I thought about having Jordan write this post, because by the end of our tour I was not having a good time and very close to passing out. He was still alert and aware of his surroundings. But Jordan prefers to be the photographer, so here’s my take on the silver mines of Potosi.
Note: If you are claustrophobic, have breathing problems, or altitude sickness, this tour is probably not for you.
When the Spanish conquered/colonized most of Bolivia, they discovered silver throughout the Andean mountains. Sucre was built primarily on the wealth of silver. Potosi, a city three hours south of Sucre, was founded in 1545 to dig out the silver, iron, lead, and zinc in Cerro Rico. It is also one of the highest cities in the world, the lowest point of the city is at 4080 meters, or 13,385 feet above sea level. The Spanish forced many of the Aymara and Yamparaz men to mine for them, in dangerous situations. The refining process in the 1500s was to smooth the rocks with bare feet in a mixture of water and mercury. After a few years they quit doing that because too many Indians were dying. Imagine that. The supports used in the mines at that time, however, were/are actually first rate and better than what many of the miners use today. That type of fortification is too expensive to use now.
We had read in a guide book that a mine tour is one of the most interesting things to do in the region, though murky when it comes to ethics. The mines are “medieval” with terrible conditions. Miners usually live only to about 50 years old. Although it is illegal for men under 18 to work in the mines, we met several miners that began as young as eight years old. When you breathe without a mask, you can feel the asbestos, sulfur, and arsenic coat the back of your throat. Only the miners that work with blasting use face masks. So ethically-speaking, it is taking entertainment from another’s suffering. Yet at the same time, the miners are all friendly and love to see new people. They are proud of the work they do, even though it is incredibly dangerous (accidents, explosions, collapsed tunnels, the toxic air, etc.) and appreciate the gifts tourists bring them.
I was very curious to see the mines, mostly because I think it is important to be aware of the difficult lives many people lead, but didn’t want to support economic oppression. We found Big Deal tours, which was highly recommended online at trip advisor and other blogs, an agency made up of ex-miners. Many of these miners left the mine in search of better health and a longer lifespan. We decided we could support that. These ex-miners worked in the mines for around 20 years, beginning at 9 years old, and don’t have any other marketable skills besides mining. They also will probably develop cancer or some other terrible diseases from breathing in so many toxic materials, and giving them our business seemed much more ethical.
Jordan, Julia (another volunteer/friend), and I barely made it to Potosi in time for their 1:30 afternoon tour on Saturday. Due to rain, the bus drove slowly. But only half of the cliffs had guardrails on them, so I didn’t complain too much at the more careful pace. Big Deal tours’ office is right off the plaza, near the Casa de La Moneda.
It was the silver mint the Spanish built in 1574. Now it is a museum explaining the silver refinement and colonialization process, open only with guided tours (and closed on Mondays). I had hoped to visit it, but we didn’t have the time. This building (and the cathedral on the plaza) show how important Potosi used to be in the region. Now there is very little there but mining and buses to La Paz.
The cathedral on the plaza
Big Deal tours was 150 bolivianos a person (which I thought was a little pricey, especially considering a tour cost 100 in 2013), but they include face mask and water. I think other tour companies make you buy your own.
We started the tour by piling in a bus and going to the miners‘ market. It is customary to bring gifts when going to see the miners, such as juice, cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves, or dynamite. I think the miners prefer food. Julia, Jordan, and I split the purchase of juice and coca leaves for 5 bolivianos total. Wilson, our guide, told us that miners will stuff coca leaves into their mouth and hold it in their jaw, like chewing tobacco, with a pinch of flavor from other fruit or herbs. When the taste disappears, they know it has been four hours. They rest, then fill their mouths again. Miners regularly work 12 hours a day or more during the week and around six or seven on Saturdays.
We then went to the company‘s storage place to get into our gear: hats, lights, coveralls, and belts. Don‘t we look grand?
The refinery plant is higher than the rest of the city and where much of separating of rock and minerals are done. It was loud, completely without guardrails or caution signs, and dirty. We were also able to talk with a couple of miners about their work.
After giving them coca leaves, we drove on to Cerro Rico. The peak of this mountain is 4800 meters, or 15,478 feet. At this point I felt fine because I had taken 1 mg of dexamethasone earlier in the morning. We stopped about two-thirds up the mountain and walked through the miners‘ huts. They don‘t live in these shacks, but it is where they store their food, equipment, and water during the day. Because we went on Saturday the miners were already finishing their workday by the time we arrived around 3 pm. We stayed clear of the tracks so the miners could push the carts out of the mine and dump their contents down a slide.
The mine is cooperative, meaning it is owned by the individual miners. It seems much more fair than working for a mining company. The process to join the cooperative takes years. A new worker would apprentace under a seasoned miner for three years. At the end of the three years, he will own one of the veins he worked in and have the chance to join the cooperative for 7,000 bolivianos. Gross income is roughly 3,000 (444 USD) a month, but some of it goes to the refinery plant and other mining necessities.
We entered a mining tunnel that has been in use since colonial times, or the mid 1500s. It was exactly like a working mine would be: dark, damp, dirty, with low ceilings. We followed the track into the mountain until it branched off, and Wilson our guide happened across his friend who blasts dynamite. So he herded us into a branch of the tunnel with fortifications from the 1500s and had us wait while his friend set off 19 sticks of dynamite.
