En route to Uyuni I made a brief stop in Potosi. This is only a short distance from Sucre, around three hours on a bus, and costs a suspiciously cheap £2.
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world, sitting at more than 4,000 metres above sea level. As with La Paz before, I found the altitude a bit of a challenge.
At one time Potosi was a huge city, made wealthy by the abundant silver mines. The mines gradually got depleted, first of silver and then of tin, and now they mine for rare earths.
Conditions in the mines haven’t changed much since the silver mining heyday. Miners usually die by their forties, from the dust, (the silicon in the dust causes silicosis), the arsenic in the water running down the walls, the asbestos or the frequent ceiling cave-ins; take your pick from that lot really.
If you want a vivid picture of what it is like working in the mines, you should watch the documentary ‘the Devil’s Miner’. This follows the story of a 14 year old boy working down the mine to pay for his schooling and help support his family. It is a very moving story and unfortunately is not an isolated case; children frequently do work in the mines.
There are tours down into the mine, in fact this is the number one tourist attraction in Potosi, although I decided not to go. There are ethical concerns about some of these trips, but really I decided not to go because 3-4 hours crawling around underground breathing in deadly dust and knowing there is an ever-present likelihood of a ceiling collapse is not my idea of fun.
The bus on to Uyuni from Potosi leaves from the ‘old’ terminal. This journey takes around four hours or more (meaning they tell you four hours so expect that to be a minimum).
I bought my ticket the day before from one of the many travel agents in town; it cost 48 bolivianos (that’s less than £5 or around US$7). It’s probably a little cheaper if you buy at the ‘station’, but I didn’t fancy hanging around there with my bags waiting to find a space on a bus.
We left shortly after eleven and got there around four in the afternoon. There was one brief stop along the way, where the men got out and peed against a convenient wall. Bolivian buses don’t have bathrooms (even though if you ask you will be told there is one). Men obviously have the advantage here, although I have learnt that a long, flared skirt is handy to wear for these journeys, should you want to join the men for these little breaks. I only do it if I’m desperate though; in fact the one time I did I looked up to find I had a small audience.
The town of Uyuni isn’t too exciting; just a few dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of streets full of tour operators and pizza places. Uyuni’s attraction, obviously, is tours into the nearby salt flats (‘salinas de Uyuni’) and that is what I made my way here for.
As I sat shivering in my hostel room the night before I kept telling myself ‘I hope this is worth it’.