Tag Archives: religion

Horseriding Through Inca Ruins

Getting sick while travelling is never fun. We were struck down with a combination of the flu and food poisoning, and were forced to lie low in Cusco for a few days feeling sorry for ourselves. Luckily we were staying in a really beautiful old colonial building near the main plaza (Ecopackers Hostel), which had a great TV room full of lounges and beanbags so we didn’t do much apart from rest there.

When we started to feel better we felt like we needed to see a few things in one go so we were pretty happy to find a half-day horseriding tour that goes to all the main archaeological sites around Cusco. This was a quick and easy way to tick a few things off the list ($35 booked through the hostel) while having a bit of fun riding horses past some beautiful scenery.

Scenery around Cusco.

Our fifth horse ride in South America was lovely. It was a nice change to ride a horse that wasn’t starving or looking like it would collapse underneath us!

We started by driving out to pick up the horses and rode in a loop to visit the Qenko ruins, the Salapunco moon temple, the fortress of Puca Pucara, and the water temple of Tambomachay. We finished up the tour with a quick visit to the famous archeological site of Sacsayhuaman before the sun set.

Traditional Inca dress.


While not the most impressive of Incan ruins, we were excited because these were the first major ruins we had seen. It looked like a pile of rocks from a distance, but up close you could see that the rocks had been cut and placed there for a specific purpose. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed much of the Incan architecture but it is possible to see that there were huge rock statues of pumas at the entrance to these ruins. There is also a carved stone that apparently casts a shadow of a puma’s head when the sun rises on the winter solstice.

Qenko ruins with what once was a puma statue.

Our guide also pointed out several significant ceremonial sites, including where the Incas performed sacrifices (mostly llamas). One rock had a platform for the sacrifice, with two crevices cut into the base below for blood to drain through. Apparently the Incas used this as a way to tell the future depending on which path the blood flowed down.

Channels cut into the stone for ceremonies.


Not far from Qenko is Salapunco, otherwise known as the Temple of the Moon. Again it just looked like a giant pile of rocks and we wouldn’t have taken much notice if it wasn’t pointed out to us. The entrance inside the cave had snakes carved into it and led to a small chamber. This chamber featured a platform that was lit by a crevice in the roof. Apparently the Incas would perform rituals here when the full moon passed over the rock, casting light into the chamber. You can see where the script writers for Indiana Jones have been geting their ideas!

As we entered the cave we disturbed a group of people who had apparently been meditating in the caves for several days. Cusco and the Sacred Valley attract a lot of spiritual tourists and these temples were no exception!

The Temple of the Moon.

The platform underneath the hole in the roof of the Temple of the Moon.

Puca Pucara

The ruins at Puca Pucara are a collection of stone buildings overlooking a valley. While no one really knows exactly what it was used for, there are theories that it was either a fort or checkpoint along an Inca road leading to Cusco. We do know that the Incas used to tax farmers by demanding a portion of the seasonal yield be donated to the empire. It is likely that Puca Pucara was a site for storing this food and tallying the contributions from neaby provinces.

People may be interested in knowing that the Incas did not write or use paper. Intead, they would send messages using quipu, which recorded information using multiple chords that would feature several knots. These would be interpreted in a similar fashion to morse code and allow basic accounting. Messengers would transport these records across the empire, on foot using a relay system. Apparently the runners were renown for their speed and stamina.

Tambo Machay

We were running out of time if we wanted to make it to Sacsayhuaman before it got dark, so we tied the horses up to a fence and caught a minivan up the hill to the water temple. There are ruins everywhere along the road, with the remains of various temples, lookouts and fortresses scattered throughout the landscape. After walking a short distance up the hill (which is harder than it sounds because of the altitude) we came across the ruins of Tambo Machay. This temple has carefully cut stones that channel fresh water from a spring in the mountain down through the terraces to a fountain. Nice.


The giant stones used to construct the fortress of Sacsayhuaman have left many people perplexed. The stones at these ruins are so massive that they have caused some theorists to conclude that they must be the work of aliens. Some stones have been discoloured from people touching them after claiming that the rocks have a particular energy that emanates from them – or it could just be that they are in the direct line of daily sunshine, which heats up a massive black surface and generates heat…either way, there is no denying that it would have been a huge undertaking to cut such giant pieces of stone and place them together so perfectly (the largest stone is 8.5m tall and weighs 361 tons). Apart from their size, there are also archways and patterns in the stones such as snakes and llamas.

Giant stones placed together at Sacsayhuaman.

Stones placed in the shape of a llama (looking right).

The Spanish Conquistadores destroyed most of Sacsayhuaman when they were trying to overthrow the last of the Incas, but it is possible to get an impression of how imposing it would have been. Something also impressive about this site is that the zig zag shape of the fortress forms the shape of a puma head, which is connected to Cusco, whose original shape was that of the puma body and legs. Clever!





Cusco (also spelt Cuzco and Qosqo) is essentially base camp for anyone looking to explore the heart of the Inca empire. A picturesque World Heritage Site, it hosts both impressive inca ruins and cobbled colonial suburbs. It is rich in history and one could spend a comfortable week exploring the town and it's immediate surroundings.

The Cathedral, Plaza de Armas.

The city centres around Plaza de Armas, an impressive square flanked by old colonial shop fronts and two impressive churches, the Cathedral and the Jesuit's Church. The former is a must visit. The Cathedral features a massive basilica with ornate wooden carvings, shrines and great stone pillars. The Cathedral hosts the remains of Gasilasco de la Vega, the Spanish chronicler of the Incas, and you will also see the famous Last Supper painting with a slight twist – roast guinea pig has been added to the table.

Top: The Cathedral at left and the Jesuit's Church on the right. Bottom: Shops overlooking Plaza de Armas.

Plaza de Armas at night.

The Jesuit's Church.

Plazoleta de San Blas.

Although the Spanish did their best to tear down most buildings of significance to the Incas, it is still possible to seethe remains of the Qorikancha, the Inca's principle Temple of the Sun. Garcilasco de la Vega reports that the Temple was an awesome site to behold, with the inner chambers lined wall to ceiling with plates of gold. Apparently each Inca emperor competed with his predecessor to make the Temple more impressive. At one point it featured a garden of silver and gold plant sculptures and hosted a wall size golden image of the sun.

Of course Pizarro and his thugs raided this with rabid glee, melting down the metals and using the gold to build their fortunes and that of the Spanish empire. To help further break the spirit of the Incas the Spanish built a church and convent on the site. Today only the foundations remain.

The site of the Qoricancha. There is a museum underneath the lawn in the foreground.

While we were there several parades popped up in Plaza de Armas. They wore elaborate costumes and played drums and wind instruments. We never fully understood why so many were staged or by whom, but they were fun to watch and proof of South America's love of festivals.

Of course any visit to Peru requires a tasting of guinea pig. This animal has been cherished as a food source since before the Conquistadores so Mark was keen to give it a go. Some friends of ours were also in town so we met up with them at a locally recommended restaurant.

Roast coy with stuffed pepper and spaghetti.

The meat was tasty, sort of a cross between mutton bird and lamb. Mark enjoyed it but of course Saskia abstained!

Cusco was good fun, the architecture is fantastic and there is a lot to see with many museums, restaurants and shops. This is a good place to buy alpaca textiles that would be considered fashionable back home, just be prepared to pay a higher price for it. There is also a lot of art for sale, we recommend stopping by at the Puna shop for music, graphic art and books (we bought several cds, including a fusion of electronica and cumbia by Dengue! Dengue! Dengue!).


On the Incas

Equatable with the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas made a significant impact during their empire's brief reign. They were the apex of Precolombian civilisation on South America's West Coast and Cusco was the heart of their empire.

Cusco remains to be a highlight of the trip. We were so excited to be there, we'd read so much about the Incas and we were keen to go deep. We spent two weeks in and around Cusco exploring ruins, visiting museums, learning about the culture and planning our trips. The fact that we had friends in the city at the same time just added to the buzz.

But before we get into the adventures some may appreciate a bit of background on the Incas. This was important for us because, although Saskia had always wanted to visit, I (Mark) had always viewed it with some skepticism. Basically I tend to approach popular spots such as this with wariness – does it really deserve to be popular or does everyone head there simply because it's the done thing? So one of the first things we did when we arrived in South America was buy a couple of books on the Incas to work out why Machu Picchu is important and find our own reasons to go there.

Statues of the Incas great ancestors, Manco Capac and his sister Mama Ocllo. They stand at the base of Escalera del Inca on Isla del Sol.

The Rise of an Empire

According to Inca mythology the first Incas came to Cusco from Isla del Sol. This creation theory is important because the island was considered by many tribes to be the origin of the sun god and therefore the Incas were the sun god's descendants.

Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas, Cusco.

The general consensus, however, is that the first Incas lived in the region around Cusco. Their quest for empire was triggered by an unsuccessful invasion from a neighbouring tribe, the Chanca, in 1438 AD. The Incas' unlikely victory inspired a belief that they were supported by the gods and a new visionary leader, the famous Pachacutec, came to power.

Pachacutec drove the Incas to build an empire, which would be called Tawantinsuyu, with Cusco as its capital. They first expanded south into Bolivia and his son, Tupac Inca pushed north into Ecuador. Through a mix of subjugation and alliances the Incas were able to extend their empire as far south as Santiago and as far north as Quito. They cleverly maintained power through forced relocation of tribes and the use of Inca tribesmen to act as governors in conquered territories. In this way they reduced the risk of rebellion and created a reigning elite based on Inca bloodlines.

To borrow a quote, “within a generation the Incas had grown from an anonymous small tribe of the Cusco valley to become the dominant force in the Andes” (A. Stewart, 2011).

Inca Sites and Network Theory

Pachacutec's vision was of a giant network of sacred centres connected by a system of roads. At each of these sacred centres he constructed large towns or fortresses. These served as centres of worship, commerce and symbols of dominance for the empire.

He recruited talented masons and constructed the gold plated sun temple Qorikancha and the fortress Sacsahuaman. He has also been attributed with building Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.

Example of Inca stonework. No mortar is used.

His stone road network, the Capac Ñan, is estimated to have covered up to 30,000 kilometres, or 20,000 miles. The famous Inca Trail is actually part of this network but you will find restored sections of road in many parts of the Andes.

We will talk about this a bit more in latter posts but what is really impressive is the alignments between the towns, sacred geological landmarks and winter and summer solstice lines. Pachacutec was a genius who designed an empire that had an intimate relationship with nature and the gods.

Art and Religion

Prior to the Inca assumption of power several small civilisations existed along the coast and the Andes. These cultures, which go back over 5,000 years, developed art and religious concepts that were eventually adopted by the Incas.

Ceramic pot depicting the head of someone significant.

The primary and enduring concept was that the world was divided into three realms: the subterranean, the earth and the heavens. Each of these had deities ascribed to them in the form of the serpent (subterranean), the feline (earth) and the bird of prey (heavens).

Religious beliefs were also linked to nature with worship of the sun and water and a reverence for the elements. These civilisations also conducted ceremonies and sacrifices (mostly llamas but also people) that aimed to appease the gods and ensure the seasons were favourable and the land produced bountiful crops.

Perhaps the most well known aspect of Inca art was their obsession with gold and silver. The stories from the Conquistadores are hard to believe but the Incas decorated their temples with extravagant displays of gold. The Qorikancha, their main sun temple, was apparently a marvel to behold and featured a garden of plants sculptured out of silver and gold. The lords and nobles also used metal adornments such as hats, ear plugs, nose rings, necklaces and arm bands. Cusco must have been an amazing place before it was lost.

The Conquistadores

Many will be familiar with this story so I will keep it brief. In 1527 AD the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish 'entrepreneurs' first came into contact with the Incas. The meeting was relatively minor and it was not until 1532 that Pizarro was able to meet with an Inca of high nobility. By this time the Inca empire had reached its zenith and was in decline. The empire had been torn apart by the rival sons of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, grandson of Pachacutec, who had died of a pestilence introduced from Europe (smallpox). The war and disease had left the empire weakened and Pizarro saw an opportunity.

The heads of war clubs used by the Incas.

A meeting was arranged with the victorious Atahualpa in Cajamarca, northern Peru. It was here that Pizarro and his company of 168 men met with Atahualpa's army of 80,000. Reports state that the Spaniards were not prepared for such a large, well organised army, and spent their first night planning how to survive the next day. Astonishingly, they decided to try and ambush the emperor and hold him to ransom. They had camped inside the town of Cajamarca, which had been deserted. Pizarro ordered his soldiers inside the surrounding buildings and to wait for the order to attack. The Sapa Inca was lured into the central plaza in the belief that the Spaniards could be easily dominated. The trap was sprung. Using cannons, rifles and swords, the Spaniards massacred Atahualpa's retinue and took him hostage.

Pizarro's plan worked and he was rewarded with a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver as ransom. Buoyed by this victory, Pizarro slaughtered his captive and began the shockingly rapid and ambitious destruction of an empire and its culture.

By 1572 the Incas had effectively been subjugated, their gold and silver plundered, their cities burned and religious sites desecrated.

Fortunately the Spanish did not completely erase all trace of the Incas' great accomplishments. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered and are held in museums in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Many ruins have been excavated and much of the stone work and aqueducts have been preserved.

Recommended Reading

We had a great time exploring the area and it really helped to have read a bit about the Incas beforehand. There is so much more going on than Machu Picchu, and even if time restricts you to that site alone, these books will give you a better understanding of its design.

Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, 2011. An excellent recounting of Hiram Bingham's discovery of Machu Picchu. Sheds new light on the design of the site and is an indispensable guide to the Incas.

Kim Macquarrie, The Last Days of the Incas, 2007. In-depth, easy to read narrative on the conquest of the Incas. Kim has the talent of making history feel real.

Alexander Stewart, The Inca Trail: Cusco and Machu Picchu (Trail Blazer Guide), 2011. Excellent guidebook that provides hiking information on the many significant Inca sites around Cusco. Also provides great maps of the ruins, which meant that we didn't need to hire guides. A must for independent hiking.


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Fireworks)

At night the party really kicked off. The plaza was packed and bands competed with each other across the streets.

The action was centred on the church, where Achus were running through the crowd with fireworks spinning on their hats. The sky was also being lit up by fireworks, which were paid for by two wealthy families that compete with each other every festival.

It was great fun being there. There were dangers though – people were throwing small fireworks into the crowd. This, along with the Achus, was causing chaos as people scattered in all directions. At one point a small firework barely missed a child in a tree but instead hit the father in the face. Amazingly he wasn't hurt and despite this experience he left his child sitting exposed in the tree!

We left around midnight but the fiesta kicked on to around 4:00 am. Some people were still drinking the next morning and others had passed out on the sidewalk. This was easy to ignore though and the bands kept a good vibe going the next day.

Here's a recording of two songs played by the guys in the photo below.


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Parade)

San Ignacio de Moxos is a small town between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad in Bolivia's Amazon Basin. We heard that it hosts one of the best festival's in the Amazon, so we flew to Trinidad (the road is terrible), and made our way to the small town to be there for the 324th fiesta. Started by jesuit missionaries, the UNESCO world heritage festival combines local indigenous traditions with Christian imagery. The celebrations last several days but the highlight of the festival is the colourful street parade that involves hundreds of people in traditional costumes following the procession that is headed by the statue of Saint Ignacio.

Saint Ignacio; a sun costume, particulalry important to indigenous cultures; pan pipes.

Despite stifling heat and humidity, the parade lasted several hours as people danced and sang their way around town. There were colourful dresses and hats, as well as the iconic feather headdresses, which were absolutely stunning. Community groups, school children, sport teams, old and young alike all participated wearing different costumes. The indigenous worship of the sun, moon and animals was strongly present in the costumes represented by horses, feathers of colourful parrots, jaguar skins, jabiru heads and paper maché figures of deer, goats, birds, fish and a giant anaconda. The whole town seemed to be out celebrating.

Mother's Club.

Animals were a common feature. Clockwise from the top left: cow, jaguar (real pelts were used), and a red deer.

The masked Achus are another icon of the festival. The hats they are wearing later held spinning fireworks.

The amazing feather headdresses were particularly spectacular and are most famously associated with the festival.


Macabre La Paz

The overnight bus from Sucre to La Paz was far from comfortable, and we arrived early in the city exhausted, cold, and suffering from altitude sickness. Our first impression of La Paz was not helped by the fact that they had a public holiday the day before, and the previous night's revelry left the streets filthy, smelling like one giant toilet. Needless to say, we were not particularly inspired to go exploring, and instead went to bed feeling sorry for ourselves.

La Paz from El Alto.

The next day we decided to organise a city tour to see the highlights in one go, rather than trying to find the motivation to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the perfect solution! We found a cool guy called Ben who runs Banjo Tours around La Paz. There are free walking tours, but they only go around the central city, which we figured we could just do ourselves. This tour went off the beaten track, taking us through different areas of the city by walking, on local buses and in a private van. Highlights included a lesson on the dark history of the city, a visit to San Pedro Prison, being blessed by a shaman, wandering through the witch's market, having our fortunes told, and returning to the city for some traditional food and drink. It was a bizarre day, but totally worth paying for a guided tour to get that extra insight into such a crazy place!

