High in the colorful mountains of Bolivia sits the town of Potosí, a colonial era mining mecca placed at a breathtaking 13,000 feet. To set the scene, stucco roofs blend seamlessly into the red terrain of the Altiplano in what was once one of the most prosperous cities in the Americas. The landscape is striking, yet many residents of historic Potosí rarely glimpse the natural wonders of their homeland.
A Look Back
Potosí thrived by resting upon the greatest silver deposit ever known to man. Capitalizing on this good fortune required a labor force far beyond the capabilities of the Spanish conquistadors. As a result, millions of indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work the mines, often spending weeks at a time below ground. The workload was unbearable and few returned to the surface alive.
While the mines of Potosí now produce tin instead of silver, and slavery has been replaced by willing laborers, it is crazy how little else has actually changed since colonial times. Travelers are able to take a trip back in time as well as absorb Bolivia’s present on a tour of a working mine in Potosí.
Be aware, this is not a tour for the masses. Life underground is dirty, hazardous, and more than a little claustrophobic. The authenticity of the experience kicks in right from the start, when guests trade their street clothing for shabby jumpsuits, rubber boots, and a hard hat complete with headlamp. Safely above ground, this seems more like a fun photo opportunity rather than the first step of a grim daily routine for most locals in Potosí.
The tour begins with a short stop at the miner’s market. Visitors are encouraged to buy “gifts” for the miners they will encounter. Coca leaves for a caffeine boost and drinks for hydration make a lot of sense, but others gifts raise a few eyebrows. Cigarettes are a popular choice, though lighting up four stories beneath the Earth’s surface seems rather foolhardy. Bandanas are work to “filter” the air you breathe. (Note: most miners die before age 40 from inhaled substances.) And the most troubling of all: live dynamite. A considerate tour guide will offer to carry it for you, which may make you feel only marginally safer.
Groups then visit a refinery plant to learn how metals are processed; while your guide barks information over the deafening roar of machinery. Guard rails and caution signs are noticeably absent. This is your next clue this tour will be unlike any other cave jaunt you may have experienced.
The entrance to the mine is a gaping black hole with rail tracks disappearing into the darkness. You half expect Snow White’s dwarves to appear, singing “hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go." Instead, a mine cart shoots out at breakneck speeds and you recoil, realizing just how close the walls are. There's barely enough space to save your toes and the thin rubber boots are no longer so amusing.
Once underground, the air is thick with dust and the temperature rises to almost unbearable levels. It is tough to decide whether to breathe through the bandana for filtration or without it to suck in more of the much needed oxygen.
A Working Holiday
Miners appear in the shadows to claim their gifts, loving posing for pictures. Females be wary, they can get a bit handsy. Everyone is given the opportunity to work the mine. This is when it occurs to you that you paid good money to do hard labor on your vacation. Pickaxe in hand, you swing away at the layers of rock, while saying a silent prayer to anyone and everyone that this isn’t the wall that will cause it all to come tumbling down.
The miners know who you are praying to. They will gladly introduce you to El Tio, the uncle, a devilish figurine that supposedly safeguards the mine. Miners make frequent prayer offerings to El Tio: coca leaves, cigarettes, and even baby llama fetuses.
How to Do It
There are a few companies in Potosí offering mine tours, but one we recommend is Cerro Rico. Once again, this is not a tour for the claustrophobic or those who are particularly concerned about safety. But if you are able to overlook the heat, the dust, the dangerous environment, and the flirtatious men, this is a cultural experience that will open your eyes to a reality of what many locals experience everyday. Mining is an important industry throughout South America, and working conditions still have a long way to go.