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The Death Of The Fifth Gear And The Collapse Of A Mine Shaft

The death of the fifth gear and the collapse of a mine shaft


After some lazy days in Samaipata I have to head on. Sucre is not that far away but according to my GPS the first 200km will already take me 5 hours. Soon enough the road turns into a big dust bowl. Partially old road, partially road under construction, all very very slow and dusty. At some point I know there is a big truck only a few meters ahead of me, but because of all the dust clouds I can’t see him. But then again at the times when I’m ahead of the big trucks and the only dust cloud are the ones behind me, I can enjoy the beautiful but very dry landscape. After more than 5 hours I finish these first 200km and decide it’s enough for today. Time for an uninteresting little hotel parking lot in an the uninteresting town of Aiquile.

The dusty road to Aiquile


According to the hotel lady the road to Sucre is all new tarmac and quick. I make pretty good progress until I have to wait for an interesting half an hour. A big shovel truck on the slopes is clearing some landslide hazards. He pulls down loose rocks which turn in to scary big rocks flying over the road. After about half an hour they’ve cleared the road and I’m almost in Sucre. That is until I hear a terrible rattling noise when I shift to fifth gear and then nothing happens… I’m in fifth, but it feels and sounds like a rusty neutral. I used fifth gear just a few minutes ago and it was fine but now it’s dead. The other gears still sound and work normally so I decide to push on to Sucre and try to figure out what the problem is when I get there. I guess the second part in Bolivia isn’t going to be easy after all… Just to confirm that point Sucre is filled with narrow, confusing one-way streets that do not match any of my maps. This means loads of backing up and getting honked at. At least the campsite is nice, big grassy field, hot showers, good WiFi, power and nobody else!


I’m seriously getting lazy and spend a day on the campsite trying to figure out my gear problem, try to get the dust out of everywhere and overhauling my travel plan. Once I get to northern Chile I will not cross the Andes again to go to Salta and Mendonza, and than back over the Andes to Santiago. I will just follow the coast all the way down and only start crossing the Andes again when the mountains get smaller. It’s a pity because northern Argentina is way more interesting than northern Chile but I don’t think the van will survive otherwise…

Sucre cemetery

Sucre is a really pretty and quiet colonial city. The center is not too big, the weather is perfect and there are not too many tourist crap selling people. I was told there was this great park with all kind of Paris miniatures and it should be a great place to relax. Well, it is good to relax,but the “Eiffel tower” was a tower shaped climbing rack for kids, recognizable, but barely. The “Arc de Triomphe” was even more of a stretch. Just an arch at the side of the park. Quite sure the Paris reference only is some terrible idea by the tourism office, made up years after the park was finished. The city cemetery which was supposed to be not impressive was pretty nice, with loads of mausoleums. But of course the best part of the day is sitting in the main square, watching people and reading a book.


Now I need to fill two more days until the mechanic has time to look at my gears. More book reading on the campsite, the central square and the view point with a great view over the city. When I finally get the mechanic to have a test drive with my van (driving with his grandson on his lap and his phone on his ear), he tells me the teeth of the gear are probably stripped. It will be impossible to get the part here so either I would have to get a new one made or get a whole new gearbox. I disagree with him because if the teeth would be stripped you would either get a loud bang when everything breaks off (I didn’t hear any) or if it would have worn slowly it would not go from all ok in the morning to all of a sudden nothing a few minutes later. Luckily I had read up on my van and knew you could inspect the fifth gear without having to take the gearbox (and the engine) out. We open up the gearbox and luckily see that the teeth are perfectly intact. When the engine is not running fifth gear engages properly but not when the engine is running. Since fixing this here without parts is hard and because the gear is actually not broken so it cannot damage the other gears, I decide to head to Chile without fifth gear. There should be parts there and the roads to Chile are mostly bad and mountainous so I have no need for a fifth gear anyway. Back at the campsite I see I have neighbors on the campsite, The first since I got back to Bolivia a few weeks ago. They’re German so of course we have some drinks late in the evening.

View over Sucre


I do really like properly paved roads. The drive to Potosi is pretty easy and I manage to get another option on the big getting gas quiz. This time I pay about halfway between local and international price. Nice tip for the station attendant, but better than paying international. The road is mountainous enough that I don’t really miss my 5th gear. The roads are all good until I make it to the city which is even worse than Sucre with narrow one-ways and cars parked everywhere. I need to do multiple rounds around the block to find a spot where I can park my van to check out the camp spot. This camp is one of the worst in a long time. A parking lot behind an apartment building, so full I need to squeeze between other cars to get to my van. On top of that it has the dirtiest toilets I have seen in an even longer time. The good thing is that it is safe and really close to the city.  Potosi city center is surprisingly nice with loads of old buildings. They’re preparing for some festival and there are loads of decorated cars and school kids practicing their marching skills.

