Before arriving in Potosi, I just took it for granted that we would go on the mine tour because, well, that’s what you do when you’re a tourist in Potosi. But after reading the advertisements in our hostel that said the tour was “not for wusses,” hearing our tour guide at the Museo Casa de la Moneda tell us that the mountain was going to collapse any day now, and signing a waiver saying I wouldn’t hold the tour company responsible if I died, the realities of visiting the mine started to freak me out. I nearly chickened out, especially since Jeremy was under the weather and wasn’t going with me. But I told myself I would at least go to the mine site and if I didn’t want to go inside, that was ok.
Gearing Up for the Mine
At the company’s office I donned a waterproof jacket, pants, rubber boots, and a hard hat, and we were off to the refinery. At the refinery our guide gave each of us a pinch of refined silver to play with. Pretty! Next it was up, up, up to the mine site at Cerro Rico. The views down into Potosi were amazing and helped distract me from my nervousness a bit.
We get out of the car at the mine and the smell of urine is overwhelming. I guess there’s no toilet so it’s a free for all! Men push heavy metal carts in and out of the mine almost constantly. We turn on our headlamps and head into the mine, crouching over because it’s a bit too narrow to stand up. I can see particles in the air and wonder why not all of the miners wear respirators. We slosh our way through muddy puddles along the cart tracks until our guide tells us to hurry up: a cart is coming and we need to step off the tracks quickly. We step aside and watch the cart go breezing by. It’s hard to believe that a full cart weighs 1.5 tons yet only requires 2 men to push it!
Mostly Just a Bunch of Guys Drinking
We head deeper and deeper into the mine until we reach the group of miners with whom we’re going to talk. After we take a seat they pass around what they’ve been drinking- 96% alcohol. Apparently the miners don’t have a set work schedule; as long as they get their work done it doesn’t matter so much when they work. This leads to many of them sitting around drinking all day and chewing coca leaves, saving the work for night time or whenever they get around to it.
The men in the group have mixed opinions about working in the mines. Some love the camaraderie of their work groups and enjoy what they do, while others absolutely hate working there. They continue to work there because they basically have no other options; many of the men have never finished high school and wouldn’t be able to find work outside the mine. Whether they love or hate the work, there’s one thing the men all have in common, and that is that working in the mine has aged their faces so much. One man who is 30 has been working in the mine since he was 15, and he looks about 40 years old.
Time to Leave, Thankfully!
By this point I wasn’t feeling so great, whether from the altitude or the poor air quality in the mine I wasn’t sure. I was about to ask our guide if I could leave the mine when he said that we were leaving. Phew. But my relief lasted only for a second as I realized we weren’t going back outside, but heading deeper into the mine. We made our way through a maze of passageways, some of which had massive holes in the floors covered by one or two thin planks of wood. We met another miner who was filling a wheelbarrow with rocks to wheel back over the sketchy pathways we had just walked on. Unbelievable! We gave him our present of alcohol, and he immediately opened it and sprinkled some on his wheelbarrow’s contents as an offering to the gods.
We finally turned around to head back towards the entrance, but along the way we stopped at several religious shrines. The first was a statue of Jesus on the cross, and the whole area was covered with streamers for Carnival. The second was a statue of Tio, the devil, who the miners believe is the keeper of all the minerals in the mountain. All around this statue were offerings of things like alcohol, cigarettes, and coca leaves.
On our way to the entrance, we felt and heard the boom of dynamite exploding somewhere in the mountain. I was never so happy to see the light of day after that! As we loaded the bus, several very drunk miners getting off work tried to get on our bus unsuccessfully. They then surrounded the bus and punched the sides of it as we drove away. What an introduction to the mining lifestyle!
I would highly recommend a tour for those who aren’t claustrophobic or asthmatic; it wasn’t quite as terrifying as others had made it out to be. It was good to sit down and talk with some of the miners to learn about their day to day lives and to gain appreciation and understanding for what they do!
Potosi, Bolivia, is the departure point for the Uyuni Salt Flat tour on the way to the Atacama Desert in Chile. For photography tips on taking perspective photos in the Bolivian Salt Flats, click the previous link. Heading north into Bolivia? Why not visit Sucre for the Cal Orcko dinosaur park or check out Copcabana on Lake Titicaca!