“That’s worth a Potosi” is a popular Spanish expression made famous by Don Quijote, which means something is very valuable. Potosi is famous its silver mining exploitation on the mountain Cerro Rico, that started in the XVI century and dominates the 240.000 inhabitants city located at 4.100m above sea level.
Travelling from Uyuni to Potosi was an experience itself. We discovered Bolivian bus transportation specificity: the yelling announcement of the upcoming departure, their art of driving with different honking types either in order to keep the same pace while animals are crossing the road or to warn that we are blindingly overtaking in a curve!
After an approximately 4hours trip, the time to appreciate a multi-color landscape and pick-up/drop off people in sometimes the rarest places we’ve ever seen, we arrive in Potosi without a clue of where we are going to stay while it is already dark night.
Together with Andrea and Greg we go to the brightest light of a new Hotel Serma which at first does not convince us with the price, a little expensive for Bolivia… But after an excursion of an hour and a half in the center to complete the price benchmark of the city, we decide to stay in that comfortable hotel. After all, we deserve it!
Our Swiss friends don’t want to visit the mines having bad feelings about it. The two of us will take the opportunity to live this unique experience. We choose the Big Deal agency which is within the most expensive ones but claims they are the first to be owned by actual former mine-workers who will also be our guides… and we have not been disappointed with our choice.
The first stop of the excursion is at the Miners Market where it is recommended to buy presents for the mine-workers during the visit. Among the possibilities: soda, coca leaves, 96º sugar-cane alcohol and explosives !!! Our guide invites us to only buy Soda and coca which made us more comfortable…
After receiving the required equipment (helmet, light, boots and over-clothing) we stop at a refinement plant. There are around 40 sites owned by private companies that pay the miners according to the quality and quantity of minerals they bring in. All the material (from trucks to explosives and tools), the workers have to buy themselves.
At the plant, Beto (our guide) shows us the raw minerals that can be found – zinc, pyrite, lead… and of course the precious silver – and how they are separated first from the rocks, then from each other through windmills, grinders and decantation baths after having been mixed with reactive chemicals… The result is raw paste that dry in the open air and will be later exported for further refinement to obtain more valuable objects.
It is time to climb the 4.800m mountain to see how the extraction is done. As we are approaching, we see trucks coming back from the different 180 mine tunnels, and enjoy the panoramic view over the city.
We are now in front of a dark entrance, painted with llama blood as an offering to Pachamama, the earth goddess. After letting a fully loaded cart pushed by two your men pass in front of us, it is our turn to enter the tunnel and be swallowed by the mine for a couple of hours… In the narrow corridor framed by wooden beams: darkness, dust, and a light air flow that will soon disappear as we keep advancing… We bump our heads to the low ceiling and walk into chewed coca leaves that have been spit on the ground. It is getting very warm inside and quite suffocating with the oxygen becoming rare as we are climbing to reach a first team of workers… They know Beto, who still works as a miner when there is not enough tourism. Surprisingly we are very welcomed and not seen as indiscreet tourists who want to peep on hard-working miners digging and carrying heavy loads. They work as a squad with hierarchy defined and specialities assigned… We have the opportunity to talk with some of them that have spent 35years in the mine… They are proud of their work, to economically be able to sustain their family although they are very conscious about the health issues that might shorten their lives: breathing acid gases, low oxygen, mineral dust…
We continue our way, more carts are passing by sometimes pushed by 14 year-olds. We hear some far explosion and keep advancing… We meet another team with whom we spend more time chatting and I even help them a loading a cart…it is a tough job! The effort with the almost unbearable heat and low oxygen is very hard! But we are amazed at the positive atmosphere they work in. They joke around a lot during the short interruption we are provoking and seem very happy to share the soda and coca we brought for them.
For our last stop, we take a seat near the statue of El Tio, the masculine god that generates the minerals as a fruit of its relationship with Pachamama, and Beto tells us more stories about the site and his personal experience.
Our heads bang a few more times on the ceiling as we make our way out and finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and take a deep breath when we are outside… It has only been only two hours, and it is hard for us to imagine what an entire life working in the mines can be like… On the way back to the city the feelings are difficult to process : glad to have experienced this, sitting down with the miners and shared a moment with them. Sad to see their working conditions without any industrial assistance or their acceptance of health damage caused… we keep being impressed by their positive attitude. But most of all, we can’t stop thinking of how privileged we are.
The next day we take a bus to Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia registered at UNESCO for the heritage of its colonial buildings. We meet up with our Swiss friends again, we enjoy the warmer temperatures, recharge batteries, and start planing our next move to Cochabamba.