Writing about the mines in Potosí, Bolivia

potosi, boliviaI’ve just had an article published on Matador Network about visiting the mines in Potosí, Bolivia. Although I’ve written previously about our visit to the mines, this article takes a more creative approach and I enjoyed crafting a story out of this experience.

Please check it out and let me know what you think.

Latin American history in 372 pages

Well, it’s actually 329 pages if we don’t include the glossary or index.


Despite the page count, this book does manage to cover both Central and South America. A sort of Latin American History for Dummies (amongst which I count myself).

I love history. But I’m not so into anything modern, and by that I mean post-Encounter (or as we in Europe tend to think of it as, the Conquest i.e. when all those explorers/treasure hunters sailed off to the New World). This book fills in everything that came after. Which is a lot.

It does this by focusing on three main countries (Mexico, Peru and Brazil), with forays into other places used as further examples or when they deviate from the threads of the story. Of course, there are parts which are skimmed over or mentioned only in passing. But on the whole the book does a good job of showing how the region as a whole developed, as well as giving insight into very specific events and people.

I like this book because it’s very readable – you can fly through a chapter in twenty minutes. At the end of each chapter, there’s a ‘countercurrents’ section which looks in more detail at some aspect that doesn’t quite fit the zeitgeist of the era or that offers a different perspective. So in the Nationalism chapter it takes a look at new immigration, Independence is paired with The Gaze of Outsiders. The book also weaves in lesser-known figures – such as nineteenth century Argentinian journalist Juana Manuela Gorriti, or Paulo Freire who, in the 1960s, worked with impoverished populations by developing a new way to teach literacy to adults.


There is a lot of politics and economics, but it’s always brought back to the impact on the general population. In fact, the explanations have helped me to understand some economic terms that I didn’t really understand before. This has given me a better understanding of broad patterns of history as well as the current situation of Latin America today.

The one thing that could have been better are the illustrations. Visual culture is hugely important for understanding and images can give us new ways to think about things in addition to making learning easier. It may be an under-grad textbook, but I’d still prefer more pictures.

But I guess that would be asking too much of only 372 pages.

Two books to read in Patagonia

In a tiny little shop in the middle of route 40 in Argentinian Patagonia, I saw a book that catalogued the entire archaeological record of the area. I really wanted to buy it, except I had no cash. Stupidly, I didn’t write down the name because I assumed they’d sell it in all the tourist shops once we reached El Calafate. They didn’t.

But I did find another book instead: “The Captive in Patagonia, or Life Among the Giants” by Benjamin Franklin Bourne (free ebook available here). Published in 1853, it’s the true story of an American who was captured by a group of indigenous people in southern Patagonia. The memoir details his capture, life amongst the Tehuelche people, and finally his escape.


Now, I said it’s a true story, but it definitely needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s have a look at his description of the people:

“The average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high…They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.”
(Page 54-55)

Even in a simple physical description, Bourne can’t help adding in a moral judgement. And this is really nothing compared to what else he claims in the book. He tells the story through a very biased lens, but what makes it interesting, and amusing, is that he turns this lens on everyone, not just his captors. Here’s his description of one of the sailors on his ship:

“Our mate, who was a sensible young man, of good education, had two foibles; he was a decided grumbler, and, in his conviviality, he was a little too far from total abstinence.”
(Page 211)

Whilst the accuracy could be called into question, the book gives a glimpse of life (both the Tehuelche’s and Bourne’s) that is fascinating and entertaining. It was the perfect book to read whilst I sailed on the Navimag Ferry through the endless islands of southern Chile.


It wasn’t until I got to Bolivia that I found the perfect companion book. “Tierra del Fuego” by Sylvia Iparraguirre, is based on real historical events that took place in the 19th century. It’s almost the exact opposite of Bourne’s story as here Iparraguirre chronicles the kidnapping of a Yámana boy, Jemmy Button, by Europeans and the ultimate consequences of this action.

Although narrated by a fictitious historical character, it’s written with a very modern sensibility and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the cultural superiority and colonialist attitudes exhibited by Bourne.

“Two years later in England, when Button was..speaking English fluently, I learned..that the impression I had made on him during those first weeks had been rather unflattering…It would have amused his people to see how someone so proud of what he knew..would turn into a know-nothing as soon as they left him on land…I was offended, but Button was right.”
(Page 66-67)


The narrative doesn’t always flow well, but knowing the eventual outcome of when Button was returned to his native land, made me keep reading to see how all the events led up to this. It also sent me to Wikipedia afterwards to learn more – something that a good historical novel should do, in my opinion.

The two books together give a great introduction to this period of history in Patagonia. I was fascinated with the artifacts and black and white photos in the museum in Bariloche, but with only Spanish labeling it was hard to understand everything. These two books gave me a different kind of understanding of these people and their way of life.

Touring the mines in Potosí with Big Deal Tours

I wasn’t entirely sure about wanting to go on a mine tour in Potosí. Every backpacker I met said it was a ‘must’ and I think half the population of Argentina had made a stop at Potosí while on their way to Machu Picchu, for exactly this reason.


But then I heard about Big Deal Tours (formerly Real Deal). It’s the only tour company organized and run entirely by ex-miners (some of whom used to work for another company) and consequently, all the profits go directly to the guides themselves. I decided that if I was going into the mines, this would be the way to do it. The fact that there was a tiny puppy sleeping on the desk in their office may also have influenced me.

We started off at the miners’ market to buy small gifts for the miners we’d meet. Our guide, Pedro, explained that gifts you can share (coca leaves or soft drinks, for instance) are better than buying something for just one man.


Next we put on protective clothing before visiting a processing plant. I was impressed they had a size to fit everyone – even the young Bolivian kids who were taking the tour with their parents and the lanky Australian with huge feet.





After learning about the process of metal extraction, we took a short bus ride to the mine entrance (with a one minute stop for a panoramic view of Potosí). For the next two hours we hunched over and trudged through underground tunnels; muddy, humid and incredibly dusty.


It made my back ache, but the only really difficult part was climbing up a cramped set of rickety ladders. We stopped plenty of times along the way, both to have a rest and to listen to Pedro as he explained more about the mine. We offered some 96% alcohol to Tío. We drank a few sips as well, and I actually found it to be not that bad (after just climbing three vertical ladders in a very small space where I couldn’t see above me, perhaps I needed something to steady myself).


There weren’t many miners working that day as most were out playing football or waiting for the air to clear after the explosions they had made earlier on. There were rail tracks in some tunnels, but the carts are all pushed by hand; Pedro explained that miners didn’t want to use much modern technology because it would mean job losses. I can’t help feeling this echoes a general Bolivian sentiment. Just recently in La Paz, the minibus drivers were striking in protest over reforms meant to improve the public transport system but which might require less drivers.


We emerged on the other side of Cerro Rico mountain and Pedro prepared a dynamite explosion for us (which the Australians had bought at the miners’ market). I’ve heard dynamite plenty of times now during protests in La Paz, but I’d never seen an explosion. The rest of the group jumped, but I didn’t. Probably because I was concentrating on getting a photo.


I can’t say if Big Deal Tours is better than other companies because this is the only tour I’ve done, but I suspect it is. The guides were amazing – informative and incredibly entertaining. The set-up was professional and the tour itself not too difficult or discomforting. Also, knowing that these are people in control of their own jobs and earnings, who have good relations with the working miners and who are working with young kids whose parents want them to get into tourism instead of mining, makes it feel worth spending twenty Bolivianos more than the tour offered at my hostel.

Big Deal Tours
Cost: 100 Bolivianos per person
Address: 1092 Calle Bustillos (at the corner of Bustillios and Ayacucho)
Time: tours leave at 8:30am and 1pm

What we learned from farm-sitting

We spent two weeks farm-sitting in Olmué, a couple of hours outside of Santiago. We learned how to live by ourselves without external entertainment (although we did find a DVD player during the second week) And at the pace of life dictated by the farm’s needs. In theory, we got an education in how to make hand-made organic wine – but sadly our efforts in this area were not too successful. By trial and error we discovered how to cook meals from absolute scratch, without any kind of processed or pre-packaged ingredient. I also learned that dogs will go crazy for peas.

See here and here for more of what we got up to.











Our volunteering was set-up through Workaway.

Lake Titicaca: Peru

We took a two-day, one night homestay trip to the islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. The colours were spectacular; the greens and browns of the islands themselves contrasted with the blues of the lake and sky, whilst the islanders’ bright clothes stood out vividly. Just don’t go expecting to be the only tourist.






20120923-094730.jpgDelicious lunch on Amantaní.


20120923-094925.jpgOur homestay host (left).





See a video of our trip to the islands.

El Jiri Ecolodge, Coroico

After nearly five months living at high altitude, I was parched. I needed a bit of tropical air and a weekend in Coroico was the remedy. We stayed at El Jiri Ecolodge, which sits halfway up the side of the valley, across from Coroico town.

20121006-172550.jpgView across the valley from El Jiri

Created and run by Mario Burgoa, El Jiri sits on the site of a former Jewish farmstead (grab a copy of the excellent book Hotel Bolivia, for more info about Jewish migration to Bolivia during World War Two). Mario explained that at the beginning it was tough because they had no electricity, but eight years on and they have ensuite cabins for guests and some very big fridges in the outdoor kitchen.


Our two-day, one-night stay was full-board and included a program of guided walks and activities (although there was plenty of time for lazing in hammocks too). By far my favourite was the chocolate making.

20121006-170200.jpgRoasting, grinding and making hot chocolate

The agricultural products from El Jiri are all produced on a small-scale by hand. We helped shell and grind the roasted cocoa beans, before making a delicious vat of hot chocolate from the pure cocoa butter.

