The day I got to climb down a miner´s shaft...i mean a mine shaft!

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Potosi
September 25th 2011
Published: September 29th 2011
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In the morning we got a bus from Uyuni to Potosi where the famous Cerro Rico mine is located. The bus journey would have been fine had it not been for two colluding babies located very near us who seemed to synchronize their shitting patterns for maximum effect. After changing the nappy of her incontinent brat, the lady behind us opened up the window and launched the fecal matter out of the bus. Now i´m not saying i would have preferred the lady to keep the nappy as a souvenir but i hope that there wasn´t a poor old sod who was quietly mulling over what he had to do that day when all of a sudden a shit strewn nappy entered his thoughts...literally.

We finally arrived in Potosi and were completely caught off guard by the utter chaos of everyday life in this little town. We decided to walk from the bus terminal to the hostel, but little did we know that there was a near vertical hill along the way!! What made matters worse was the fact that there was no road sign...not one! After managing to struggle over the hill and somehow finding our way to the hostel we checked in to a lovely private room with our own bathroom and we even had our own tv!

That evening we went for some dinner with Michael and Lars (our Norwegian friends from the salt flats). However, yet again, for seemingly no reason every place was shut! In the end we did manage to find a restaurant open and grab a bite to eat. Afterwards we went to a nearby bar where there was live least that´s what it said on the flyer. What we actually got was a local lady who sung in such a high pitched tone that the local dogs must have thought there was some renegade with a dog whistle having them all on.


To be perfectly honest we did absolutely nothing on Sunday! We took the day of rest to whole other levels. We had breakfast around 3pm, which was a really nice chilli con carne from a local restaurant. Hayley had a revelation that ´chilli con carne´ actually just means chilli with meat in Spanish! After breakfast we returned to bed and watched some films on the tv. That was about it really...the laziest day so far on the trip.


We woke up bright and early ready for our mine tour that morning. At first we thought we were not going to be picked up because everyone else waiting for their respective mine tour companies to pick them up (there were about 25 people waiting!) had been picked up already! Finally, however, a lady came in and called our names and we hopped into here tiny tiny minivan to be driven across town to the miner´s market.

The miner´s market is where miner´s buy the cigarettes, alcohol, dynamite and refreshments they need for that day. It is customary that visitors to the mine buy presents for the miners as a token of gratitude and to butter them up for a photo. We both bought a bottle of pop and a big bag of coca leaves as presents and headed back in the minivan to the next stop where we would get changed into protective clothing...if you can call it that.

We were given bright blue overalls which seemed to drown Hayley. We also got a nice green hard hat and a pair of!! After getting changed we jumped into the minivan again and headed up to the mine entrance. The lady tour guide began by telling us a brief history of the mine and how after the Spanish left the mountain the locals formed groups or cooperative´s with each other and started mining the remains of what was left. There were approximately 13,000 miners in the mountain, and whilst the legal age was 15 there were some as young as 11 years old working.

The miners were extremely superstitious and had a number of rituals and beliefs that they followed or believed in. The first ritual would take place once a year and involved buying a llama and slaughtering it. The miners would collect the blood and smear it over the entrance to their mine (there are more than 100 different mine entrances created by different groups of miners). This was supposed to bring good luck. The llama meat was then stripped off, cooked and shared out amongst the miners during a big fiesta that ensued. The body of the llama was then buried in the earth as an offering to Pachamama (mother nature).

After this brief lesson we head down into the mine. The little doorway led into a small tunnel that immediately dropped at quite a steep angle into the mountain. We climbed down a makeshift ladder and carried on heading down. It was at this point that i noticed Hayley had been left further up the tunnel. When i went to check on her she was crying and was saying she couldn´t do it. She was just too freaked out by the small spaces and the fact we were underground. So, after a brief minute or two Hayley´s experience of the mine was over and she decided to go back to the van and wait for me there. At least she pulled the plug early on when we were near the surface i thought to myself as i imagined what we would have done if she had freaked out when we were really deep in the mountain.