Main Plaza with the buildings of Parliament to the left.

La Paz – not so peaceful!

We began our tour wandering through the old colonial streets of La Paz. There is a clear divide where the Spanish town stopped and the indigenous town started, which was exaggerated to the point that until recently, indigenous people in traditional dress were not even allowed in the main plaza. Things have progressed with the election of the country's first indigenous President Evo Morales in 2006, but La Paz has a dark history that is still in most people's recent memory.

Walking around the main plaza, our guide pointed out bullet holes in the buildings surrounding us. In 2003 the police went on strike in La Paz. This was dealt with by the military stepping in with orders to shoot anyone who resisted, including the police. Not something you would expect just ten years ago, but these things don't always get highlighted in international media in the same way that they would if something similar happened in a western country.

We also passed by several dilapidated buildings, which looked abandoned. While most people may have presumed that they were in fact empty, it was recently brought to light that these buildings are being used as “suicide houses”. Apparently, the idea is that anyone who has lost the will to live (mostly homeless people or drug and alcohol addicts) will go to one of these houses where they will be put in a room with a bucket of alcohol, which they drink until it kills them. Being practical, I asked what they do with the bodies without raising suspicions (given there is a police station right across the road)?

Good question. Apparently there is somewhat of a black market for human bodies (dead or unconscious) to be used as sacrifices in construction in a similar way to the llama foetuses that bring good luck to the foundations of building sites. While we were in La Paz we heard various people talking about stories that they had heard regarding this issue. Its all a bit hard to believe that is would really happen, but in a place like La Paz, you just never know.

Parliament House flies the indigenous flag alongside the flags of Bolivia and La Paz.

Bullet holes in the walls around the main plaza; security guards at Parliament House.

San Pedro Prison

We stopped by San Pedro prison, which was made famous in Rusty Young's book Marching Powder. The book follows the story of an Englishman arrested for trafficking cocaine in Bolivia, who spends several years in the unique social environment that is San Pedro prison. Our guide pointed out that there are security towers on each side of the block where the prison sits, however they are not manned as the prison is essentially independent of external guidance and security.

Prisoners buy and live in apartments in different areas of the prison, depending on how much money they have. Wealthy prisoners (mostly corrupt politicians and drug traffickers) have cable televison and all the comforts of home – including being allowed to have their families live with them. Until recently there were children living inside the prison with their parents, leaving the complex to go to school during the day and returning at night. An incident where a young girl was raped led to all the children being removed just a few weeks before we were there.

It was possible to go inside the prison on a tour until recently as well, however, another incident (where two tourists were separated from the group and raped) led to the authorities stepping in and stopping it from becoming a tourist circus. It is afterall a prison with convicted criminals inside. As such, we only saw it from the street, which was interesting enough after having read Marching Powder.

San Pedro Prison.

Shaman Blessing

We took a van up to a lookout over the whole city, with stunning views of the mountains in the distance. It was here that we were going to be blessed by a shaman in a commonly used change of luck ceremony. We were told to sit and wait while the shaman made a fashionably late entrance.

A women lit coals on a burner while he arranged various stones, small parcels of herbs wrapped in paper and little bottles of liquid. He gave out different things to people eg. one guy had a rock up his sleeve, another held a piece of rope. I was lucky enough to be chosen to have a parcel of herbs put into the front of my shirt (which he later retrieved and burnt).

The ceremony combined traditional indigenous customs with a Christian blessing. He used the bottles of liquid (alcohol) to create puffs of smoke and fire, touched us on the head, blessing us all with luck and well wishes for our family and for our travels, all the while repeating what sounded like a Christian Hail Mary.

A clash of cultures during a shaman blessing.

What made the shaman ceremony even more surreal was the guy in the background wearing a mexican wrestling mask, repeatedly yelling into the camera to make what we presumed was a promotional video. So random!
Witch's Market

We continued in the van to El Alto, which is a separate city from La Paz located on the steep surrounding mountain. It is one of the more dangerous places and not many tourists go here by themselves. Apparently it gets pretty violent at night, but during the day it seemed fine. The markets are the initial wholesale supply area for the city of La Paz, so they were packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, spices, nuts, popcorn, popped pasta and all sorts of other unidentifiable things.

