We arrived Potosí around 19:00 last night and we took a taxi to get to our hotel. The taxis here don’t have any meters in them to show the amount of money we need to pay, which was surprising for us. There was traffic in the city, so our ride from the bus station to the hotel took about 45 minutes, but then we only paid 10 bolivianos and that was another surprise for us. Our hotel was an old colonial building. There was a big courtyard, we guessed for the horses back in the day, and then two stairs going up to the rooms. M paid a bit extra for this hotel but B thought it was worth the experience :)
On the way to the hotel we passed through the small streets in the center and saw that the center was very colorful and some kind of festival was going on in the city. B insisted to go out and at least look at the main square. The moment we got to the square, we saw a marching band! The square was decorated with lights for Christmas and looked very lively. After walking around a bit more, we came back to our hotel and did some search for mine tour companies.
This morning, after breakfast, our first stop was the Big Deal company because we read online that it was owned by ex miners. The person welcomed us very warmly and gave us information about the tour and mines, however he told us that there wouldn’t be any miners today since it’s a Sunday and they don’t usually work on Sundays, so there wouldn’t be a tour today. We were quite sad, because this was our only day in town, and we didn’t think which day it is, but across the street we saw another tour company, Koala Tours, and we decided to try our luck with them. They said they are preparing to go for a tour and if we are interested they can take us. Since there is a very very low chance of seeing the miners, they also made a discount and we paid 100 bolivianos for the tour. As this was our only chance to see the mines, we decided to go for it. We were only 3 in the group, so we thought our guide, Ronaldo, can take care of us better in the mines, and we felt lucky for that.
Our first stop stop was the house of our guide to leave our bags and clothes, just leaving our pants and tshirts on, and putting on the miners jacket, pants, boots, belt, and helmet instead.
We first headed for a shop where the miners usually buy their dynamite, ammonium nitrate, gas lights, ceibo (which is 96% alcohol that is drinkable), soda, and other mining equipments. Our guide was joking that Potosí is a crazy city where you can buy dynamite and almost pure alcohol from a regular shop. Miners still prefer to use the gas light, because in this way, they can detect the poisonous gasses by the change of the color of the light or by the light going off. And they drink ceibo, because they believe the more pure the alcohol they drink, the more pure the mines they find. We bought a dynamite, some ammonium nitrate, and a bottle of soda for the miners. Even if we don’t see them, our guide said we can leave the gifts where they can pick them up.
Then we visited a local bazaar where people sell many things from pasta to meat, and women sell food they cook on coal there. Here we bought a bag of coca leaves for the miners as well, and another bag for ourselves. Going around with miner clothes, women were looking at B and laughing a lot :) Later we learned that women were not allowed to work in the mines not only because it is a physically demanding work, but also because it brings bad luck. The mountain is a woman and the miners can only be men! Going around the market with miner clothes, we felt that we don’t belong at all. In Argentina and Chile, we blended in with our physical appearance, people would directly speak Spanish with us. Bolivia is a country that we definitely don’t blend in!
Moving on, we went to a refinery, where the miners would bring their rocks and the rocks would be crashed and the valuable mineral is separated from the invaluable, using chemicals and water. Most of these type of old refineries are getting out of business, because the mine prices are falling down, our guide told us. He also showed us how the refined silver looks like.
Finally, we got to Cerro Rico, looking over to Potosí. The mine we visited was called Caracoles. The miners form cooperatives and the president of each cooperative negotiates with the state (who owns the mountain) to get a part of the mine. The miners that belong to a cooperative only works in this negotiated part of the mine. The miners own the mine they extract. They pay a 1% tax to the state and 7% to the cooperative that they belong to. The foreign companies which try to find mines from outside the mountain (not digging in the mountain) pay only and only 3% tax! There is a hierarchy between the miners that is divided into three sections. The first one is the most experienced, then the ones that they can hire to work with and then the young that help with other things.
Soon after we have entered the mine, we saw a wagon full of mine passing by. In front of it, a young boy was running, clearing the way for the wagon. The wagon was pushed by 2 miners. All of it was done by their hands and feet. The wagons are controlled by pushing and pulling of the miners. We were quite shocked by seeing the young boy and that they were using their body to control the wagons. Very few of them (read: non of them) actually had breaks!
Then we stopped at a chapel with the Christ on the cross. This was close to the entrance of the mine. As we kept walking deeper, we stopped to rest, where Ronaldo explained the different colors of mines they extract here. Also he showed a chute which is used as a way to transport the mines from upper levels to the first level to be carried by the wagons. There are 4 floors, 2 above and 1 below the first floor, where we spent most of the trip.
