Secret Bolivia Loves Part I: Silver Mines, Dinosaur Prints, and Chullpas

To many, Bolivia is a country of unknown places and people. People want to uncover and explore it. People dream of crossing into this unknown and secret land. With many of the world’s MOST _______ places (most driest, highest altitude lake, most remote, most unique cultures). But, for us, it was important to realize these people don’t need discovery. They’re just fine without tourists, having their MOST places and beautiful “third world” culture.  Their places are steeped in their traditions. We just got an amazing opportunity to meet these people and learn from them.

I must say, I was a bit daunted by Bolivia as well. We had no idea what the roads would be like, how easy it may be to buy foods we were accustomed to having, and how the language barrier would play itself out. To make things even more interesting, we began hearing about corruption and people asking for “donations.” Its unfortunate entering into an experience with pre-concieved notions of how it will be, but the reality is that we come up with these notions in order to figure out if it’s fight or flight time. And we were definitely going into Bolivia.


My “Brooklyn Guard” came right up as we approached the border. Having read about the long processing time and long lunch hours for the border guards on iOverlander, I prepared myself mentally. Perhaps this wasn’t the best approach. As soon as I got my guard up, my shoulder muscles tensed, I began to understand less of the Spanish around me, and began looking at every person around me as a potential pick pocketer.  Having successfully made the crossing (obviously), I wonder what it would be like to do that same border crossing now.

It probably didn’t help my attitude that we each needed to pay $160 USD for a 10 year visa into Bolivia. That sticker on the right hand side, $160 dollars.

Turns out it would only take us 2 hours to make the crossing. Between shuffling between the Chilean and Bolivian offices, waiting for the lunch “hours” to end, and running to money exchange and photocopying offices, things actually went pretty smoothly. That is until we reached the first police check point (within a kilometer of the Villazon border crossing), where the policeman asked for a “donation.” A donation? For WHAT?!?!?!????!??? This is where Todd’s lack of Spanish really comes in, “Disculpe Senor, yo no comprende” (Sorry Sir, I don’t understand) It’s true, we didn’t. How can a nation progress when it is openly accepted that people amend their salaries with these “donations”??? As we pulled off to the side of the road, wondering how this was all going to go down, a municipal bus pulled up to the checkpoint. And to our amazement, the bus driver extended his hand out the window and dropped the policeman a couple of coins.

I know its worthless to pass our judgement onto people because we haven’t walked in their shoes and we’re greatly unaware of the safety concerns of their daily life, but I couldn’t quite process why the people accept this as the status quo.  After a few awkward minuets we were allowed to pass the check point without handing over any cash.

With this first impression, we drove on with trepidation.  Our first night we stayed at a beautiful riverside campsite.  On day 2 we made it to Potosi.  Not the prettiest city, but home to the infamous Cerro Rico.

Bright and sunny Potosi keeps the miners and their families going.

Exploited by the Spanish since 1545 for its rich lithium, tin, and silver deposits.  Since the olden times so much wealth has been pulled from the great mountain that it is said to have shrunk over 1000 feet (300 meters) in height.  The working conditions of the mines are horrendous.  This is because the mines are privately owned by miner collectives.  On one hand, this is freedom for the miners.  They are allowed to make their own way without the interference.    The miners work in whatever condition they can afford, and must buy their own equipment and “engineer” their own support systems.  As you would expect, excess funds are in short supply.

There is a complicated process for a new miner to earn the right to mine.  After several years of working for someone else, they may make enough money to buy a stake in the mine and begin to work their own ore seam.  The miner may be lucky and the seam expands, providing him crazy riches.  Or the seam could disappear leaving the miner with nothing but debt.

Bolivia has a long history of fighting to get back control of their resources.  This fight has included kicking out foreign interests, like big mining companies.  One might say that this is good for the people, but on the other, when a nation welcomes a foreign company to uncover their resources the nation not only can collect a big chunk of proceeds, but they also have some influence on how they do it, like safety and environmental standards.  Bolivia may have taken back what is theirs, but they have also driven away any potential foreign money, knowhow, or technology from entering the country.  Fundamentally, the problem comes down to corruption.  People don’t like the ideas of giving the government any more power because it will just line the pockets of politicians.