Th infamous Witch's Market is also located in El Alto (a smaller touristy version can be found in the central city of La Paz). Here you can find all manner of spells, herbs, llama foetuses, llama babies, wax figurines, starfish, and armadillos, all to be burnt on fires for change of luck ceremonies and rituals. There are spells for everything. A truck driver might go in and buy a wax figure of a truck, with a selection of herbs and spices, to be burnt for safe travels. The dead llama babies and foetuses are used for good luck in construction, to be buried in the foundations, and are surprisingly expensive. But this is big business and people pay for it because they believe in it!

We wandered around the market stalls, looking in awe and horror at the selection of spells for sale. It was a really interesting insight into Bolivian culture, and definitely not something you see everyday!

Tiny llama.

Take your pick - make a spell show bag!

Choosing the right spells is serious business.

Fortune Teller

Our tour included having our fortune read by a local shaman. There were six of us in the group, and we all huddled inside a tiny room where the shaman sat at a desk with a human skull and dead armadillo sitting next to him on a shelf. He looked at us all, and rather than do a fortune for each of us, decided to do it collectively for the group. Before he began he explained how he had become a shaman after being struck by lightning and finding spiritual power.


The ritual began when the shaman scattered coca leaves over a cloth, picked a few up, and told us we would all have money in our futures (is that because we were all tourists who clearly had more money than the average Bolivian?). He also told us that one of us would be the victim of an envious person, but we could change our luck by buying one of the spells from the Witch's Market and having a shaman burn it while performing a ceremony (as we had experienced earlier in the day). There wasn't much more to it than that. We were all a little sceptical, and his legitimacy was not helped by the fact that he was clearly drunk and could barely speak coherently.

Despite the obvious business connection between buying spells and having shamans perform rituals, the local Bolivian people are really superstitious and they truly believe in all of this. There are shamans everywhere, and it is not a subject taken lightly. Many people have combined worship of saints and Christian holidays into their spells and rituals, but the missionaries did not succeed in changing the local beliefs entirely. The strength of the indigenous culture is really evident here.

We returned to the city as it was getting dark. Ben shouted us a giant Bolivian cheese empanada and some chicha, which is a thick, warm, purple corn drink. We said our farewells to the group and wandered off in search of dinner. Mark was cold so he bought a poncho, then we stumbled across more festivities for no apparent reason. There were people singing and dancing in traditional costumes out the front of the San Francisco Church. We stopped for a quick look, then went back to the hostel to contemplate what was one of the most bizarre days we have had in South America over a nice cold beer.

New poncho!



The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosí was founded in 1546 and was once one of the biggest and richest cities in the Americas due to the wealth of silver found in the mountain, Cerro Rico. The mines produced around 60,000 tons of silver, which brought significant wealth to the Spanish empire through centuries of exploitation of local indigenous people and African slaves who worked and died in the mountain.

It has been claimed that up to 8 million people have died whilst working in the mine or through illnesses contracted as a result of spending so much time underground. Consequently, the locals now refer to it as the mountain that eats men. The mine is still in operation today, although there is very little silver left. The digging of over 90 kilometres of tunnels has seen the 4300m high mountain drop around 100m in height, and an American engineer has predicted that within 50 years the whole mountain will collapse. Despite this, the miners still continue their back breaking work, scraping for whatever minerals they can in horrendous conditions.

While we were in Potosí we had the opportunity to visit the mine. Whilst we were a little apprehensive about the dangers of an operating mine, curiosity overtook sensibility and we went underground to experience it first hand.

Cerro Rico and the Potosí mine.

While we have been travelling we both recently read George Orwell's investigation into the coal mining towns of 1930's Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It provides great descriptions of the conditions which resonated with what we saw in Potosí. So, to help describe the experience we have borrowed a few of his passages.

“When you get down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work…when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”

The documentary The Devil's Miner follows the story of two young brothers who were forced to work in the mines to support their family after their father died. It describes the combined fear and reverance of the devil, or Tio as it is locally referred to. While most of the miners are Christian, when they are underground they worship the devil because they believe that he controls the mine and that Christ has no power underground.

The statue above is one example of a Tio which we saw inside the mine. The miners pray to the statue upon entering the mine so that they might find a good vein of silver or be protected from explosions, toxic gas, silicosis and falling rocks. They give offerings such as coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio statues, which can be found in every major mine within the mountain. They also perform sacrifices, such as slaughtering llamas at the entrance to the mine and throwing blood on the walls and doors to appease the Tio so that he will be satisfied with the sacrifice and won't take a human life. The film was really interesting and incredibly sad. Definately worth watching to get an insight into the horrendous conditions faced by men and children working in the mines even to this day.

