Potosi mine, should you go?
Our journey to Potosi wasn't the easiest one. Roads from and to every major city in Bolivia were blocked, Bolivians were yet again protesting against the Evo Morales dictatorship, new laws he was trying to implement and especially against his illegal attempts to stay in power 4th consecutive term. That would be 20 years of presidency for Evo when only 10 are legally allowed.
Travel was painful but because of the barricades even museums were closed in Sucre. We've decided to risk it and tried to leave for Potosi. The 160km took us 7 hours , 3 barricades, 2 minivans and 12 km of walking.
Finally we've arrived to this famous mining city. First impressions were not good. We couldn't find accommodation and what we found in the end was really expensive for Bolivian standard. We've stayed at Koala den and paid 180 BOB per night for shitty room with shared bathroom. We couldn't fall asleep until 4am because of the nearby disco. But the people running it were nice and travellers we've met even nicer. Breakfast was descent, the best was fresh orange juice and crazy man who was serving it 🙂
Koala den also organizes tours to mines which is the main reason anyone would make a stop in this once beautiful but now destroyed city on the edge of poverty.
Ethical or not?
There are two types of opinions about visiting the mines. Because of the working conditions of the miners that haven't changed one bit since 500 years ago, many travellers consider the visit to watch the miners unethical. It is not a museum. It's their work environment. They spend 10+ hours a day here since as young as 14 years old. We were on the edge. Coming from mining towns ourself and Martin especially as his father worked in the mines for 15 years, we really wanted to go and see the mountain that has supplied the Spanish kingdom for over 300 years. In the end we found a solution that worked for us, satisfied our curiosity and didn't compromise our ethical values. We went on Sunday, when no workers are inside.
The tour with Koala den had good reviews, we paid 120 BOB each. You can find cheaper options as well but we were super happy with our English speaking guide. He used to worked as a miner and knew all the stories, traditions and history of the place.
8.45am sharp they came to pick us up at the hostel. Our first stop led to miners market to buy gifts for miners and for Tio, the underground god of Cerro Rico (Rich mountain). Here you can buy dynamite ?!!??? or Completo for 20BOB with nitroglycerin and initiator. Almost no machinery is being used inside, locals work with hammer and chisel and use occasional help from dynamite. Among other favourite presents are coca leaves and 95% alcohol that the miners drink (especially on Fridays) or give as presents to Tio.
Tio, the god created by Spaniards
The next stop was to get all the protective gear, helmets, light, clothes and shoes. You do get very dirty as it's really an authentic experience. After that it is straight to the mine. As you walk the first 300m inside the hill through a passage that has been clearly built for average hight Bolivianos you start to become tense. Difference to the mines we've been to before is huge. I don't trust this place. It's getting really warm and dusty. It doesn't look safe at all. Actually, it's really dangerous. We had to sign a waiver. Being typical Veronika, I did lots of research prior to entering and learned that 8 mil people had died in this mine to date. I'm getting tensed.
We are in 4400m above the sea level about 1km in when we have a first stop in the indoor chapel built around Tio. Interesting story. Tio has been created by Spaniards after indigenous people didn't want to work under these conditions some 300 ago. Locals are very religious and Spaniards used it against them. They convinced the miners that Tio (mispronounced Dios) will bring sickness and misfortune to their families if they stop working the mines. Since then they've stayed.
We stay at the chapel for a while, our guide uses this time to tell stories, but I know it's mostly for us to calm down and get used to the space. After that we continue further inside. The toughest part comes when we descent on a leader to a second level to access the tunnel that miners are working in right now. Heat and dust increases and we have to crawl and squeeze through some scary holes to finally approach a silver vain. Around 50 kg of dirt is being carried by 1 miner on his bag to the first floor into a vagon on rails that is manually pushed by 4 miners once full (2 tons of dirt mostly). There is no automation, no lights inside and no investment from government or unions.
How long this can go on?
Nobody knows how long Cerro Rico will last, maybe 20 years, maybe more? It has already sunk by 300m, it is like emental. The biggest mine has 17 levels and goes from top to 200m below Potosi. Right now there are around 15 thousand miners working inside. Anyone who wants to and is strong enough can become a miner. Everyone works as a freelancer and pays taxes on the amount of stones they dig out. The life expectancy of miners is around 40-45 years.
There are no schools or best practice, the knowledge is passed from father to son. Oh yeah, no women work inside the mine as they bring bad luck. The only women you might see are outside sourcing through minerals, they are the widows of the miners who used to work here.
We slowly climb up to the first level, stop by in Catholic chapel built inside and give away the last presents so miners can find them easily when they arrive to work on Monday. Once back on the first level, we feel way more confident but our 2,5 hours inside are up and soon we can get out on a bright light. It feels so good.
Past is always difficult
It was said that the silver digged out of here could build a bridge that would connect Bolivia with Spain. One might wonder, why Spaniards didn't invest in technology that would give them the results much quicker. But I guess they didn't have to, when they wanted more production, they simply brought slaves from Africa. True story.
Spanish kingdom has paved all their new world excursions and invasions from the richness of this region. Spaniards had all their silver coins minted in Potosi. The mint had almost 200 rooms and was one of the most important buildings of South America. Unfortunately now, there are almost no minerals left, business around mining are collapsing and international investors are not welcomed or interested.
Cerro Rico is the symbol of city and although it brought so much suffering to the local indigenous people, it is also the only source of living for them. If there is no more mining in Potosi, these people will have to move elsewhere. Already now it is the poorest big city in Bolivia.
This trip wasn't as adventurous as our visit to cave in Torotoro but it was very important as it once again opened our eyes about the everyday life of Bolivians.
If you are claustrophobic or have respiratory problems I suggest you skip this tour.
We have been to Potosi in January 2018, if you have more accurate information please do share it in the comments. Thank you.