20121006-172856.jpgUnprocessed coffee beans

The cocoa butter is sold to NamasTe for use in their restaurant and the coffee produced at El Jiri goes to Alexander’s (a Bolivian cafe chain). We saw the pre-roasted beans and learned that most coffee manufacturers don’t bother with removing the outer layer of the bean since it doesn’t impair the flavour and actually bulks out the weight of the product. But the highest quality coffee, sometimes called ‘green gold’, goes through this extra step and thus can be sold for a much higher price.

20121006-170648.jpgFernando leads the way

With the help of a machete, our young guide took us on jungle walks to a waterfall, Incan terraces, agricultural fields and a lovely mirador.

20121006-170524.jpgCoca seedlings and young plants

We learnt about the local flora and traditional agriculture techniques, as well as spotting lots of different kinds of birds (which were impossible to photograph).


On return, there was always a filling meal waiting for us. The food may not have been the most exciting (this is Bolivia after all), but it was always heartily received and the outdoor setting was a lovely place to dine.


At night we went to sleep early, listening to buzzing insects and whooping birds. The weather was not too hot at the end of September (although we were dripping with sweat after hiking along the jungle paths). I imagine in the rainy season it would be hard to get through all the mud and vegetation.


And you do need to walk a bit, no matter what, as El Jiri is only accessible on foot or by quad bike. From the La Paz-Coroico road you should get off the bus at Yolosita and get a taxi to Charobamba village, where it’s a 20 minute walk up hill. Or like us you could get all confused and get a taxi to the Charobamba foot bridge and end up walking all the way up the hillside for an hour and a half. It’s a nice walk either way.

20121006-180210.jpgOnce you see this sign, just follow the path across the river and up the hill.

We booked our trip through Classic Travel Bolivia for 382Bs per person. You can also book direct with El Jiri. A bus to Yolosita from Miraflores in La Paz costs 20Bs, and a taxi from there to Charobamba is about 120Bs return trip.

3 cool things in the Museo de Estancia Jesuitica, Alta Gracia

We went to Alta Gracia as a day trip from Cordoba. The town started out as a Jesuit estate and much of the tourism here is based around visiting the ruins (and Che Guevara’s childhood home).


The museum, housed in the 17th-century Jesuit quarters, has a collection of artifacts relating to both the history of the building and local life through the ages.

These are three of my favourite items, discovered as we wandered up and down stairs and in and out of Jesuits’ cells.

A gaucho’s stool made out of cattle bones.

The ceramic water purification system used in the 19th-century.

A gaucho’s cow udder bag.

Museum entrance fee: ARS$5
How to get there: take a bus from Cordoba, ARS$28 return fare. Tourist maps available from the bus station in town.

A postcard from La Serena Museo Arquelógico

Other than the famous statues on Rapa Nui, the pre-Columbian cultures of Chile are little known outside of Chile itself. To get better acquainted, you can visit La Serena Museo Arquelógico and its small but impressive collection of artifacts, including skeletal remains, early tools and a dinghy made from the hide of a sea-lion. It’s interesting to look at the maps and displays detailing the history of the early cultures, with a particular emphasis on the pre-Colonial Antofagasta and Coquimbo peoples, especially if you’ve already (or are about to) visit Valle del Encanto. There’s even a complete Moai statue on loan from Easter Island, which I felt pretty damn lucky to see, since a visit to the island isn’t cheap.

Located on the corner of Cordovez and Cienfuegos
adult/child CH$600/300
admission free on Sundays
Hours of operation
9:30am-5:50pm Tue-Fri
10am-1pm & 4-7pm Sat
10am-1pm Sun

Islands of Lake Titicaca: Uros, Amantaní & Taquile

During our trip to Puno, Peru to visit the Bolivian consul we had a few days spare to explore. From our hostel we took a 2 day, 1 night tour of the islands on the Peruvian side of the lake. Following a short stop at the Uros floating islands, we cruised to Amantaní where we stayed the night with a host family. After hiking to one of the island’s peaks, we attended a party thrown by the villagers. The next morning we left for Taquile. Another hike and lunch, then we took the boat back to Puno.

The tour seemed to be standard as we were grouped with people from different hostels and hotels and we kept bumping into the other groups everywhere we went. And there were a lot of groups! Yes, it was very touristy; the local islanders dressed up in traditional costume, we were given the hard sell everywhere and children sang ‘twinkle twinkle lechuga’ in an attempt to get our small change!

But, despite concerns about the commodification of culture, it was more educating and gave more chances to interact with locals than if we had just stayed in a hotel (of which there aren’t any on the islands). It did feel rather ‘false’ that there was a party for guests every night (or at least the two or three nights a week our host has tourists stay). But staying in a real house, watching Maria Fernanda cook over a fire, wandering around in the electricity-less night, it was an experience that I think was beneficial, and certainly very enjoyable, to us tourists. The next day on Taquile our guide explained how all the restaurants take turns to serve groups so the proceeds of tourism are spread evenly throughout the community (and judging from the amount of solar panels I saw, the proceeds must be quite sizable).

It’s certainly not a perfect model for ethnic tourism, but I have seen worse.

Bothy Hostel, Puno
Tour cost: 100 soles