I’ve enjoyed so many amazing experiences over the years with my backpack on my back. Whether it be breathtaking landscapes, meeting great people, exploring exotic cities or having close animal encounters, for each of these I have always thought how lucky I am to have experienced such incredible things. And now I have a new addition to the list; one which does’t quite fit with the others, because it isn’t something that made me stand in awe with a big smile on my face. Instead, it shared a lot in common with Phonsovan in Lao, because Potosi made me think and indeed feel quite humble.
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world, standing at around 4000m. There are a number of reasons to visit. It’s small and colourful winding streets, a beautiful cathedral and apparently one of the better museums in South America. It’s also home to one of travelings most uniquest experiences…the Potosi mines.
Founded in 1546, the silver mines brought huge wealth to the city, So much so that by the mid sixteen hundreds it was one of the richest cities in the world and produced over 400 tons of silver. It has been a place of great suffering over the years with an unimaginable number of deaths, coupled with life changing success stories as people made their fortune. By the time Bolivia gained its independence, the mine had fallen from grace and Spain and indeed the world began to look elsewhere for their minerals.
For around fifteen thousand people from the town, over fifteen levels the search for fame and fortune goes on. Dealing with exposure to all sorts of noxious gasses and chemicals such as silicosis pneumonia many die within ten to fifteen years of entering the mine. The conditions have barely changed since the day it opened and yet still they go and indeed take their own children to work with them, because, amonst other reaosns, the average wage for a miner is much higher than that in the city.
I went on the mine tour on a Friday, which I think it’s fair to say, from speaking to others, that it is the best day to go from an experience point of view, but not necessarily from a safety perspective. I was on the tour with three German students who proved to be fantastic company. First stop was a small garage where we were kitted out in our mining gear.
We then went to the miners market, where we were shown various key tools for a miner. Because, miners work for themselves, either within small groups or individually, they have to supply all of their own kit. The miners market hence provides them with their dynamite, special lamps which have replaced the canary in terms of finding deadly gasses as well as essential coping mechanisms such as coco leaves. Our guide took great pride in throwing the dynamite about, to demonstrate to us that it needed to be ignited to work. We then brought gifts for the miners. They don’t have any access to water in the mine and mostly survive on coco leaves, so we brought them some of that as well as ten bottles of juice and two bottles of that 96 per cent alcohol, which I had first had on death road. This we were told would make the miners very happy, because just like in the UK, Friday is both a day of ceremony in the mines as well as drinking day.
Next, was a brief stop in a rickety wooden building, which houses the minerals that the owners have bought from the miners. There we witnessed the archaic processes, which they use to extract silver as well as other minerals.
Then it was time to enter the mine for real. Now, I hadn’t expected the mine to be so busy. I thought we’d be taken to a nice quiet part, but no we went straight through the main entrance and boy was it busy with wagons, flying in and out. Other people I have talked to who have done the tour, have often said how they barely saw a miner, but not on a Friday. Wagon after wagon moved in and out along the rails. At one point we ran in, only to have to turn around again and sprint out as a wagon flew past. Another time we crouched against the wall as a wagon met another wagon. One was then thrown off the tracks in front of us to allow the other to pass. For each one that went by, our guide handed one of our gifts over and they took them with a smile.
I was thankful for the bandana, which I had bought, because the mine was very dusty and it was useful to cover the mouth and nose. It was also both very narrow and at times we had to crawl, because the roof was so low. Everything was propped up by pieces of wood, installed by the miners themselves. No one checks on what is going on in the mine. The simple rule is that if you blow an area up with dynamite then it is your job to make sure it is secure.
After a while of dodging wagons and getting to grips with the reality that we were not being treated as tourists in the mines but as actual miners, we veered off to the left and crawled along some wooden planks across big drops, before reaching a broken ladder. Our guide began to climb it and with little choice we followed. After a short scramble using the three point of contact rule we arrived in a small space where a miner was busy at work selecting minerals and putting them into a bag.
He was a first class miner, having spent the last twenty years in the mine. It had afforded him the rewards of working in some of the best areas and he was very pleased with his haul that day. With the help of the guide we talked to him about his job and then on his insistence it was time to crack open our present of 96 per cent alcohol. After a few shots, he thankfully decided to water it down and refused to allow us to leave until a significant part of the bottle had gone. It was a strange experience, but in so many ways incredibly special, being able to spend so much time with him.
As another way of saying thank you to him, our guide then suggested that we would help him with a couple of his bags and carry them down to the ladder, as he does not use wagons. He seemed very happy with this idea, although by the end of carrying one of them, I’m not sure I was.
We then navigated the maze for a little while longer, before coming across a group of six miners. Our guide had wanted us to see a different way of mineral extraction, but our new friends had put pay to that by letting off dynamite minutes earlier and left a huge dust cloud instead. Bandanas up, we then sat with them and as you might have worked out by now, gave them the other bottle of alcohol and they too insisted on sharing. The only slight difference here was that they made a little more ceremony to it including splashing some and laying coco leaves around their statue of diablo. It seems a weird thing to worship in the mines, but all miners do it.
Where the first miner was very much used to groups coming to speak to him, because of his location, this group were more reserved but still very appreciative of our gifts and they seemed to on the whole enjoy having us there whilst they waited to be able to see what their dynamite had revealed. Our guide was very pained to point out that as an ex-miner himself, miners enjoy having tourists in the mine, bringing gifts and indeed giving them a sense of reality as some spend up to twenty four hours in the mine at any one time.
We left the mine around an hour after we had supposed to be back at the hostel, with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was an unforgettable experience, being in such a horrible environment with such dedicated and indeed desperate people. But it was also very depressing seeing the conditions they have to work in to produce silver and other minerals for the buyers. Each miner felt that mining would soon come to an end, but no matter how much that might free them, I got the feeling that none of them would want to give it up.
The rest of Potosi was spent watching the Rugby World Cup and Premier League football. It was election time and that meant all transport, including private cars were banned and as a side note alcohol for forty eighty hours. In fact most places were closed. It was a strange and slightly surreal ending, but in many ways necessary as Potosi is a very rebellious city, prone to rioting and blocking off their city from the outside world for weeks. Fortunately this election passed off peacefully.
Before Potosi, I had been in Sucre, the capital city of Bolivia. It’s all rather nice, with lots of museums and art galleries to look around. I, however, spent my one day traveling an hour to a cement factory, which is home to a dinosaur park. Yep, Sucre has the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world, all captured on a mudstone face. The park itself has various life size models of dinosaurs including a T-Rex and a Brontosaurus and the wall. That is all. It’s highly amusing, very strange and I’m happy I went to see it, despite being in the park for less than half an hour. Other than that, Sucre we also home to loads of zebra traffic attendants. These were even crazier than in Paz and that’s saying something.