Walking down the streets of Potosi, I see signs of decay in every corner. Sometimes, it’s hard to grasp that this little town located at the top of the Bolivian highlands used to be one of the strongest economic centres in the world. All that remains from its opulent past are the impressive colonial buildings in the city’s center. Due to its amazing history, Potosi was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. Today, the most popular attraction for tourists visiting Potosi is taking a tour inside the silver mines.
Personally, I knew very little about the history of Potosi before arriving to the city, I was lured by the adventure of getting inside a working mine (something I’d never done). On a whim, I decided to head there after a few days exploring the Uyuni salt flats and the surrounding area.
The infamous silver mines of Potosi run for miles deep into Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain in Spanish, due to the astounding amount of silver extracted from it). Most mines are run by cooperatives of local miners; most of them are descendants of the indigenous slaves who used to work there in the past. Many operators offer mine tours, but the best options are those offered by ex-miners since they know firsthand what it’s like to work in this place. Also, before you decide to sign up for a tour, keep in mind that safety conditions for miners are pretty much non-existent and the same would apply for you and your tour.
When we are picked up at our hostel, our guide gives us all the gear we’ll need: a helmet with headlamp, a jacket, a pair of pants, rubber boots and a bag to bring our belongings and the gifts for the miners. Our fist stop is at the miners market, where everyone buys some goodies to bring as gifts: coca leaves, cigarettes, chocolate, dynamite, and a few bottles of 96º “drinkable” alcohol. At that point, we’re still all smiles and jokes.
Then, it’s time to face Cerro Rico – also known as the Mountain that Eats Men giving the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in it and because of it. As soon as we arrive, it becomes clear that this is no usual touristic experience. The environment is as much charged with toxic materials as with human misery. The most shocking sight however, is to see young teenagers enduring the same harsh working conditions as the rest.
It doesn’t get any better inside the mine. The passageways were narrow and wet plus the ceilings hang low and I kept banging my head. For the taller, bigger and older people in the group it was even harder to move around. Sometimes it was cold, other times it was really hot. I was grateful to have a mask as a sort of protection against all the dust. About a quarter of the way in, half of our group decided to turn around; they’d seen enough and wanted to go back outside.
As the rest of us continued, our guide told us about the harsh life of the miners. Most of the mines are owned and operated by different mining cooperatives. The miners work long hours to extract lead, zinc and whatever little silver that’s still left. The dream of finding a large vein of silver is what keeps them going, but that doesn’t happen too often. Most miners follow on their father’s footsteps and start working when they’re young; and after years of grueling labour they rarely make it past fifty years old.
After a while, we get to a room and we all sit around a devilish figure made of clay, our guide introduces it as El Tio (the Uncle) — a representation of the Devil who is responsible for keeping miners safe in these depths. The Tio seems to be as much part of the group as anyone else and it gets its share of the gifts we brought. We sit down to drink and smoke with the miners while they tell us stories and get a break from their rough work.
At last, it’s time to get back outside. When we emerge from the depths of Cerro Rico we’re all glad that we don’t have to come back the next day. For my part, I came to Potosi searching for adventure and ended up learning a lesson on empathy and gratitude. If you want to know more about the silver mines of Potosi, I’d recommend you watch the award-winning documentary The Devil’s Miner, which follows the life of a fourteen-year-old miner. You can find the trailer below.
And if you want to see more photos from my time in Potosi, don’t forget to check out my gallery.
Would you go for an experience like this one when traveling? Why? or Why not? Leave a comment, I’d like to know what you think!