Into the Silver Mines of Potosi

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department
April 26th 2015
Published: April 26th 2015
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Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world and with an interesting and brutal past like not a lot of cities have. But most people in the world don’t even know that this place exists, even less, know about the tragic history it presents. So here is my story about Potosi and my experience in this city.

I have read briefly about Potosi when I was in Sucre and the history of the city is fascinating. Officially founded in 1545, it is a city grossly linked to silver. Legend says that a local Indian found some silver by accident and word reached the Spanish very soon. So they started to exploit the silver, using at the beginning the local Indians and when that supply ran out they exported some African slaves. It is said that over 8 million people died over the time in the mines and nobody really knows how much silver was mined. Legend has it that one could build a bridge from here to Spain and still transport silver over it. As a matter of fact the Spanish crown was so depended on the silver to operate their empire, that when ships were raided by pirates or sunk in storms, the empire was in real trouble.

For a while Potosi was the richest city in South America and one can still see that on their so-called “grand churches”. Also because of its wealth it was frequently disputed and changed hand of ownership several times in their existence. Well, with riches comes violence and wars. Greed is a powerful motivator.

Nonetheless, I took the bus from Sucre to Potosi which is only a 3 hour ride. Only if you don’t take into account that you are leaving Sucre on a 3000 meter attitude and you are making your way up to Potosi which is on 4000 meters. I can tell you that you feel how the air is getting thinner and thinner. I was just lucky that I had stopped in the other towns for a while so to get my body used to the altitude.

When I arrived in Potosi I took the local Bus to the Centro and checked into my hostel. Then I started exploring the city, literally step by step and stopping every so often to catch my breath. Potosi is incredibly hilly and it wasn’t easy to walk around in this thin air. I also had to take it easy as I had the lung infection just 2 weeks before and I am still on medication. There was nothing that I wanted to do to risk any further complications.

As I mentioned before Potosi has a hell of a lot of churches you can see how rich this city must have been once. Today you have the centre of the City which is very well preserved and quite relaxing with many coffee stores and restaurants. The surrounding is full of houses where about 200 000 people live.

I have booked my mining tour for the Monday as most of the mines are closed on Sundays. I was a bit apprehensive in booking a tour as my health was not 100% and I didn’t know how I would react to all the dust in the mines. I am also rather claustrophobic and really don’t like tight spaces. What I have read about the mines wasn’t really encouraging at all. But what better way to tackle once fears and fight them head on!

However there was another reason why I took my time to book the tour and that was the old argument- if tours like this exploit the people through thetreatment and miserable conditions of the miners like a human zoo, then I will seek to implement some annoyance to these profiteering tours in turn. Some people say that visitors to these mines are nothing but voyeurs, feeding off the suffering and pain of the miners. I can see the points of these arguments. I had this discussion with several people when I visited the slums of Rio. But the hard facts are that these slums, mines, horrible conditions, suffering and hardship exist, like it or not. One cannot ignore that fact and pretend that the whole world is a rosy place. OK, some people choose not to go there and watch it on TV or read about it and I am cool with that. But I as a person want to see and experience as close as possible what the conditions are like and what people endure day to day. I do understand that I am only doing this for a couple of hours and I will never ever experience the whole life though it gives me a personal insight and taste of it. So you may judge people like myself and that is fine. You have your opinion and I have mine. Differences make the Universe an interesting place and how boring would it be if we are all thinking alike!

So on Monday morning I met my group at the hostel and we were given a short briefing about the tour by our guide. It is said that all the guides are ex miners, but nobody can really tell if that is true. The surprising part for me was that we didn’t had to sign any waivers, which is normally the case when you undertake a dangerous activity. Normally, but one is in Bolivia and the norm is not what it is in the rest of the world.

So we were issued our kit (waterproof pants, gumboots, a waterproof jacket, a helmet with a light and a bag to put our stuff in) and after suiting up we walked to our bus that was taking us to the mine. On the way we stopped so we could take some pictures of Potosi from the road up to the mines and then we arrived at the miners market.

The miners market is not only the place where the miners buy all the essentials they need to do their work, but also meet in the morning to eat breakfast, chew coca leaves and start drinking their alcohol. Our guide explained to us that it is custom to buy the miners some presents that included some soft drinks, cocoa leaves, alcohol and dynamite. Yes you have read right, dynamite! The alcohol is also not the stuff we normally drink, but 96% proof alcohol. I have to say that is it very weird that you can buy as much dynamite as you want for about $4 a stick, the detonator and a bag of ammonium nitrate to make it more powerful (The same material was used to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma 1993). We also had a taste of the alcohol and I can tell you it taste like paint stripper. How any human being can drink that stuff straight is beyond me!

