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 travelled around for already three weeks I finally headed to Bolivia. My route ran from Arequipa, the city in Peru, to El Alto airport 13 km west of La Paz, the 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 the water. Arequipa isn’t that low either, around 2000 m above the sea level. 4000m is still another number so I got a little tired when landing at El Alto airport but I was fortunate enough to have the connection flight only 3 hours later to Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia (the real capital is La Paz).

El Alto

I managed to successfully land in La Paz and had to wait in the transit area for my next flight for around three hours. So I spent some time drinking coffee and working on my laptop in the café. I didn’t have any hand luggage except for the small bag and my laptop – my baggage was checked in and automatically transferred from Arequipa to the flight to Sucre. It was still one hour before the flight when I came to the gate where they told me I missed it. Of course, there is a time change between Peru and Bolivia I wasn’t aware of. Basically, it’s one hour ahead in Bolivia, so I was just going to the gate when the plane was departing.

In Europe, it is not possible that a flight leaves with your baggage on it due to the safety regulations. This time, however, I wasn’t on the plane while my baggage was flying to Sucre! Anyway, I missed my flight, and Sucre was around ten hours away by bus.

It was already in the evening, around 6 pm, and luckily I had my money and other important things with me but I didn’t know what to do. I still wanted to go to Sucre and take my bag so I had no other choice but to leave the airport and get to La Paz downtown.

From El Alto at 4000 m you go down to 2050 m in La Paz. I got to the bus station at around 8 o’clock. The last bus was leaving at 8 pm. There are overnight 12-hour buses to Sucre so it was my only option to take. I got the last-minute ticket and it luckily worked. That’s how I finally set off for Sucre. It was an extremely bumpy 12-hour ride through the night which I had to take instead of a comfortable 45-minute flight. You won’t see much from the bus to Sucre. But as I took my seat I got to know a very nice guy from Germany who was sitting beside me. He recommended some interesting books and we had a nice talk. The next morning, I arrived in Sucre, went straight to the airport where I received my bag. Then I headed 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 word “sucre” is translated from Spanish as “sugar”, but the city was named so in honor of Antonio José de Sucre, the Great Marshal of Peru, one of the leaders of the struggle for the independence of the Spanish colonies in Latin America in 1810–1826, and the President of Bolivia in 1826-1828. The city of Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but most governmental institutions are located in La Paz. There are around 300 thousand people living in Sucre.

Sucre

Bolivia is very cheap and Sucre was even cheaper. I think I went to the best steak house in town. My budget was around $30 per day, I predominantly stayed in hostels, but I ordered the best steak they had, chateaubriand fillet, it was quite a good steak, and half the bottle of wine and had to pay around 6 EUR – so cheap it was.

From Sucre I headed south to Potosi (4070 m), one of the highest mountain cities in the world. It was once the richest and the largest city in America. The majestic silver mountain of Cerro Rico towers above the city where it all began once in the XVI century. The conquistadors never found the golden city of El Dorado, but they got their hands on all the silver of Potosi. Enormous amounts of this metal were mined in Cerro Rico, a huge number of Indians and slaves from Africa died there, working under inhuman conditions. According to historians, about 10 million people died underground. 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. This is only manual labor. There is nothing to breathe inside, everything rests on some kind of support beams, and you have to sometimes even squat in ankle-deep water in some tunnels. Workers here have 6-12 hour shifts. But, despite all this horror, it is considered a good job. A simple miner can earn $ 340 per month, while an average salary in Bolivia is $ 200.

Me in darkness deep in the mine of Potosí

The cool thing is that you can join the miners at work in the mountain and that’s what I did. You can go deep into the mine and see how the miners are working. It’s a very special trip. The miners in Bolivia don’t normally live long. Many of them die at the age of 40, 45, even 35 due to the accidents in the mine and bad pollution which is harmful to their heart and lungs. I chose to go there for only 2 hours. You get all the equipment you need including the head torch and other things. We also bought some stuff to donate to the miners, like the coca leaves which are very popular in Bolivia, some drinks and some dynamite – which is the most expensive – but you can actually lay your own dynamite and let it explode. This is, in fact, one of the main things why people go into that mine – to do a dynamite experiment and let it explode.

Light at the end of the tunnel

These two or three hours were probably the most tiring in my life because of the altitude of 4000 m and the thin air inside the cave, and also because I’m 2 meters tall whereas the cave is 1,50 meters so I had to bend all the time which made it quite hard for me to move around. At some point, I was left behind and then my light went out. Apparently, I was standing by myself in the pitch darkness where you can’t see a face and the rest of the group went further so I just screamed loudly until someone came and repaired my torch.

We did a lot of walking through the mine and after it felt like several kilometers we came to the end where the miners were. On the way to the miners I heard the dynamite exploding and some vibration of the walls. It was quite an experience. In the end, we got to the miners, donated our stuff and took some pictures of them. Luckily, we got out safely from the mine, no dynamite exploding at the wrong time 🙂

Here’s looking at you, Kid!

This is how I had one of the most tiring and challenging trips but one of the most memorable experiences of my life.