According to the Lonely Planet guide book, Potosi is the worlds highest city (4070 m) and was founded in 1546 after the discovery of rich silver deposits in the Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”). Soon it became one of the wealthiest and largest cites of South America with a population exceeding 200’000 people. Potosis mines are known as the richest in all of world history and may have produced as much as 60’000 tons of silver. Due to such extensive mining, the mountain itself has diminished in height by a few hundred meters.
The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosis historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire.
Taking the over-night bus from La Paz we arrived in Potosi early in the morning. First thing we organized a hostel and then headed out to explore the city and have some breakfast!
The former wealth of Potosi is still reflected today in the narrow streets lined with colonial mansions and the many churches, which secures the city a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Our breakfast consisting of fresh juice, tea, fruits and pancakes:
After breakfast we visited the Casa National de la Moneda, a museum that houses anything from wooden minting machines, ancient coins to religious art. As we only had the morning to visit the museum, we had to join a guided tour in Spanish :-). Luckily there were some signs in English and we were helped out with translations from a nice Argentinian girl.
We learned many things about the historical minting process and its development. Here some scales they used for weighing the ore and silver…
and a chest, that could be securely locked with its complicated mechanics:
No matter what anybody says, a visit to Potosi is not complete without a visit to one of the cooperative mines. In these mines local people can apply for a permit and for a small fee they can entirely independently mine for minerals. They earn according to what they find and manage to haul to the surface.
It is a shocking experience as even todays methods of working haven’t changed much since the colonial times. Working conditions are terrible and most miners die of silicosis in their forties. Still, many people don’t have a choice and today around 15’000 people work in the mines.
In the background of the main plaza you can see the Cerro Rico mountain, were the mines are located:
At the start of our mining tour we received clothes, rubber boots, a helmet and a headlight.
This was our group after dressing up; the other three were also Germans as we quickly found out 🙂
According to the customs we visited the miners market first to buy gifts for the miners like coca leaves, gloves, drinks (Coca Cola or 96% alcohol!) or cigarettes. The most unbelievable thing was, that anybody can buy dynamite in these shops! No IDs or permissions necessary… That seems like a dangerous mixture selling 96% alcohol and dynamite in the same store…
A “completo” consisting of a bar of dynamite, a fuze and a bag of ammonium nitrate to increase the impact of the explosion sells for only 20 Bolivianos (not even 3 USD!)! A 1L bottle of 96% alcohol costs 25 Bolivianos…
Our guide Daniel, a former miner, showing the dynamite and a bottle of 96% alcohol:
After shopping some dynamite, alcohol and gloves as presents we headed to a mineral refinery where the miners sell their excavated deposits. In these refineries the deposits are processed to extract the most valuable minerals being silver, zinc and led.
The deposits are treated with a mix of different chemicals to separate the metals from the debris. Most of these are very toxic and are not only dangerous for the workers but also for the environment. The worthless debris drenched with these chemicals is then brought to a dump without recycling or neutralizing the chemicals. Many of the people living in the vicinity of the dumps are suffering serious health problems and women are giving birth to crippled children. But as Daniel explained there is no money, no technology and mainly no interest to change anything…
The place was very noisy, because the deposits from the mine are shredded in this spinning drum:
After mixing with the different chemicals the outcome is a silverish powder, that is sold mainly to China for the further processing and purification of the metals.
After this interesting insight into the processing, we finally headed towards the mines at the Rico Cerro:
These were our presents for the miners: two pairs of gloves, dynamite, a pack of ammonium nitrate, a fuse cord and a bottle of 96% ethyl alcohol (drinkable!).
And than we finally got to the entrance of the mine we were going to visit. It was hard to believe that this splintered wooden-framed entrance hidden behind a few desolate, decrepit buildings, is one of Bolivia’s most prolific and historic silver mines.
This sight strongly reminded us that visiting a Bolivian mine is not a joke, but potentially dangerous. Among the risks are cave-ins, toxic gases, explosions, falling rocks and runaway carts… For these reasons we had to sign a disclaimer absolving the tour company from any responsibility for injury, illness or death.
After a safety talk by Daniel, we entered the mine and would be walking and crawling through it for the next three hours.
Within minutes, the air inside the tunnel turned humid and stuffy, and breathing became hard behind our masks. But they are strongly recommended because the dust is supposed to contain silicon that leads to silicosis among the miners. The water dripping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. And you could also see asbestos in the rock walls…
Luckily we could use our water and dust proof camera in this nasty environment as I am not sure how long a regular camera will withstand these conditions.