That is a strange sensation, let me tell you. The pressure of the whole tunnel changed and hit us hard. My ears hurt at the first blast, so I opened my mouth, which helps normalize pressure in your body, and it was more bearable. We could feel the vibrations through our bodies and my hair flew everywhere. It wasn’t that loud–not loud enough to cover our ears–but we could feel it everywhere.
Wilson told us we were now going down 45 meters, that it was a little difficult but not bad. Hogwash. It’s not bad if you’re five feet four inches and you’ve been doing this two-thirds of your life. The tunnels got smaller until we were bent over double. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the hole to go down, until I realized it wasn’t a ladder. It was like a rocky, curving slide that you had to grip with her hands and feet to not fall the whole distance. I crab-walked half the way down, then lowered myself down the vertical distances with just my arms.
Once at the bottom, Wilson told us that when a miner works alone, he fills his buckets of rocks and minerals and has to climb the distance carrying 20 or 40 kilos with him. I can’t imagine.
We stopped at a vein and rested. I was starting to feel sick at this point–I couldn’t catch my breath and bending over double (and still hitting your helmet on exposed beams!) wears on you quickly. I had taken one pill that morning for altitude sickness, thinking it would be enough, but it was not.
Miners live hard lives, he explained, and although they often make more money than other workers in Potosi, they live shorter, due to accidents, toxic fumes, alcoholism, and just hard living. But they are also very proud of the work they do–even though it is very unsafe. We had been underground for about two hours at this point, and I was only getter sicker. Wilson led us back into the main tunnels, larger ones the government constructed 30 or 40 years ago, and onward.
Miners, although Catholic, are incredibly superstitious. While their wives can help sort the rocks and minerals into containers to ship over to the refinery plant, they are not allowed in the mines, touching the minerals. Although they go to mass every Sunday, once inside the mine Pochomama and El Tio rule the miners and their world. Pochomama is the goddess of Mother Earth, more or less, and is married to El Tio, who guards and preserves the mineral veins. If a woman touches the minerals, Pochomama will think that the woman is attempting to seduce El Tio, and she will cause landslides and earthquakes in the mountain, hurting the veins and the miners.
Every year the miners gather around an idol of El Tio and offer him llama blood. Odd numbers are unlucky, so there are always at least two llamas killed and their blood poured around the shrine to El Tio. We saw the bones of a baby llama at his feet.
Miners regularly stop by to offer him food, coca leaves, and alcohol (96% proof alcohol!) from their packs. They stuff cigarettes in his mouth and ask him to bless their veins, to keep them safe from accidents, and guide them through the tunnels. Wilson asked us if we had any gifts leftover to offer El Tio, but we had given them away already. So he pulled a bottle of alcohol out and set it on the hand of the idol, then prayed. Much of the prayer was for show, for the tourists, but some of it was real. That was a really interesting experience.
We got up and started to leave the tunnels, and my sickness was in full swing. I am not claustrophobic, but with a killer headache, stomachache, and shortness of breath I was feeling very anxious about all the walls and dirt around me. After I lost circulation in my arms and almost passed out twice, I just breathed without my face mask. A little asbestos was fine, I decided, as long as I could catch my breath.
We passed colorful rock formations, all completely toxic, and Wilson told us what they were. I think this is copper sulfide or something. I really was not paying attention to anything anymore.
The assistant guide made me sit and rest for a few minutes in the tunnel and poured the 96% alcohol over my face mask. I don‘t really know why. She gave me extra water, and everyone was urging me to drink it. “Just keeping drinking water,” they told me. “You will feel better with more water in yoru system.” I suppose there is truth to that, but I have been altitude sick before and no matter how much water I have forced down my throat, it never made me feel better.
I was sick enough that when we finally left the mine (I almost fell on my knees and started crying), they ushered me to the waiting bus. I hung my head out the window on the trip back to town, expecting my nausea to erupt. We returned to the storage place, took off our protective clothing, then went back to city center. The center of the city is also the lowest point, thankfully, so my nausea began to fade. My headache was now at the level of a moderate migraine.
Julia, Jordan, and I ate dinner quickly, then rushed back to the bus terminal, only to find that we missed the last bus to Sucre by three minutes. I laid down on a bench while they went from stall to stall, asking about other buses.
This is important. The last bus from Potosi to Sucre leaves at 7 pm sharp.
“I cannot spend the night in this city,” I told Jordan. “I will be throwing up at the toilet all night long if I do.”
So we took a taxi to the old bus terminal, where we found no buses, only taxis. To make a long story short, we took a taxi back to Sucre (a two and a half hour drive) for 50 bolivianos apiece. It was over twice the price of the bus, but we had no choice. We would have spent more money sleeping in a hostel and riding the bus the next morning. Because Potosi is in a valley, the taxi driver had to climb the mountains to get out before going back down the mountains. That was a very tense 30 minutes for me. But the lower we got, the better I felt. We arrived back at our hostel, 7Patas, exhausted, dirty, and (in my case) with a bad headache (it downgraded from moderate migraine to bad headache as we went downhill).
So. The mine tour. I didn‘t expect it to be loads of fun, because, well, its a mine. I went because I wanted to know about the lives of other people. And I guess I did that. If you‘re not over 6 feet 3 inches you can make the tour (uncomfortably), and if you don‘t get altitude sickness, you should be fine. Jordan had a better time than I did. Do I regret it? Ehh, no. But I will never, ever, ever do it again for as long as I live.