“The tunnel grew darker and more claustrophobic, the air harder to breathe. But we trudged deeper into the bowels of a mountain where thousands of miners toil and countless more are entombed, casualties of a centuries-old lust for silver.
Behind me followed five other foreign tourists, here to see an anachronism in the 21st century, medieval mining in the Rich Mountain of Potosí. This cone-shaped peak is at any given moment home to as many as 16,000 shirtless miners, straining in dark caverns with picks, shovels, their own brute strength but little else.” The Guardian.
Potosi has to be one of my all time favourite places in Bolivia (thus far). By whatever means, it has managed to retain its colonial beauty. It’s compact enough to visit everything on foot and there is much for the inquisitive visitor to see and do. There are restaurants in abundance, serving some amazing food and a lovely central Plaza from which you can ‘people watch’ to your hearts content. Sitting at just over 4,000 metres, it is also famed for being one of the highest cities in South America.
The highlight of my visit was a tour of the silver mines. However, it’s not for the faint hearted! One member of my tour group threw the towel in after only two minutes. It is indeed an experience I shall never forget.
Before entering the mines you visit a local market where you buy ‘gifts’ for the workers. These ‘gifts’ include water, neat alcohol, cocoa leaves and sticks of dynamite – yes you read correctly!
After donning protective clothing, overalls, a hard hat and lamp, you enter the mine itself. The tunnels are low and narrow. Inside it’s hot and very dusty. As you stoop and walk along the rail track, laid down for moving the trolleys, you are continuously being asked, by the tour guide, to “stand aside” as the hand pushed trolleys, each carrying 2-tonnes of rock, hurtle past you.
At one point we had to scramble up a near vertical passageway using only our hands, knees and feet. It was extremely difficult to breath, especially whilst wearing a face mask and bandana, which are a necessity to protect your lungs. I thought I was going to pass out at one point, I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. Once we had reached the end of the shaft we scrambled onto a small ledge where we were told to sit and wait. Our guide told us that a ‘controlled explosion’ was being set up 15 metres away from us. It was a tense and nerve racking few minutes waiting for the ‘boom’.
The miners go about their work in terrible conditions; working 10-hour shifts they are unable to eat any food due to potential contamination from the toxic dust. The only thing that keeps them going is chewing cocoa leaves, which they stuff inside their mouths like little hamsters. The average life expectancy of a miner is 40 years.
I was truly glad to get back outside where I could get some fresh, clean air into my lungs.
Next stage: Sucre.