Potosi mines

The next morning I have to get up early because I have booked an interesting excursion: a tour into the active silver mines of Potosi. The mines are located in the mountain Cerro Rico right next to the city. This mountain is the source for most of the silver the Spanish took from their colonies and paid for a large part for their empire. Even after some 500 years of active mining it is still one of the largest silver deposit in the world. Currently the mines are emptied by cooperatives of local miners. The working conditions are terrible and have not changed much in the last centuries. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on a tourists-go-watch-the-suffering-of-locals tour, but multiple people recommended me this one tour company that is run by (ex-)miners and that tries to improve the working conditions of the miners. So here I am at 8:30 ready for some mining. The first stop on the tour is the miners market where the miners buy everything they need: helmets, boots, dynamite and of course coca leaves and 96% strong alcohol. This is one of the few spots in the world where you can legally buy dynamite from a store. My guide (who actually still mines a few days a week) tells us he bought his first dynamite when he was 10 years old, some of his friends even start at age 7. The shops are not any different than the ones you normally buy your snacks from and it’s a miracle this street never exploded. As a present we buy some sodas and bags of coca leaves to give to the miners we will meet. After the market we pick up our gear (helmet with light, overalls and boots without steel caps) and go to the factory where the minerals are separated from the rocks. They don’t only mine for silver here but also for lead and tin. The factory is also ran by the cooperation and everything is covered in a gray sludge of mineral mud. Clearly both safety and security is not very high on the list here. We walk past a basin where the silver sludge is drying before being transported to the rest of the world. It’s worth a few million dollars but the only security is a cheap webcam aimed at the basin. Done with the factory tour we are heading for the actual mines. We have to drive pretty steep up from the city (4000m) to the mines (4200m). The tunnel has the tiniest entrance and while we are waiting there we have to jump aside regularly for the hand carts and wheelbarrows coming through with minerals. The miners work alone or in groups of up to four people and every group has its own mine shaft. When we go in it is dark, dusty and narrow, there are deep holes everywhere. Often I have to crawl to get through certain passages and mid conversation our guide will tell us to squeeze against the wall so the miners and their carts can run by. We meet four groups of miners, some of them working 12 hours a day 7 days per week. The work is so unhealthy that the life expectancy of a miner is about 45 years, but they can only retire at 58. If the miner dies before reaching the retirement age the family gets nothing unless one of the sons takes his place and fills the left-over years. It’s very impressive and sad to see the people work here. They numb themselves by chewing insane amounts of coca and drinking the 96% strong alcohol. When we take a break in an empty chamber our guide tells us a story of how he once loaded the end of a deep pit with dynamite, lit everything but when he wanted to climb up his rope ladder to get away the ladder snapped and he fell down on the floor with the lit dynamite. He managed to climb the straight walls and just managed to hide in an side tunnel before everything exploded. A really scary story. When we left that chamber he notices bits of ceiling coming down ahead of us. We wait for a bit but it doesn’t get better, only worse. He gets out his bottle of 96% alcohol and sprinkles it on the floor as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth) he prays for her to stop the rocks from falling so we can pass. The falling stops for a bit and we run across the tunnel to the other side where it’s safe again. When we’re almost at the exit of the mine we stop at the altar of El Tio. It has a statue of this god of the miners surrounded by piles of coca, cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and pieces of minerals. The miners bring offerings to their god to hit that one lucky part with a lot of silver and to keep them safe. After this last stop and about an hour and a half in the tiny tunnels we get back to daylight again. This was one of the scariest and most impressive things I’ve done this whole trip (seeing grizzlies at 6 meters distance put the bar pretty high). Since we started early we’re back by lunch time. I get two others from the tour to join me for a good 4 course 2,5 euro lunch. Now there is only one more thing left in Potosi that I want to do. I read you can climb to the top of the clock tower of the cathedral and have a great view over the city and Cerro Rico. The walk up the steep steps at 4000m is quite exhausting but the view over the city is amazing.  A good way to end my stay in Potosi.

El Tio in the Potosi mines

Since I already made it back to 4000m, I don’t have to climb too much anymore to drive to the highlight of Bolivia: the salt flats of Uyuni. After this it’s going to be downhill to Chile so even with only 4 gears left this should be fine, soon my van can go have an easier life again. Or so I thought… Because things never work out the way you expect…. But more about that in my next story.

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