Potosi is a small town on the way from Uyuni to Sucre. I’d heard a lot about the tours you can do of the working mines there and didn’t fancy the 7 hour bus straight through to Sucre so I decided to make a stop over. The town itself is very pretty, and is deservedly a UNESCO works heritage site.
I spent a quiet Sunday (literally everything was closed) walking and hanging out in my hostel. I stayed at Koala Den, I recommend. The breakfast is good and I got a dorm with private bathroom and no bunks for 50 bolivianos (£5).
I also thought a lot about whether to do the mine tour. There is a lot of talk about then being unsafe and the fact that you’re paying to look at the horrible working conditions of people less well off is something that I still haven’t quite got my head around. However after chatting to Pedro at Real Deal I decided to do it. He and the other guides used to be miners and reassured me about safety and that the miners enjoy meeting the tourists.
For the tour itself we were given helmets, safety lights and jacket and trousers to cover our clothes.
Definitely a necessity as I’d guess about half of the time in the mine is spent bent double (depending on your height) walking through small tunnels. It was evident it would be a little uncomfortable from the moment we saw the entrance.
10,000 miners work in the mountain, most dying in their early 50s due to illness related to the poisonous chemicals in the walls of the mines and the tough working conditions. The poorest miners work 20-24 hours shifts at times. The benefit of working here is a salary 4 times as much as the average Bolivian. This amounts to about £500 a month – life in Bolivia is hard for many.
We spent two hours in the mines listening to our guide tell stories and meeting the miners. Our guide was amazing – funny, charismatic and at ease with the miners. He helped us all to relax and the miners seemed genuinely happy to see us and grateful for the presents we’d bought on the way from the miners market (this is an extra 20 bolivianos for soda, coca and note paper on top of the 150 bolivianos for the tour but it is well worth it).
The conditions are really hard. The men spend the day chipping away at rocks and hauling heavy bag or trolleys of the stuff. The trolley about weighed 2 tonnes and was pushed by 4 men. We also met a 15 year old whose job was to push wheel barrows full of sacks of rocks out of the mines. The sacks weighed 20kgs each and he reckoned he could manage 20 a day, earning around £16. Although there is an age limit of 18 to work in the mines it isn’t enforced and our guide told us that children as young as 11 work there. This was the most affecting part – choices are limited in Bolivia and for some working young and sacrificing education is the only option.
We also saw the miners “tio”. This is a devil like god that the miners ask to bless the mines with plenty of minerals and keep them safe in exchange for offerings of 96% alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves. At carnival time the miners decorate the mine with colourful paper and flags which makes for an unexpectedly vibrant sight in the dark tunnels.
To get to Tio we had to climb 3 ladders in the dark. Potosi is at 4,100m and this was hard! If you’re worried about this or claustrophobic think seriously before coming. There is though an extra guide who follows behind the whole time so you can leave if you get too uncomfortable.
Towards the end of the tour we also saw lots of stalagmites and stalactites. These are really amazing and unfortunately my phone camera didn’t do them justice!
The white and yellow minerals you can see on the wall are arsenic and sulphites. Nasty stuff which is absolutely everywhere. You have to be careful not to touch it and if you do not to get it in your eyes, nose or mouth.
After 2 hours in the mine I was relieved to get out. I’m still not sure I did the right thing by going in but the education of seeing the kind of conditions that many people have to work in just to survive has shifted my perspective on life back home and if you’re looking to do the same trip I’d recommend Big Deal as an ethical company with a good approach and relationships with the miners.
On the outside you can see just how much the mountain has been scared by the mines. The whole landscape has been ruined by the operations but in its way it is still beautiful and served as a constant reminder to me if the sacrifices made everyday for the natural resources that we consume with barely a thought back home in the west.