Although the safety conditions are in question, we figured it was a great opportunity to really learn about daily working and living conditions.  We got quite a frame of reference.

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

The silver was taken by llama and mule train to the Pacific coast, shipped north to Panama City, and carried by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios or Portobelo, whence it was taken to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets. Some of the silver also made its way east to Buenos Aires, via the Rio de la Plata.

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If you would like to read more about what the mine tour was like for us, check out this link from Public Radio International, 2013.

Selling Orange Juice.


After three days in the big city we kept going north.  Very curious about what we would find next.

Potosi was as successful as it was because it was located close to Sucre.  Here during the Spanish occupation of Latin America the mining barrons had headquarters.  Families much preferred this warm climate and lower elevation.  We fell in love with this place.  Similar to Salta, it has gorgeous architecture and seems to be the crossroads for fruit coming in from the lowlands and it is just slightly peppered with universities.

After Potosi we drove north to check out dinosaur prints! We also happened to be passing through a small town with an awesome market so we made sure to walk through. This was some of the cheapest and tastiest produce we’ve bought (local!). There was also a beautiful mix of textiles and beautiful garments worn by the locals. I showed a lot of restraint with picture taking…

On to dinosaur prints! We found a flyer advertising a day trip to see dinosaur prints. Sounds like a tourist trap…but then we figured, why not. This place was so far off the beaten track that we actually picked up 4 locals who were waiting for a bus. They were pretty excited to see us and quickly climbed in our van.

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Each of the locals offered to pay us a fare as they were disembarking (this made us giggle a bit…and instead we asked for a photo!) I think they must have been a little surprised upon getting in because we don’t look like your average mini-van or like the other folks living in the small villages nearby. These folks were mainly Quechua speakers, so we had a bit of communication difficulty, but somehow we managed to find out that one of our passengers had a small museum in his house and he promptly invited us to check it out. We gladly took him up on it.

This is where it got interesting for me.  These archaeological finds were in this man’s personal possession and probably belonged to his ancestors.  He saw himself as a curator of the land and probably knows more about the customs and history than a museum curator.  But is it OK for him to have these pottery pieces in a personal non-govt museum?  On one hand, all the earnings from the museum entrance fee and hand made items he is selling go right back to him, but on the other, more people could learn about this area’s uniqueness if these treasures were advertised by a government agency.

What do you think?

Eventually we left the little museum and hiked up to see the monstrous prints.

I was very surprised that we came upon this remote jem.  Maragua certainly has a special place in my heart and it is what I think of when I think of Bolivia (closely thereafter is the Salar de Uyuni and Lagunas Ruta of course).

How could you not fall in love with such a place?

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And then out of nowhere as we headed north from Maragua a turn led us into a narrowing canyon, with lushness!

As though I have to try to persuade you even more.  Here is another jewel of Bolivia, National Park Sajama.  A protected area filled with hot springs, scenic hikes, and historic towns.

At one point I read about chullpas on our iOverlander app, but thought we would never come upon these graves as they seemed to be pretty remote. Lucky for us, we were off the beaten paths in Bolivia. These are some of the coolest graves I’ve ever seen. Its a shame they’re empty and most probably the belongings have been sent to some museum in the capital.

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Let’s be honest.  Life in Bolivia is not easy.  But there is something about the hardiness and kindness of these people.  I fell for this country, hard.  I realize everyday on this trip that we are EXTREMELY fortunate to have genuine experiences with people just going about their life.  We can travel to very remote places to learn about treasures these people are a part of.  Being among the high altitude sunshine and practicing our Spanish to glean something totally out of our comfort zones is what has made this trip a “once in a lifetime.”  Once in your lifetime you need to get out of your comfort zone and you will be immersed in something truly beautiful, other people.

We Traveled in Southern Bolivia from June 1st through June 10th.

One Reply to “Secret Bolivia Loves Part I: Silver Mines, Dinosaur Prints, and Chullpas”

  1. Great post; really captures the character of the people and geography. I’ve decided to include Bolivia in my trip, despite the negative recommendation of a tour guide fellow. I’m hearing the same thing from you guys and other couples touring down there: don’t skip Bolivia. Also, it may be one of the few places remaining in the world to experience human settlement at this basic level. Thanks for the posts.

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