the bottom of Mount Salkantay, BOOM, Welcome to the Jungle. Give it an hour and you will be ripping off layers, desperate for water and slathering mosquito repellent across your exposed skin. It’s perplexing, the sudden and extreme change in climate. Leave room amongst the thermals for cooler clothing. From end of day 2 forward, there will be sweat.

Sore muscles. Stretching saved my life. 5 minutes, in the tent every night before bed. You cover some pretty heavy mileage and climb up some considerably steep inclines across the 5 day journey, the last thing you want to deal with is muscle stiffness. It’s also a great way to warm the sleeping bag up.

Highlights (besides reaching the top of Salkantay)

Humantay Glacial lake. Day 1. The climb to this location at 4100m above sea level was without a doubt the most challenging part of the entire 5 days – no exaggeration! Your climb becomes a metal battle To turn back or to continue? Zat is ze question. Please continue, there is magic ahead.

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The guides. Humorous, supportive, knowledgeable, patient and always up for a chat. They’re everything a good guide should be and more. They’re pride in the culture and history of the Inca and Quechua culture is the icing on a perfect cake.

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Other tips

  • Hiking boots that are waterproof will be much appreciated!
  • Rain pants. Quite possibly the most sexy attire on the mountain.
  • Tips. It is expected that the guides, cooks and horseman are tipped towards the end of the trek. Trust me, they deserve it! Our group aimed for a bench mark of 10-2o soles per person.
  • Booking a tour. Don’t be afraid to shop around! There are plenty of tour operators all around Cusco. We saved about 30USD by taking the time. Shop around.
  • If you do shop around…Definitely check that your tents are put up for you, that your transport to Salkantay and return to Cusco is included, and what the meal situation is. Oh and hire a sleeping bag!
  • Ear plugs. The last night you usually get put up in a hostel (again, good to check this!) – don’t expect anything luxe. Do expect lack of sound proofing. The night we had to get up at 3.30am to catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu, there was a street party outside our hostel until 4am. It may as well have been happening in our room. I mean, you get so tired these things just have to be laughable but ear plugs could be handy.

And that’s my two cents on the Salkantay trek. Adios! M.

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