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A Visit to the Devil in the Bolivian Mountain That Eats Men

Published July 27, 2020 in Bolivia - 0 Comments

About 5 years ago more or less…

I was living in a Bolivian city called Cochabamba.

Mostly for work reasons as I got approved for some NGO work in that city.

But I obviously felt that this was a great opportunity to explore the rest of Bolivia in my free time when available.

Sitting in the office of the NGO that I was working for…

This other American named Ryan is telling me about how he cancelled his trip to a region of Bolivia called Uyuni.

Why?

Because of some protests blocking certain roads and that made him more hesitant to travel around.

And, in his words, “Bolivians fucking protest over everything – if a kid slipped on a banana peel in Kazakhstan, they would protest it!”

Though I only spent 2 months in the country, that statement felt true in that period given the amount of protests I was seeing and some of the reasons for the protests…

Either way, I was not discouraged from making a trip to a Bolivian city called Potosi.

I was a bit young in that time, and arguably still young, and so I felt I was invincible.

Either way, Bolivian protests were not going to stop me from enjoying what this beautiful country has to offer!

So I went ahead with it and took a taxi to the local bus station where I could get a ticket to Potosi…

A city that I really wanted to see because I wanted to check out the mountain known as Cerro Rico.

Otherwise known as "the mountin that eats men" due to the millions that died there during colonialism.

And where many still die due to the working conditions and health risks of working in that mountain. 

The Journey to Potosi

As was typical with these bus trips in Bolivia…

Was that they were often overnight bus trips.

You have to understand that Bolivia is quite a big country.

Perhaps a bit bigger than what it appears on the map.

At least in my experience where it took forever to get anywhere from one city to the next.

So all of my bus trips around this region were overnight bus trips.

Though maybe that has to do also with the poorer infrastructure in this country and the mountainous terrain that makes it more difficult for busses to get around.

If I had to guess, I’d say that has something to do with it also.

Either way, it was a pain in the ass to do overnight bus rides.

Mostly because I always had difficulty sleeping on a bus in the same way I hate trying to sleep on a plane.

I will usually get, if I have some luck, maybe 1 to 3 hours of sleep.

Though, being as young as I was at this time, that was enough sleep to function properly the next day oddly enough.

Funny enough, I don’t think I could function the next day with so little sleep nowadays.

In the same way hangovers from drinking have gotten worse as I get older…

But I digress, that’s another topic for another day.

Either way, I try my best to sleep that night on this bus…

And, as I do with other overnight bus trips in Bolivia, I remember quickly waking up as the bus stops at different towns or what looked like villages to me.

Places that, though I don’t mean any disrespect, looked very fucking poor.

Out of all the places I have been to in Latin America, Bolivia is up there when it comes to how poor the more rural areas look.

Either way, I end up waking up again from another very short nap as the bus stops for apparently no reason!

Or, at the very least, no apparent reason to the sleepy and tired Matt of that year who was just waking up from a quick nap.

And I asked the guy next to me “what’s up? Why is the bus not moving?”

Well, from what I understood, the bus was not able to go along the route any longer.

And keep in mind that it wasn’t like this bus could simply just turn around easily.

As Bolivia is a very mountainous country…

With, often times, very poor infrastructure.

And it simply couldn’t just turn around on a mountain road in the middle of nowhere and take us back to Cochabamba.

But it couldn’t go down the road ahead because of a blockade that was occurring in this area at the time.

A blockaide that I didn’t look into very closely at the time but I did learn a little bit more as my trip went along…

From what I understood at the time, the blockade was invoked by a large group of miners in Potosi.

And keep in mind that Potosi is a city where so many people are employed as miners to extract the resources of the mountain – Cerro Rico.

So, in essence, the economy of this city, from what I understood, has a very heavy reliance on the work done in Cerro Rico.

Either way, the bus could not keep going.

And everyone on the bus had to get off the bus and basically walk into Potosi along the road.

At this point, it was around 6 AM from what I remember.

We had to get off the bus and basically walk along this road into Potosi as no vehicles larger than a motorcycle were able to enter or exit Potosi.

So basically I followed the crowd in front of me as there were actually crowds of people from other busses walking ahead of me.

We weren’t the only bus stopped from what I realized.

A funny thing to mention here…

Is that, in Bolivia, it is recognized among foreigners who have spent some time there that Bolivians hate giving you an honest answer to questions regarding distance.

What do I mean by this?

Well, I heard other foreigners mention this at the NGO I worked at but I didn’t get it until this point.

Where I would continue to walk along this route following the crowd ahead of me into Potosi…

And I would ask the occasional person I crossed on this road “how much more do I need to walk to reach Potosi?”

And literally, no joke, everybody…

Everybody.

Everybody!

Fucking Everybody!

Told me “30 minutes.”

No fucking joke.

And I probably asked this question at least 8 times.

Because we started the walk at around 6 AM and I got to the center of Potosi at around 10 AM more or less from what I remember.

So do Bolivians hate answering the question of “how much time to walk to this area?”

From that experience alone, other foreigners were right.

From what I discussed with other foreigners, it apparently has to do with not wanting to admit that you don’t know the answer to something.

Either way…

After about 4 hours of walking into Potosi, Bolivia….

I finally arrive to the city.

Arrival to Potosi, Bolivia

Upon entrance, I see right away a truck being driven around with a few armed men in the back of it.

And I noticed very quickly that all the streets in Potosi were blocked also by whatever objects the locals placed in the middle of the streets.

Be in old TVs or giant rocks or whatever…

So not only were they blockading any vehicles larger than a motorcycle from entering or leaving  Potosi…

They were also basically stopping any vehicles larger than motorcycles from moving around within the city.

Either way, I kept walking and…

Funny enough…

Or stupid enough?

I didn’t actually have a hotel or hostel ready for me with a reservation.

That’s how confident I was – showing up to an area that was having protests with no place to stay necessarily.

Call it stupid or call it confident – you do you.

Nowadays, I would call it stupid but that’s what happened.

Either way, I walked into the center of Potosi with trucks driving around with armed men in the back that I assumed were the protectors or defenders of the blockade or whatever they were…

And I walk into a few different hotels or hostels.

And, given my take on what was happening in this city and the fact I had to walk 4 hours to get here after the shortened bus ride…

I thought it would be best to go for the cheapest option since I wasn’t planning on spending too much money here.

I only had, I think, about 200 bucks, on me.

More or less.

I didn’t bring my debit card either.

I tend to not carry much on me in case I get robbed.

But in this case, maybe carrying more would have been a good idea.

OR not traveling here in general during this time.

But hey, don’t tell invincible Matt of those years that it would be a bad idea.

I was young back then and you all know young people are invincible!

Either way, I settle on the cheapest hostel and go from there…

Exploring Potosi, Bolivia

For the most part, the city seemed mostly dead in my time here.

Not as many people outside.

Definitely not many tourists.

In fact, the only guy I met was  German dude who happened to be studying in Chile and was taking a break from Chile to travel around South America…

We will get back to him in a second…

Either way, the city was mostly dead…

Though, given I don’t have long term experience here, maybe it has always been like this…

I will say this…

Regardless of my limited time here, I got the sense that this city was a city of ghosts..

Like how some folks will say that they felt weird going to a concentration camp in Europe…

It was a bit similar here where the city, despite the protests, felt like a very dead and depressing place to be.

A place of no hope.

My theory on that is because of the history of the place…

Keep in mind that this city, with its mountain Cerro Rico, was a central place for resource extraction for the Spaniards during colonial times.

And that resulted in millions of people dying in Cerro Rico to extract resources as slaves for the Spaniards.

The amount of resources stolen was immense.

And, to this day, the city still heavily relies, from what I understand, on people working in Cerro Rico to extract resources from it.

With many of them dying early in life due to health complications or accidents from their labor in this mine.

As you can see here below about the conditions and work environment within Cerro Rico.

It ain’t no fucking Disney World.

Oh, wait, that’s not the appropriate reference given people reading this are more into Latin America…

Better said…

It ain’t no fucking Cancun.

Either way, I decided to take a trip to Cerro Rico to see the inside of it since that is really the main spot of the city.

Outside of some museums from what I remember and other areas…

I was able to find a local company that would take me inside Cerro Rico…

So it then began…

Journey into Cerro Rico

There will be a lot of photos in this section of the article.

Upon walking up to the entrance of Cerro Rico, I took some photos like the one above.

And also this photo below that showed a declaration here, I suppose, of the miners that somewhat gave insight into why they were protesting and blockading everything.

Then we go inside the mountain of Cerro Rico…

The mountain where millions of men have died extracting resources from it.

And still do to this day.

Because other job opportunities are not always plentiful for everyone.

Here you can see more photos of the inside of this mountain…

And our guide told us about some of the risks involved in the labor.

How accidents happen and all.

And people die.

Or how people often die from health risks associated with working in mining long term.

And then we came across El Tio…..

As you can see below here…

This fellow is the devil of Cerro Rico, I suppose you can say.

From what I was told, the miners leave behind things like coca leaves, a little bit of liquor or cigarrates to El Tio.

As a way to get good luck hopefully so that they don’t die in Cerro Rico while working under these conditions.

In a way, the existence of El Tio really resembled, to me anyway, the desperate conditions some of the folks work under in Cerro Rico.

Where literally you are giving a contribution to a symbolic statue of the devil in hopes you don’t die from your time in Cerro Rico.

Even though, many do.

And from what I learned, there are not really many other good job opportunities in Potosi.

Either way, here are some more photos of our time in Cerro Rico below…

And finally, we left Cerro Rico and my time in the mountain where millions of men died…

Either through colonialism or through the extraction of resources for the financial benefit of the elites of whatever country…

Was over and I went back to my hostel.

Can You Leave Potosi?

I woke up in my hostel bed in Potosi, Bolivia…

And I go downstairs and ask the manager of the hostel about current conditions….

He has been telling me that efforts have been made to get people out of the city if they need to…

But the efforts are not ready yet.

I thank him for the updated info and I go get myself some breakfast.

At the table was a German dude who I had not met yet.

A young man such as myself…

He had been studying in Chile and took some time to travel through South America.

We spent our time talking about our travels through Latin America…

And he was telling me about how he hates being called gringo as he is not from the US.

And he always see that word as being for people from the US.

But, in his words, he often feels local people in Latin America to assume that all white people are American.

Which, to be fair, is something I have seen in that there is some racial stereotyping as to seeing a white person and assuming they are from the US.

Though, as I am from the US myself, it doesn’t bother me so much…

But we have our discussion either way over breakfast and discuss the situation at hand….

As he tells me that he is running out of money to be staying in Potosi forever.

That he needs to return to Santiago, Chile and has been stuck in Potosi for a day or two more than I have been by this point…

And, similarly, I was also running out of money as I was not planning on being stuck in a city blockade where no transportation could take me back to Cochabamba.

But, thankfully for both of us, we had luck the next day or two….

Escaping Potosi, Bolivia

I woke up again in this hostel in Potosi, Bolivia…..

And I asked the hostel owner….

“What’s the latest news?”

He finally gives me good news.

That there are vehicles outside of Potosi that are available to take people to different parts of Bolivia depending on the routes they have…

I assume the German guy got wind of this also – though I didn’t have the chance to tell him.

I got my shit and got out.

I asked the hostel owner if I could take a map of the city that he had at the counter of the hostel desk.

He had a bunch of these maps for his guests and it was OK if I took one.

So I got my shit together and used the map to find my way out of Potosi.

The hostel owner, before I left, took a pen and marked where I need to go to find the vehicles waiting to take people to other cities of Bolivia.

Now I start walking to get out of Potosi…

Help from Bolivian Police

As I began walking, I quickly find out that I have no idea where I am going.

I am walking around Potosi and staring at this big map at all the different streets…

And trying to follow the map to get me closer to where I am supposed to be…

But, ultimately, I fail to use the map obviously as I get lost.

And around that moment, I see a vehicle of a bunch of Bolivian police or Bolivian authorities in general.

Not sure what they were exactly as I forgot – could have been police or military or whatever.

Either way, I’m not as skeptical about police in Latin America as I became later in life as you can find out reading this story here

Instead, I go up to them and basically use the best Spanish to explain my situation.

That I’m trying to leave Potosi but I’m lost basically….

Either way, they get what I am getting at and help me out.

Which is incredible looking at it….

With hindsight now looking at life in Latin America…

Pretty nice of them to help me out since there is so much corruption down here.

They didn’t even ask me for a bribe – very impressive.

About as professional as you could hope for down here.

And that type of professionalism is usually in your sueños.

Either way, they agree to take me to where I need to go.

I get in the back of their vehicle and they go on about a 10 minute ride to the exact street where I need to be.

And they tell me “just go down this road, straight until the end, and you will come across all the vehicles lined up to take you where you need to go.”

Great.

And so I begin the walk…

Finally Leaving Potosi

It probably took me at least an hour to maybe two hours to get to the actual vehicles that were lined up to take people to wherever.

And in that walk, I was pretty pissed at the locals blockading everything and making it difficult for me to leave…

So as I kept walking, I would take an occasional rock or whatever and move it to the very end of the road.

Just to put a gap in their blockades along the way…

As a way to say “fuck all of you for pissing me off.”

And eventually I get to where the vehicles were…

I thought I had some photos of it but couldn’t find any of the vehicles…

I guess I was smart enough at the time to not whip out my phone during a circumstance like this…

Either way…

If I remember right, I couldn’t get a vehicle directly to Cochabamba.

Or maybe I didn’t look hard enough.

But, if I remember right, I think the first vehicle took me to a Bolivian city called Oruro.

And essentially, I took a bus to a nearby Bolivian city…

I think Oruro or whatever it was.

And I ended up showing up to that city around night time.

And thankfully, as I had no hotel or hostel reservation obviously in whatever city it was…

I was able to find a small van that was taking people back to Cochabamba that same night from that city.

Again, I think it was Oruro.

Either way, it was another overnight trip and I eventually arrived to Cochabamba again….

While it was a slightly stressful trip…

It was interesting also to see everything I did during that trip.

Memorable, to say the least.

Best regards,

Matt

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