A traveller to Potosi could not understand the Potosiño mentality without braving a mine tour.
This city was literally built upon the mining industry and the exploited and bare Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) towering above the city is a constant reminder of the Potosiño dependency on nature’s riches.
Any non-mining form of employment, be it as a taxi driver, a restaurant owner, a hostel manager, a shop keeper, or a tour operator, all depends upon the continuation of silver and tin mining in this bleak and toughened town.
A mine tour is the kind of local experience I highly recommend. My tour company of choice was Big Deal Tours, the only company in town to be owned and operated by ex-miners themselves.
The miner’s market
A refreshing 8.30am start began at the miner’s market, where various mining supplies were on sale, from picks, axes, hard hats, and rubber boots, to small stalls selling coca leaves and the toxic Bolivian whisky. We were encouraged to purchase some gifts for the hard-working men inside Cerra Rico.
The next stop was a cluttered household garden of one of our guides. Here we changed into mining get-up: unflattering pants and a thin coat whose purpose was not protection from falling rocks but simply from the mud and dirt of the mines, solid boots, and a belt and hard-hat with torch attached.
The coca leaf
Our guide supplied us with coca leaves and advised us to begin filling our mouths. For miners, coca leaves are a necessity. They keep hunger and thirst at bay, provide energy, and can be used medicinally on injuries.
Most people unfamiliar with the coca leaf make the common mistake of chewing the plant. Instead, locals place the leaves between their inside cheeks and gums and suck the juice. The Quechuan word for this action is pijchar, a word with no precise English translation. After four hours, the coca leaves lose their taste and the miners know it’s time for a break from work.
They taste pretty disgusting, I have to admit. And it didn’t help that my guide continually prodded my bulging cheek, as if testing to ensure I was masticating enough leaves. If the bulge wasn’t to his satisfaction, he thrust the bag of crushed leaves towards me and nodded when I stuffed my mouth fuller, stifling my gag reflex. The coca juices left my mouth numb, which made spitting out the leaves even harder and messier.
The silver refinery
Once we were dressed and fed, we visited the silver refinery, where the rocks brought out of Cerro Rico go through a series of chemical processes to extract any unwanted minerals like zinc and draw out pure silver (or so I was told; it is said there’s little silver left in the mines to extract).
The machinery sheds seemed almost primitive by today’s standards, with few protective measures in place to prevent clumsy tourists like me – or of course, the factory workers – from tripping and trapping their hands in the heavy wheels at work.
At the mines themselves, I was given a respite from concentrating on Spanish and was supplied with my own English-speaking guide, ex-miner Pedro. Thus I was blessed with a private tour.
Within seconds of entering the first tunnel, the daylight disappeared and my eyes adjusted to the darkened caverns we explored over the next two hours.
Contrary to expectations, the mines seemed in most places pretty secure. We often walked through colonial-era (16th century) mines, with brick fortifications along the walls. But the further in we ventured, the more rugged and low the tunnels became.
These tunnels are owned by the miners’ cooperative that now runs the silver mining venture, the government having abandoned it due to over-corruption. With the miners’ cooperative, there are less regulations; the youngest worker there is currently 12, although Pedro started at 10.
El Tio is a devilish creature of terracotta complete with horns, glowing eyes, foreboding teeth, and, in one of its many reproductions, even an engorged penis.
These creatures represent the devil, who miners believe takes care of all things below the earth.
For this reason, El Tio (the Uncle) is revered (hence the streamers). On one of his reproductions, coca leaves and cigarettes were shoved into his mouth as offerings, and beer bottles scattered the floor.
Pedro offered El Tio some drops of Bolivian whisky to guarantee us safety through the mines. Then he passed it to me.
I could barely swallow the 96% alcohol, but given the importance of the ritual, it was impossible to refuse. Unfortunately, as the only tour guest, my guide was generous with the alcohol, encouraging me to scatter the alcohol on the floor before taking a multiple sips.
Those suffering claustrophobia or fear of heights would do well to avoid such a tour. There were times when I had to get on my hands and knees to slide from one mine to another, and at one point we climbed several rickety ladders to a height – and hence a long drop – I still shiver to think about.
I couldn’t have bared more than two hours underground, but the miners I met (though they work extremely hard and tend to have short life spans) were all in good spirits. This is a way of life for the Potosiños, and they take pride in it.
But at the end of the day, I still believe I am lucky that, for me, this was just a fleeting visit. With my head sweating from the helmet, my mouth black and numb from the coca leaves and my hands dry with dust, the tour confirmed the pampered lifestyle I have, and the great fortune I had to be born into it.
Find out more about Bolivia
Claustrophobic mines not your thing? Don’t worry; Bolivia is teeming with various fun and adventurous activities, including: