At 4,070 meters (13,353 feet), Potosí claims to be the highest city in the world. Hundreds of years ago it was also one of the largest and wealthiest, thanks to the discovery of the New World’s most extensive deposits of silver in a nearby mountain, Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), in the 1540s. Cerro Rico’s silver began to dry up in the 1800s, followed by a corresponding drop in Potosí’s population, wealth, and global importance.
Potosi’s modern-day miners continue to work in the dark depths of Cerro Rico despite unhealthy and hazardous conditions that haven’t changed much since colonial times. Some sources claim that most miners eventually contract silicosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust, and rarely live past their 40s.
A visit to one of the working mines is Potosí’s most popular tourist attraction. I was tempted but just couldn’t get fired up about the prospect of crawling on my hands and knees in the dark for two hours while breathing in silica dust, especially given that the chances of getting good photos were slim (I don’t have a flash for my big camera). And something about the whole thing felt exploitative.
Instead I spent a couple days just walking around the city, working on photos, and catching up on the blog. I definitely felt the altitude. Carrying my bags up a flight of stairs left me panting. And on my second day the temperature dropped below freezing, transforming an afternoon rain shower into a wet snowfall. To stay warm in my unheated hotel room I had to wear my down jacket over my fleece jacket. My room, however, wasn’t without redeeming qualities – it had a flat-screen TV with cable and I was able to watch game 5 of the Celtics-Heat NBA playoff series.
More than once I ran into Lee and Erika, a nice, easy-going Canadian couple that had been in our caravan from San Pedro to Uyuni. Like me, Lee and Erika left their jobs to travel for a year. They said they’d been out for four months and were having an incredible time. “Before now the longest trip we’d ever taken was a one-week vacation,” said Lee. “We’d never even stayed at a hostel before.”
A short bus ride took me from Potosí to Sucre, one of Bolivia’s two capital cities. Sucre was Bolivia’s sole capital until 1898, when governmental responsibilities were split – Sucre remained the constitutional capital but La Paz became the administrative capital. After Potosí’s thin air I welcomed Sucre’s lower altitude (about 2,750 meters) and warmer weather.
Jean, the Brazilian who’d been in my Uyuni tour group, had gone straight from Uyuni to Sucre because he wanted to see dinosaur tracks. Cretaceous Park, a tourist attraction just north of Sucre, was built around a rock wall (called Cal Orck’o) that has over 5,000 tracks from eight different dinosaur species. But after his visit Jean sent me an e-mail saying Cretaceous Park was a big disappointment. Apparently it was impossible to get close to the footprints, which were roped off, and the place catered more to children than adults. Disappointed, Jean had gone to a tour agency to find out if there were any other dinosaur tracks he could visit. The agency connected him with a local guide named Eusebio, who took Jean to a lesser-known set of footprints that hadn’t yet been developed for tourists.
Jean passed along the guide’s contact information, and on my last day in Sucre I hired Eusebio to take me to the “hidden” dinosaur tracks. We met just before mid-day and rode a public bus to Calancha, a neighborhood on the edge of the city. Along the way I learned that Eusebio had a wife and a one-year-old daughter named Marjorie. “How old are you?” I asked.
“Very old!” Eusebio answered seriously. “Twenty-eight!”
“You speak excellent English,” I said, quickly changing the subject.
“I lived for two years in the United States,” Eusebio explained. His parents, oddly enough, raised him as a Mormon, and in 2005 Eusebio flew from Bolivia to Utah for a sort of reverse-mission. He traveled around the state preaching Mormonism to anyone who spoke Spanish as their first language. Eusebio said he really enjoyed his time in Utah and still thinks highly of Mormonism, but he’s no longer practicing the religion. “There are so many rules,” he said with a smile.
By the time Eusebio returned to Sucre he spoke English well enough to start working as a tour guide, which prompted his first visit to Cretaceous Park. One look at the park’s dinosaur tracks triggered a memory of something similar. Throughout Eusebio ‘s childhood his mother did the family’s laundry at a stream in Calancha, and while she washed clothes he explored the surrounding hills. On one of his expeditions Eusebio stumbled across a sheer rock wall covered with holes. At the time it didn’t mean anything to him, but fifteen years later, standing there at Cretaceous Park, he realized that the holes he’d seen in Calancha looked exactly like dinosaur tracks.
Eusebio then came across a book that made it clear he wasn’t the only one who knew there were dinosaur tracks in Calancha. The book contained the findings of an international team of paleontologists who had visited the Calancha site and confirmed that it contained the footprints of at least four different dinosaur species, including Triceratops and Diplodocus. The Paleontologists, however, concentrated on the more extensive Cretaceous Park tracks and only gave the Calancha site a cursory look.
The bus dropped us off at a path that led up a creek valley. “Who owns this land?” I asked Eusebio as we hiked along the creek bed.
“A man who works most of the year in Argentina,” said Eusebio. “He doesn’t have enough money to do anything right now, but sometime he wants to develop the site.” Later Eusebio told me that he had proposed a development project to the land owner.
“What did the owner say?” I asked.
“He was too drunk to say anything. It was Carnaval. Every time he comes back from Argentina he is too drunk to talk.”
After hiking 40 minutes we turned from the creek and climbed sharply up the side of a hill. Distinct layers of stratification were visible on the rocks surrounding us, land that was once flat pushed nearly vertical by tectonic collisions of the South American plate with the Nazca plate. “There is the lower part,” said Eusebio, pointing to a large, gray-brown rock wall dotted with a variety of holes.
“Are all those holes dinosaur footprints?” I asked.
“Only some of them. The scientists, they said some holes were made by meteorites.” Eusebio pointed out a hole he said the paleontologists had identified as the footprint of a Triceratops. As a kid I loved dinosaurs. I read every dinosaur book I could find and dreamed about being a paleontologist when I grew up. How cool to be able to walk right up to a Triceratops footprint and run my hand around the edge! Further down the wall Eusebio showed me what he said was a Diplodocus footprint.
Eusebio introduced me to the surveyor, who was extremely nice, and after taking photos with the maybe-meteorites we stayed to have a Coke. Eusebio, yelling so that he could be heard over the Rolling Stones song playing on the juke box, told me he was very close to graduating from law school. He’d finished all the required classes and had passed the first part of the three-part test that is Bolivia’s equivalent of the U.S. bar examination.
“But there are too many lawyers here already,” Eusebio said, and I remembered that in both Posoti and Sucre I’d seen entire streets lined with signs that said “Abogado” (Lawyer). “So if I want to be a lawyer I must go somewhere else. But I do not want to be a lawyer yet. I want to be a tour guide for some time more.”
Back at the center of town I thanked Eusebio for an excellent tour and returned to my hotel room feeling good that I’d made a friend in Sucre. If anyone reading this is planning to visit Bolivia and would like to get in touch with Eusebio, just let me know.