How I Missed my First Flight and got Lost in the Pitch-Dark Silver Mine. My First Ever Trip to Bolivia

Six years ago, in February 2014, I was on my first South American trip. Having traveled around for already three weeks, I finally headed to Bolivia. My route ran from Arequipa, a city in Peru, to El Alto airport 13 km west of La Paz, a city in Bolivia.

El Alto airport is the highest international airport in the world. It is located at an altitude of 4,061.5 m above sea level. Arequipa isn’t very low in altitude to begin with, it’s around 2,000 m above sea level. Either way, 4,000m is another ball-game, so it’s no wonder I got a little tired after landing at El Alto airport. Thankfully, my connecting flight to Sucre was only three hours later. If you don’t already know, Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia (the real capital is La Paz).

View of El Alto from the sky.

After managing to successfully land in La Paz, I spent my transit waiting time drinking coffee and working form my laptop at a café in the airport. I didn’t have any hand luggage except for a small bag and my computer – all my baggage was checked in and it was automatically transferred from Arequipa onto the flight to Sucre. It was still one hour before the trip when I arrived at the gate only to be told I had missed my flight. Of course, there is a time change between Peru and Bolivia, and I wasn’t aware of it. Basically, it’s one hour ahead in Bolivia, so I was headed to the gate just as the plane was taking off.

In Europe and North America, it is protocol that a flight can’t take off with your luggage if you’re not also on board, this is due to the safety regulations. This time, however, I wasn’t on the plane while my baggage was well on it’s way to Sucre! It was unfortunate, but at least I could carry onwards without having to worry about dragging my luggage around. Long story short, I missed my flight, and Sucre was around ten hours away by bus… great.

By this time it was already early evening, around 6 pm, and luckily I had money and other essentials with me, but I didn’t know what to do. I still wanted to go to Sucre and pick up my bag, so I had no other choice but to leave the airport and get to La Paz on my own.

To continue my journey, I had to get from El Alto at 4,000 m, down to 2,050 m in La Paz. I finally got to the bus station at around 8 o’clock, just in time to take the last bus of the day, which was set to departed at 8 pm. This overnight (12-hour) bus to Sucre was my only option at this point, and I arrived at the station just in time to grab a last-minute ticket and luckily it all worked out.

That’s how I finally set off for Sucre… on an extremely bumpy 12-hour ride through the night, instead of my initial booking on a comfortable 45-minute flight. I don’t have much to show from the bus ride to Sucre; but I’ll tell you about the nice German guy who was sitting beside me. He recommended some exciting books, and we had an excellent chat. The next morning, I arrived in Sucre and went straight to the airport to collect my luggage. After the ordeal was finally over, I headed out to discover the city.

View on La Paz

Sucre is a snow-white colonial city of red roofs, once called the White City (Spanish: La Ciudad Blanca). In 1991 the old central district of Sucre was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city got its name in honor of Antonio José de Sucre, the Great Marshal of Peru, and one of the leaders in the fight for independence from the Spanish colonies in Latin America during 1810–1826. Today, the city of Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia with around 300 thousand inhabitants, however, most governmental institutions are located in La Paz, making it the real capital of the country.

Sucre

Back then (and still today) the cost of living in Bolivia was very cheap, and Sucre at that time was even more affordable. For instance, I went to the best steak-house in town and ordered the best steak they had – chateaubriand fillet – and it was quite a good; I also had half a bottle of wine and the total cost was around 6 EUR… SO cheap. Needless to say, the city was a great fit with my budget of about $30 per day. Mind you, I stayed mostly in hostels but still got to indulge in great food and all within my budget.

From Sucre, I headed south to Potosi (4,070 m), one of the highest mountain cities in the world. It was once the richest and the largest city in the Americas. The majestic silver mountain of Cerro Rico towers above the town, where it all began in the XVI century. The colonizers never found the golden city of El Dorado, but they got their hands on all the silver of Potosi. Enormous quantities of this precious metal were mined in Cerro Rico by a considerable number of natives and slaves from Africa; most of which died there, working under inhumane conditions. According to historians, about 10 million people have died inside these mines.

For four centuries, Potosi was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world. And now, four centuries later, people work in almost the same conditions (only manual labour) without really reaping any fruits from their labour. There is no proper ventilation to allow you to breathe properly inside, everything rests on doggy support beams, and the only way to get through some of the tunnels, is by squatting in ankle-deep water… Imagine how it was for me standing at a mere 6’7″ in height. Workers in these mines have 6-12 hour shifts, and despite all the horrible working conditions, working in these mines is considered an excellent job by locals. A simple miner can earn $340 per month, while the average salary in Bolivia is less than $200.

Me in darkness deep in the mine of Potosí

The interesting part for me was that you could join the miners at work in the mountains, and that’s exactly what I did.  During these excursions, you can go deep into the mines and see how the miners work first hand. It’s an exceptional experience. After this visit I understood why the miners in Bolivia don’t usually live very long. Many of them die at the age of 45, 40, even 35 due to accidents and terrible pollution in the mines, the environment is super harmful to their heart, lungs and who knows what else.

My my field trip, I chose to go in for only 2 hours, the operators make sure you get all the equipment you need, including the head torch and other such things. We also brought some stuff to donate to the miners, like coca leaves (which are very popular in Bolivia), some drinks and some dynamite – which is the most expensive – but you can lay your dynamite and let it explode. This is, in fact, is one of the main reasons why people go into that mine – to do dynamite experiments and make things explode.

Light at the end of the tunnel

These two-to-three hours were some of the most tiring hours in my life, partly because of the 4,000 m of altitude and the thin air inside the cave, and also because I’m 2 meters tall and the cave is only 1,50 meters, so I had to slouch the entire time, which made it quite hard for me to move around. To make things more interesting, at one point, I was left behind and then my light went out. I found myself standing alone in the pitch dark mine where I couldn’t even see my hand in front of me, the rest of the group had kept going further, so I just started screamed until someone came and fixed my torch.

We did a lot of walking through the mine, and after what felt like several kilometers, we came to an end where the miners were hanging out. There were more chilling moments on the way to the miners, I heard dynamite exploding and felt the tunnel walls vibrating, it was quite a surreal experience. In the end, we got to the miners, donated our stuff, and took some pictures with them. Luckily, there was no dynamite exploding at the wrong time and we managed to leave the mine safely 🙂

He’s looking at you, Kid!

This was by far one of the most physically demanding and challenging trips I have had to date, however, it is certainly one of the most memorable experiences of my life.