So this left just me and the guide to explore the mines for the next hour and a half. The tunnels actually got much smaller than the entrance tunnel and i was on my knees for some parts of the tour. I guess my 6ft 4" frame is not ideal for mining tunnels usually inhabited by tiny weeny locals. After walking for 30 mins we arrived at a dead-end where two statues and a load of ribbons were on display. These statues represented ´Tio´ the god of the mountain.

*Tio backstory*

When the Spanish invaded and first started mining the mountain they believed that it was an opportunity for the devil to create problems and kill the miners by creating collapses. The miners noticed how much the Spanish revered the devil and took this to mean that it was the owner of the mountain. As a result they started to make offerings to the devil (Tio) so that it, as the owner of the mountain and it´s minerals, would release minerals for the miners to find. Tio is a male character that is portrayed with a massive erect penis (which i found highly amusing obviously). The erect penis represents fertility and the local miners believed that Tio was in fact Pachamama´s partner. They believed that when Tio and Pachamama get it on then they produce children, in the form of minerals.

It is customary to give offerings to Tio with whatever you have, so we made offerings. First, we sprinkling coca leaves on the statues and ground. Then we lit a cigarette each, took a few drags and then stuck the lit cigarette in statues mouth, which to me seemed a bit dangerous considering the piles of dry coca leaves underneath acting as kindle. Finally, we sprinkled 96% alcohol over the statue and then took a swig ourselves. This stuff smelt like paint thinner and tasted like fire. After, the offerings we carried on walking as i thought to myself "i´m glad that´s over". However, it wasn´t over! I later learnt that each mining group has it´s own Tio statue and considering there is about 150 groups that´s a lot of Tio´s! During the next hour we saw another three Tio´s before we ran out of stuff to offer! My throat and chest was on fire from the alcohol and trying to chuff on a cigarette when you are trying to catch your breath deep under ground is pretty difficult!

After an hour and half the guide turned round to me and told me we had two options for getting out. We could go back the way we came or alternatively go a different route that would take 3 hours! I imagined poor Hayley stuck in the van with a man who did´t speak any English for another 3 hours and whether or not i would be able to handle another 3 hours down a sweaty mine and told her to take the shorter option. Along the way back we came across two miners trying to push a cart full of excavated ore that had derailed. So, needless to say, these two lucky miners got two Free! tickets to the gun show! We got the cart back on track and then they disappeared at a frightening pace down the track towards the exit.

We finally climbed out of the mine and i was grateful for the fresh air! The miners must be seriously tough to last 8 hours down a mine doing physical labor in those conditions! and they don´t even eat during their work shift!, they just chew on coca leaves to give them energy.

That evening we went and had tea and freshly baked cakes in a nice cafe and then got a cab to the bus terminal. This cab was adorned from bumper to bumper is Boca Juniors football team regalia. It was ridiculous. We got to the bus terminal and immediately thought we had just walked into a massacre because outside each bus company office (there were nearly 100) there was a woman who was shouting out cities that their buses went to. When you have nearly 100 women doing the same thing at the same time it is eery! It reminded me of the Greek myth where the Sirens would sing to lure nearby sailors onto the rocks, except in our case the women were wailing instead of singing.

We handed our ticket over to the lady behind the desk and she then wrote our platform and seat number on the back of a receipt she had acquired from her lunch. We were highly skeptical as to whether this was going to be accepted on the bus but went along with it anyway because after being in Bolivia for little over a week we had quickly learnt that nothing makes sense in this country...nothing.

As we went to exit the terminal to get to our bus platform we were accosted by some old lady who demanded to be paid in return for using the terminal building. Yes, of course you have to pay extra for using the terminal have to pay extra for everything in this country.

We finally got the bus and arrived in Sucre a few hours later. We checked into Gringo´s Rincon hostel that was run by a crazy German man called Mike. Had dinner and went to bed.


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