Posted on August 20, 2015
High-ho It’s Off to the Potosi Silver Mines We Go
It took us a three hour bus ride up winding roads with nice valley views on a pretty comfy bus, with lots of dust, humidity and weird smells to get to the mining town of Potosi (“poe-TOE-see”). We weren’t even sure we’d actually be able to come to this town as over the past month the entire city was in lockdown over a miner driven community strike. Thankfully, the week before we arrived the strike was lifted and the miners and government where starting negotiations. At 13,343 ft (4,067 m), we were barely able to make it up the 4 flights of stairs to our hotel room, where we promptly collapsed on the bed and rested for a while. I felt as if my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. Am I really this out of shape?
The hotel we booked online, Hostal Tukos La Casa Real, looked decent but upon arrival we were quickly disappointed. No heat, and super dingy, the 1-pane windows in our room were not sealed and allowed enough air through to blow open our room’s door. The completely disgusting carpet was wet and had visible mold from a leaking old (not working) radiator. The shower did not drain properly so you stood in ankle deep water, there were long black hairs attached to the wool blankets on the worlds most uncomfortable bed with lumpy pillows. To top it off, the breakfast consisted of cold hard rolls, unappetizing fruit and tea we choked down while wearing a down coat and hat. When in Potosi we would not recommend staying here.
Don’t get me wrong, despite the high attitude and sub-par accommodations Potosi is a pretty neat little town. Lovely Spanish architecture, old ornate churches and winding little streets. It’s pretty exhausting with all the up and down but there are some cool shops, and a fun central mercado to explore and beautiful plazas to enjoy. One bummer about the time we were visiting is that with the national independence day holiday (which they were boycotting) and the strikes we found it hard to find restaurants that were open at night for dinner. We generally try to avoid doing this but ended up eating at a great place called 4060 two nights in a row. Warm, cozy, great food and close to our hotel.
Our hotel helped us book a silver mine tour of Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) through Big Deal Tours. Our guide, Wilson, spoke great english and you could tell he really liked being a guide. He himself started working in the mines at the age of 8 years old and continued to do so for the next 21 years. He recently made the switch to leading tours and enjoys telling his and other miner’s stories, not working such long hard hours in the mine and mostly staying in the healthier non-underground conditions. After being picked up from the hotel we headed to the local miner’s market at the base of the mountain. Every morning the miners stop here to buy needed supplies for the day. Things like water, soda, coca leaves, dynamite, miner’s cigarets, clothing/tools, and even bottles of 95% alcohol to drink. Yikes! They do not eat in the mine and only take a short 2 hour break (still in the mine) to rest during their 10 hour shifts. We purchased some soda and coca leaves to carry down to the miners as a gift for letting us see their daily lives.
Next stop was getting suited up like the miners since this is an active working mine and we needed to protect ourselves and be as safe as possible. Rubber boots, pants, jackets, hard hats, lights, and face masks completed the look. Already I was hot and we hadn’t even gone down in the mine. We made a brief stop by the mineral processing plant to see what happens once the mineral ore is removed from the mountain. This would have never passed safety regulations in the US as a bunch of clumsy tourists just busted right in, ducking and weaving between crazy loud, scary and dangerous looking machinery and hoping not to fall into the rock crushers! Some people amaze me with what they can put up with for a job on a daily/yearly/lifetime basis when necessary.
Ok, finally we are on our way to the bowels of the mountain. We drove up the winding dirt road moving periodically out of the way to let loaded down trucks of rocks headed to the processing plant pass us by and pulled up to a pretty non exciting hole in the side of the mountain. Llamas are sacred here to the locals and are often times sacrificed to bring good luck. That said the entrance to the mine was splattered with dried llama blood which made for a creepy start to the tour.
Almost immediately we had to start bending down to fit through the tunnels and at 15,827 ft(4,824 m) above sea level, with even less oxygen inside the mine shaft, this was no easy task. The altitude was really affecting me and in general I wasn’t feeling well so to start the day so now I was a stumbling, head hitting, slow moving mess. After just 10 minutes I though I feared I may get stuck down here if I could’t make it all the way through! We followed along the rail cart tracks and had to find little nooks and crannies to stuff ourselves into as the miners would come past with carts loaded with rock. It was so dark, damp, dusty, hot and miserable and I now know without ANY doubt in my mind that I am NOT cut out for mining. Darn, there goes that dream.
We continued on in the mountain either bent over fully in half or even crawling on hands and knees through small passageways. We took some time to talk to a few of the miners and learned that they can make twice as much working in the mines in a year ($430) as in town ($210). Only problem is they don’t live as long and you could tell they sacrificed themselves for the good of their families. In the last year they had 4 mine accident deaths (supposedly some irresponsible new miners) and another 16 were health (lung) related due to years in the mines. They were so appreciative of the gifts we brought and I can only hope it brightened their day at least a little in such a dark place.
Throughout the mine we saw beautifully colored stalactite formations covering the roof and passed by some creepy underground demon statues. The one pictured is the main guy and on the 1st Friday of every month (the same day we coincidently were there) the miners come and make offering to ask for health, safety and good luck with mining. In the mine they have what is called “the rule of twos” used for good luck. Meaning they do everything twice. They shake both hands, take 2 drinks the 95% alcohol (which Aaron did!) and sacrifice 2 llamas. On a gross note, there was a decaying llamas fetus at the foot of this statue as an offering. Ewww! Another funny tradition in the mine is no matter the day or time the common greeting is “buenas noches” or good evening/night. Haha, pretty clever.
I was particularly ready for the tour to be done as a whole hour underground was enough for me (and my back and thighs!!). We headed back to the hotel where we showered and quickly fell asleep for the afternoon. I was still not feeling well by the evening and Aaron insisted that we leave Potosi a day early for Uyuni, which also happens to be a few thousand feet lower in elevation in hopes that would make me feel better. Aaron quickly negotiated with the hotel to check out in the morning and gave us one thing to appreciate about the hotel…they did not charge us for the night we cancelled. Finally something good to day about them.