After some minutes of walking further into the mountain we reached a junction and from there we had to crawl into a little side chamber where we made our first stop.
Inside this side chamber Daniel showed us a statue of “El Tio”, a representation of the devil (with an over sized phallus) that the miners make offerings to. They say that god may rule above ground, but that El Tio is in charge down below.
The miners start their shift by making offerings of coca leafs and alcohol to him (a small cupful is poured at his feet and a cupful consumed by the miner). In the back there are a lot of old bottles, that the miners just leave in the mountain…
Our guide Daniel told us a lot about the work of the miners and answered all of our questions. Work in the mine is done mostly by hand with basic tools and didn’t change much in the last centuries. Underground temperatures vary from below freezing to steaming hot 45 degrees. That is why the miners normally work bare chested. This might be one reason why women do not work in the mine, but also the miners believe that women bring bad luck and make the minerals disappear… (How lucky for the women!)
We were also happy that we could just sit there, because it was already very hot and just walking around in the mine was exhausting. Unbelievable to just imagine to work here for hours and hours and than carry 40 or 50 kilograms of stones out of the mine…
Thomas, a member of our group was waiting outside this side chamber, because he didn’t dear to crawl into its narrow entrance. Later on Daniel had to lead Thomas out of the mine, because he couldn’t deal with the suffocating and claustrophobic conditions on the inside.
The rest of us continued and we did not only get further into the mountain but also descended several levels (about 60 meters).
It became warmer and dustier and sometimes we had to wade through puddles of water and mud:
Luckily we had helmets, because we constantly bumped into the low hanging rocks or beams…
Safety is entirely up to the miners. They only do just as much as absolutely necessary because the time they spend on safety measures they loose in mining. Also wood is expensive as it does not grow around Potosi because of its height (4070 m).
This devastating security situation becomes apparent all the time, but especially when seeing the broken and cracked wooded support beams which don’t help increase confidence in the stability of the mine. We always tried to pass them as quickly as possible…
Once in a while Daniel was stopped to show us some features, like a vein of silver running along the wall or explaining which minerals the sparkling stones contain.
When we reached the end point of our mine trip we had a short break. Here Daniel told us a little bit of his own story: He started working in the mine with his father and grandfather when he was 14 years old and is very lucky that he can now work as a tour guide. He knows, that he would have had a very short life if he hadn’t gotten this possibility.
Most of the miners aren’t that lucky and don’t have an alternative, because for Bolivian standards the mining is well paid (approx. 700 USD / month) and their families have a decent living.
After taking a picture with Daniel we walked, climbed and crawled back towards the exit of the mine:
And as we got closer to the exit, the air got cooler and fresher and we finally saw light at the end of the tunnel 🙂
Exhausted but very very happy to be outside the mountain again! 🙂
It was very impressive to see under what conditions the miners work every day and to get to know some of the background the miners and their families are living and dealing with.
One questions we had on our mind for some time was if touring the mine is annoying for the miners and if it is not seen as a kind of sensational-tourism. Daniel heavily denied this and repeated several times that the tourism to the mines helps the miners as they receive presents helping them in their daily work. Also a big fraction of the tour-fee gets payed to an institution that helps the families of the miners in difficult situations. Around Christmas a lot of the collected money is distributed among the families in form of food and medication. It felt as if Daniel was very sincere with his statements and we realized his close attachment to the miners still at work. One could tell that it has become his personal mission to bring the mining conditions to the attention of the visiting people.
If you are interested in the conditions of these Bolivian miners we recommend the documentary film “The Devils Miner” (by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, 2005). We weren’t able to watch it yet ourselves, but have heard that it should be shockingly good…
Although we had just been in the mine for 3 hours our masks looked quite dirty and one can imagine what the miners are inhaling during their work while being in the dusty clouds all day:
In the evening we walked around in Potosi,
explored the little streets,
and enjoyed a beautiful sunset:
For dinner we met the other Germans from the mining tour. It was fun to share South American travel experiences and the ones collected in the mine that day. We had a quite delicious and typical Bolivian dish called Pique Macho, consisting of bite-sized pieces of beef and chicken, sausages, onions, cheese, olives, peppers, eggs and a lot of gravy on top of french fries.
After this day full of remarkable experiences we headed back to our hostel. Lying in bed one sentence Daniel had said at the very beginning of the tour came to our mind: “Whatever job you have back at home, after this tour you will love it!”… He couldn’t have been more right with that.
The next day we took off with an early bus towards Tupiza and more safe and less mind pondering adventures…