So we bought our presents (and yes I bought the dynamite) and proceeded to the mine. This particular mine we went to was on an altitude of 4160 meters and the mine shaft was surrounded by buildings in which the miners keep their equipment and one house where a family lives to protect the area. We were quickly separated in groups of four and then we entered the mine.

About a 100 meters into the mines you get to the shrine of Tata Kaichu, where you can see a devilish figure with a huge penis (which excited the girls in our group). This shrine is there to protect the miners from the devil they think lives in the mountain and protects the minerals. Every time the miners enter the mine they stop at the shrine, placecocoa leaves on Tata Kaichu, poor alcohol on the ground and put a lit cigarette in his mouth. Now the miners are all very religious when they are above ground, but once in the mines they believe in and respect the devil. After all, their “God” lives in their heaven so their“devil” lives in the mountains where their hell is, hot and harsh. Makes sense to me.

Once we gave our offerings to Tata Kaichu, including smoking a cigarette ourselves (even the non- smokers had a puff – you never know what is true on this myth and who wants to risk the anger of their “devil”) we proceeded deeper into the mine and what an eerie trip it was. The ground was covered in water and mud, the ceiling covered with wood to stop the shaft caving in and hoses everywhere. These hoses are used to supply fresh air to the miners and to operate the drills. At some places the hoses leaked and the noise was intense. To top it all off the air was stale and incredibly dusty. We not only had to bend down on a lot of places but crawl through little passages, climb up and down steep passages. It was insane. At one point our guide put together a dynamite stick and exploded it, the noise was considerable and the pressure wave was very powerful.

At one point we met a working party, sat down with them and gave them our presents. Our guide encouraged us to ask questions which we did. It was quite an insight to talk to these guys who work in these mines 5 to 6 days a week, from 9 am in the morning to 3 late at night. Most of the mines in Potosi are actually owned by the miners themselves and the more work they put in the more money they make. Nowadays there is only a little silver left to be found and the main minerals that are mined are lead and zinc. All the work is done by hand, which means backbreaking labour. The miners use explosives and drill the rock, shovel it into trolleys and then push them out of the mine. The working conditions are just beyond believe; hot and cold, dusty and extremely dangerous. To endure this hardship the miners chew coca leaves all day and drink the 96% alcohol. Most of the time they must be pissed as…..

The average income of a Bolivian citizen is about 1700 Bolivianos (about AUD$275) a month, the average income of a miner is about 2500 Bolivianos and just to throw it in the president of Bolivia makes about 20 000 Bolivianos. When I asked about the life expectancy of the miners I was told by the guide that this is something the miners don’t talk about and the same goes for accidents and other nasty stuff. Fair enough as who wants to be reminded of this. But I read that the normal life expectancy of a miner is about 40 years. And if you consider that some of the miners start their mine life when they are about 12 years old you must just wonder about the quality of life they have.

After about 3 hours in the mine it was delightful to leave this place and go back into the hotel. It was a real eye-opening experience on how the work of the miners is, not only here in Potosi, but in so many mines around the world. This is rather different to what mines are in America and in Australia. You get a real respect of these guys working in these conditions to look after their families. After all that’s why they do it. Nobody does this kind of job because it is “fun”.

So that was my time in the Silver mines of Potosi. I have to say that it was one of the most eye-opening tours I ever did and I do not regret one moment. OK, the next day I was pretty saw and my body hurt from all the bending, crawling and climbing. Though who am I to complain; I just was in there for three hours, 15 000 miners do this every day and for 12 hours on time.

Tomorrow I am off to the salt flats of Bolivia so that will be rather a big contrast to the mines. I am looking forward to this, but the Silver mines of Potosi will always be remembered by me.

I hope you enjoyed the update and as always leave comments if you like. At least I know that people read my stuff and maybe even enjoy it. Until next time…..

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26th April 2015
Church in Potosi

The silver city
What an amazing city Welf. Well done to have walked, stooped, crawled and survived in the mines. We were there in February and agree it is well worth the visit, notwithstanding the somewhat unbalanced views of those who say you shouldn't. To experience Bolivia and its history, to explore Potosi is a must.
26th April 2015
Church in Potosi

Thank you for ....
... your comment and yes it is an amazing city. I wonder why so few people know about it. I don't think that people who are against the mine visits are unbalanced, but they just have a different viewpoint. I can understand them, but they also have to understand our views; and that is that we want to see everything. Happy travel Dancing Dave and I hope you dance happy around this world.
29th April 2015
In the mine - Potosi

didnt realize how dangerous mining was
really interesting adventure.. thanks for sharing. I am not going to Nepal and hope to see you soon. Joan
3rd May 2015

Slowly acclimating to the climate and altitude is always a good idea. I'm not sure I would have lasted 3 hours in those conditions but sounds like you did well. After being so ill I'm glad you did as well as you did. Take care.

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