We arrived in Potosi having already booked our accommodation at the Koala Den. It was only a five hour journey to get to there from Sucre and it was a day bus. We had our tour in the afternoon so after checking in we made our way to the town centre. We grabbed some lunch and then decided to locate the tour operator where we had to meet to start our tour.
It happened to be right next door to where we had our lunch! Brilliant job done, the tour didn't start till 2 o'clock so next on the list was to get to the market to get some food or the next day because there was a judicial election. When the Bolivian's vote everything has to shut down, by order of the Government. The locals are also not allowed to drink for two days before they vote, they are all tested and if they are caught with any alcohol in their system they get imprisoned in the local jail for 24 hours. The local restaurants and even the local shops won't sell anyone any alcohol and unfortunately that includes tourists.
Shopping done, at 2pm we were sat in the office waiting for the guide and bus to take us to the mine. As usual they were running late. On the way we had to buy the miners some gifts. When you are walking down the mines you hand them out gifts like juice, biscuits and even coca leaves. At the shop our guide went in and sorted out the stuff for us as well as pointing out the dynamite, nitro-glycerin, and matches that were all on the shelf together. We also purchased face masks to keep the dust and other stuff at bay whilst we were down there.
The miners are all working for themselves they don't work for a company, it's a co-operative and they have to buy into it to be able to mine there. Once we had all the gifts, one bag each, we made our way to get our kit which consisted of waterproof trousers and a mack, also wellies, a lamp and a hard hat.
All suited and booted we jumped in the bus and headed to the entrance we were going to use, there are about 500 in total so the whole mountain is like a bit of swiss cheese. As we approached the entrance we saw the miner's storage sheds where they keep all the equipment and get changed before heading into the mines. Then we saw the entrance, not really that big, in we headed and the first thing that struck me was how cold it was straight away and also how narrow and low the ceilings were, good job for the hard hat can't remember how many times in total I banged my head, even Sarah banged her head the tunnels were that low!
We headed further into the mine stopping and looking at various minerals and rocks as the guide explained how the miners followed the veins of the silver alloy hoping to find a bigger richer pocket further in, there were tunnels and stuff everywhere. All of a sudden the guide shouted to get to one side as there was a cart coming our way.
We all moved out of the way to one side, the rumbling came closer as it approached we saw the five guys who were moving it, two at the front pulling and three at the back pushing. The guide asked them to stop so we could give them some stuff and also take a couple of pictures. They obliged and stopped the cart with a lot of effort, it was piled high, each bag weighed about 50kg and there were a lot of them so the guys were sweating and grateful for the biscuits and drink! We took a few pictures, let them get on and we carried on down the mine. The miners were heading home to get their shopping for the next day as well.
It wasn't really the best day to do the tour as most of the miners had already finished for the day for this very reason. The next day the mine would be closed completely which is almost unheard of.
As we got deeper the atmosphere got a lot hotter and the ceilings got a lot lower and there was a lot more water on the floor, there were also a lot more pipes which took air and electricity to the depths of the mines. Our guide was trying to find us a few guys that were working down the mines so that we could watch them in action but to no avail. The last guy we saw was one of the bosses who owned a stake in the co-operative, he had been working the mines since he was 15 and he was now 35 (he looked closer to 60!). He explained that he had been making the holes ready for the dynamite on Monday morning, in his crew he was the only one that did this as he had the most experience. Sure enough at about 6am on Monday morning you heard all the explosions going off, it's just like when we were skiing and they set off all the charges to stop the avalanches. Most miners don't live beyond 50 years old due to the conditions, all are hoping to hit the jackpot, very few do.
The next thing we headed to see was the miner's devil El Tío, when the mines had first opened the miners had a statue made to put down the mine for them to make offerings to keep them safe and also to bring them luck in finding a rich vein of minerals and silver. They see it as the devils domain down there not gods, even though when they are outside they are all devout Catholics. We had to crawl through some narrow passages sometimes on our hands and knees but after about five minutes we arrived and there it was the monument to the miner's devil. It looked to be made out of mud was horned and was sitting on a ledge it even had wellies on, all around it there were bottles and what looked like the stuff that comes out of party poppers! There were also loads of bottles of the 96% alcohol that the miners offered and also drank, to start off with they drink it neat then they start to add water or coke so it's not as strong. Stuart and I were asked if we wanted to try so we had to oblige, it was really strong and gave a burning sensation on the way down, it would have killed any germs or bugs we had so that was good. Sarah and Charlene declined though. The guide even put a lit cigarette in its mouth as an offering, you could see that this had been done many times before as there were butts all over the place and the face was all black with tar. This was the last stop on our tour underground and we started to make our way back to the surface, you could tell we were getting closer as the air got cooler with every step you took. Finally there was 'light at the end of the tunnel!!' (I had to put that!)
We got out and walked down the hill a bit whilst the guide called the minibus to pick us up, as usual there were some stray dogs running around and playing which amused us whilst we were waiting. When we got back we stripped off and put our own shoes and stuff on before being dropped back to the shop where we had started.
That night we grabbed a Mexican and then went to the markets for some supplies for the Sunday before heading back to the Koala Den for a good night's sleep and hopefully a lie in!
The next day was pretty uneventful, Stu was ill and in bed all day, I decided to watch the replay of the Kiwi and Australia rugby game which was good and there was a crowd of us in the TV room including a few Auzzies which made for some good banter. That was it really and we also met this guy called Andy who was pretty cool although we didn't know his name at the time, he travelled on the same bus as us to our next destination.
Next stop on the map Uyuni