Potosì was one of the most impressive cities I visited so far due to its history and still current conditions. In 1545, silver was discovered in the Cerro Rico (the rich mountain). Potosì soon became the centre of America as Cerro Rico was the richest silver mine in the world. More than 470 years later, there is still silver and other minerals to be extracted.
Many agencies offer tours to visit the mine, but also the guidebook mentions the risk associated. Although I am claustrophobic, I decided to visit the mine. First you get boots, pants, a jacket, helmet, light. Then you are brought to the miner’s market to buy a few things for the miners you will be visiting. Coca leaves which they are chewing the whole day, it helps them to absorb the dust, not feel hungry and gives them strength. Cigarettes and alcohol at 96% which is diluted in water (or not). Juice for the altitude, Potosi is at 4300m, one of the highest cities in the world, the mine is even higher. Dynamite. Yes, you can buy dynamite just like this in Potosi (but shouldn’t bring it out of town).
Then it’s a short ride up the hill. We are only 4. 2 Bolivians, 1 Brazilian who take a tour with the Spanish guide and then just me on my own with an English speaking guide.
Already when entering the mine I feel scared. It’s just high enough to walk but then you have to run or jump to the side when a chariot passes by, weighing 2 tons if filled and pushed by 2 small Bolivians. The noise is so loud you cannot talk. The guide shows me the devil, el Tio. Every section has a devil to whom they bring cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol for good luck. They are scared, there are so many dangers and God seems to far away inside this mountain, inside the hell so it must be the devil that can protect them if they make offers. There’s also a small shrine, a stop there at the beginning of every shift is also mandatory.
I try to focus on my breath and the information, already feeling oppressed in the mine. It’s full of dust and with the altitude it’s hard to breath. And I am not even far into the mine. There are pipes bringing in oxygen, but only for the first 2 levels. There are 4 levels up and 5 down though. The air is also filled with arsenic, asbest and many other dangerous substances. The miners don’t live very long, dying of lung cancer or other effects, collapsing caves, poisonous air,… 12,000 mines are still working here. An estimated 8 million died here during the 450 years of exploitation. The mountain is called “The mountain that eats humans”.
Today it’s no longer managed by the government but by cooperativas. Miners sometimes pay a tax to these for some health insurance, but not all can afford. We walk off the main well to a smaller one. It’s very dark and we can hear explosions in the distance. Then a ladder up to a very small cave. My guide lits a lightbulb (there’s electricity down here) and then points to a tiny well going further up. I already have difficulties to not panic down here so I tell him I cannot go up. So he makes the two miners come down. Father, 39, working here for 23 years and son, 18, working here for 3 years already. Some started even younger. But all look much older. There’s no mask protecting their mouth and nose from the dust. They are happy about the coca leaves and juice. They are working only on extracting quality stones, sometimes making 900 Bolivianos (about 130€) a week with about 5kg of stones, sometimes much less. Others who were pushing the chariots are extracting in quantity, trucks waiting outside to carry the rocks further. The conditions today are horrendous. How must it have been hundreds of years ago? Even worse of course. The Spanish made the Incas and Africans work inside the mine for weeks without getting out. The Africans died because of the altitude they were not used to.
All of this is too much for me, claustrophobia is taking over and almost crying I tell the guide that I need to leave. He doesn’t really get it, stopping to talk to a few guys on our way and telling me they will do an explosion in 10 minutes, we should wait for the experience. I am already feeling terrified without explosion, no thanks. He also tells every miner that I am a single looking for a husband. I cannot stand his jokes but all there is left to do as always is smile and be kind, relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel. Outside I feel immediately well and don’t understand myself for feeling so panicked, why didn’t I continue… The miners outside are drinking beer, celebrating a Friday afternoon, saying that if I have travelled so far on my own I should have had the courage to continue. Well, difficult to explain claustrophobia. Later I hear that UNESCO is thinking of removing Potosi from being classified as world heritage site due to the conditions of the miners. Later in Sucré I will watch the German documentary “The Devil’s Mine”. It’s heartbreaking and I can only recommend to watch it, a 14 year old boy who is working already 3 years in the mine to make a living for the family after his father died.
In the centre of Potosì it doesn’t feel like, but these people must be so poor they don’t have any other choice than working in the mine.
After this oppressing visit, we discover just the opposite side of Potosì. Marco the Brazilian takes me and the Bolivians to the “Club International”, where non-members can also have lunch, a 4 course meal for 20 Bolivianos. The members belong to the elite of Potosi and eat here every day. The contrast couldn’t be harsher, the Bolivians talk about their life in Santa Cruz, certainly the richest part of Bolivia.
The afternoon is spent sleeping and then going for dinner with a German I met in the hostel.
The next morning another lesson of Bolivian’s history at La Moneda, the National Mint of Bolivia from 1574 to 1933. Wikipedia says it best: “The coinage minted during the Colonial period became so well known in the world that a saying, memorialized by Miguel de Cervantes came into use: valer un potosí, “to be worth a potosí” (that is, “a fortune”). The overall costs of building the first mint exceeded 8,000 pesos, the equivalent of around ten million dollars in today’s currency!!! People who worked here under hard conditions, the museum gives a good view in a guided tour.
Another lunch at the Club International with another French couple and then we catch the bus to Sucre, a 3h bus ride into new adventures.