The Devil's Miner (Trailer)


The miners in Potosí work long shifts without a break and may work up to 24 hours, even the children. They depend on small comforts to make their day 'tolerable'. Coca leaves and cigarrettes are common comforts to stave off hunger and fatigue.

George Orwell described the conditions inside the mines in England, which have not changed much in modern times in Bolivia…

“the heat…in some mines is suffocating – and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun.”

Although there is no conveyor belt, the use of pneumatic drills and dynamite exposes miners to high levels of toxic dust. As per the photos below, miners are exposed to copper sulphate, sulphur, arsenic and asbestos all day, every day, in heat up to 40 degrees celsius.

The orange crystals are copper sulphate.

Poisonous minerals accumulate on the wooden beams.

The mine is in a precarious state. Walking through the mine, we often passed under broken beams, tunnels could be back brackingly low and at times we were forced to crawl on our hands and knees and slide down vertical tunnels. Can you imagine 90 kms of this?
“In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as the seam gets worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit (entrance).
You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and about five high…Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck.
I am handicapped by being tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody…You have not only got to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come.”
The combination of heat, dust and lack of oxygen meant that we were often forced to stop for breath. We wore bandanas over our faces to protect us from breathing in the toxic dust but it was impossible to breathe properly though it, which inevitably meant we had to keep removing it (and thus inhale the dust). No wonder the miners all get silicosis and other lung diseases.
At one stage during the underground tour we stopped to catch our breath. Our guide did not notice and kept walking with the group. We were soon left behind. We gave chase but we could not see any lights or hear anyone.
After walking for a few minutes we came upon a fork in the tunnel. We called out to our group but there was no response. The walls seemed to swallow our voices. Trying not to freak out, we took a gamble and kept walking in the same direction, continuing to call out into the darkness. We came across another junction with no-one there, which shocked us. We waited a few minutes and resolved to carry on, again trying to head in the same direction.
After about ten minutes we caught up to the group. Saskia confronted the guide but instead of apologising for leaving us behind our guide told us we were being too slow. He was particularly unsympathetic as he used to be a miner and clearly did not want to be there, but we learnt he was also hungover from the night before and had just finished joking with everyone else in our group about how he got lost in the mine with a tour group once before. As far as we are concerned it was his job to make sure the group was with him; our safety is his responsibility.
Two obvious mistakes were made. Firstly, there should have been two guides, one at the front and one at the back (as is common on caving tours back home). Secondly, the guide should have retreated to the previous junctions when it became clear we weren't there. Poor mistakes for an experienced outfit. We were with Koala Tours and on the basis of this experience we would not recommend them.
Setting that aside, everyone in the group was grateful to leave by the end of the tour. We were only there for a few hours and must have seemed incredibly precious to the hardened miners who literally kill themselves working there, but as an outsider who has never experienced anything like that before, it was intense! Whilst it was definately an eye-opening experience, it is not something that we would want to do again. We remain embarrassed to know that we will never have to work in conditions like this when for some this is their best option.


Churches of Salta

Salta is a pretty city, surrounded by stunning scenery. We based ourselves here to explore the surrounding countryside for a few days, and were also pleasantly surprised by how relaxed and easy it was to be here. Rather than go into detail, we thought we would just add a few photos which highlight the brilliant architecture and colourful churches that are iconic of the Argentine city.

Main plaza, Salta

The Blue Church

Inside the Blue Church

Iglesia San Francisco

Iglesia Catedral

Inside Iglesia Catedral

Pigeons in the plaza


¡Viva el Papa!

The flag of the Vatican is flying high in Argentina this week, after the announcement that an Argentinian priest would become the new Pope, Francisco the 1st.

One person described the honour as being as exciting as if Argentina had won the soccer World Cup, and suddenly everyone in the country is a proud Catholic. Despite not being religious, it was quite special to be in Buenos Aires for something that is an historical moment for Argentinians.

A huge party was held on Plaza de Mayo, in front of Francisco's former Cathedral, where people sang, played music, and danced until 5am to watch his inauguration at the Vatican.

Thousands of people showed up in high spirits, and we were surprised how quickly the Pope's paraphernalia had been printed on posters, mugs, t-shirts and flags. The hawkers were out in full force, but there was a good vibe across the city, and it was nice to have been a part of it.