As as we kept walking, we did come across two miners who were building a chute. We were indeed lucky (!) They told us that one of them was working in the mine for 25 years. The youngest miner can be around 13-15 years old apparently and the boy we saw at the beginning was definitely that young. We could easily see the big ball of coca leaves plugged in the side of their mouth. Our guide explained to us that they can go for hours using the coca leaves and nothing else, no food, not even really water.
Next, we met El Tío. The God might rule the outside world, but the underworld is ruled by El Tío! He is a devil with a big penis that protects the miners. They decorate this place with confetti at the time of the carnival and drink and offer Ceibo. They do this ritual so that Tío will offer them more protection, more findings and less accidents.
While we were sitting here, we turned off our lights for a minute. It was impossible to differentiate if our eyes were open or closed. Without light, one is completely helpless! Our guide told us 8 million lives were lost in this mountain that eats people! He quoted Eduardo Galeano from Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, Open Veins of Latin America, which says that if you combine the silver that is extracted from this mountain, one can build a bridge from Potosí to Spain; and if you combine the bones of the people lost to this mountain, you can build a bridge from Potosí to Spain. We told our guide that we read it. In his book Eduardo Galeano also says that the mountain lost its height from 5000m to 4700m (numbers not accurate as typed from memory). This book was the reason we added Potosí to our travel, this book was the reason we wanted to see the mines. Reading about these mines in this book affected us so much. However nothing we read could prepare us for the last part of our trip in these mines. The first floor was what we had expected to see in the mine. Then, we started a descend into the lower floor, but this was more of climbing down through a hole using first a ladder, but afterwards just using your arms holding the walls and legs. Just carrying our weight down (and then up on our way back) was physically very demanding for us. We cannot imagine how a single worker would dig in with picks in this hole and then carry what he could find at the end of the week out of this hole while we could barely carry our own weight. We were quite shaken by this experience. We were thinking the dust upstairs was making the air thick, but dust in the lower floor was much more. Most miners have to quit or die at an early age because of silicosis. This job is so physically demanding that they cannot use masks because it is very difficult to breathe with the mask. B used her bandana to cover her mouth and nose at this part and could understand how it would be impossible to breath because even breathing under the bandana was hard.
Nothing in the mine has changed since the 16th century. The story goes, the Incas started the silver mining in this mountain earlier than the Spanish, but they heard a thunderous noise saying this mine is for other foreigners, so when the Spanish came to mine this mountain, they did not resist. Locals were forced to go deep into these mines. The black slaves from Africa couldn’t stand working in the high altitudes. They were first forced by the Spanish and now they are forced by the economic conditions, as they can earn up to 3000 bolivianos instead of earning 1800 bolivianos in the town. Again nothing has changed since the 16th century. It was one thing to read about this, but another thing to experience it. We were happy to feel the breeze of fresh air and see the light at the end of the tunnel. We felt that we had an experience of a lifetime as we were spitting the coca leaves that we kept on the side of our mouths. As we were leaving we saw some women working outside of the mine and they were the widows of the miners working for the mine from outside of the mountain. We were exposed to some but not all of the culture of the miners as we didn’t speak Quechua.
Then we came back to the house to leave our miner clothes and get back ours. The jackets and the pants were already started to be washed in a basin by feet by our guide as we left for the city center.
We directly came to our hotel and took a shower. We needed to get the dust out of our system not only physically but also psychologically. After resting a little bit, we went out for lunch. There was thunder and rain outside, so we went to the restaurant of our hotel and ate there. After lunch, the rain slowed down a bit, so we went to the center with the park and the cathedral to see it in the daylight again. Plaza 10 de Noviembre gets its name from the day of independence of Potosí. B also wanted to see the Moneda museum, but it was only open in the morning on Sundays sadly. The city was quite impressive with its colonial buildings and churches and houses. We could see how it used to be one of the biggest cities in the west once upon a time!
After walking around a bit more, we realized that we were too tired from what we had experienced. So we went back to our hotel and did some planning of the future parts of our trip, some blogging, that we are writing on time, but not publishing on time because it’s so hard to upload photos with slow or nonexistent internet in the places we chose to visit.
We woke up at 6:00 on the 5th Dec to get to the airport. The lady in the hotel suggested that we get at least some yoghurt and mate (tea) for breakfast while we wait for the taxi that she has called for us. We appreciated this offer, because it was earlier than the regular breakfast serving time. The cab ride to the airport costed 40 bolivianos. Then came the funny part. The direct flight from Potosí to Santa Cruz, that we bought, did not exist. Instead they put us to a flight with a connection at Cochabamba. We were expecting some things to go bad but not in a flight. There was nothing to do, so we caved in to things that happen to us while we were making plans.
As we were leaving this city, we were taking an experience that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.