Our visit to Potosi has been one of the craziest, interesting but also saddest of the trip so far. A 'city' around 4060m above sea level (highest of its kind in the World) and built up on the mining industry from the mountain that towers over the city.
Arriving from Sucre we were expecting a run down city as the value of the minerals mined are falling every year however the town centre was very picturesque and really well looked after. We stayed in another really cool hostel, as hostels go, they've been really good in South America so far, more expensive than Asia but worth it.
The purpose of the stop off in Potosi before the salt flats was to take a tour of the working mines with a local guide who once worked in the mines. We got fully equipped with overalls, wellies, hard hats and head torches!
The guide (as with all of the miners) was chewing continuously on coco leaves, smoked hand made coco cigarettes and sipped 96% proof alcohol, basically pure ethanol! The miners have this to both drink and make offerings to the gods for safe work in the mines.
Before going down into the mines we stopped off in the miners market, a big convenience store at the base of the mine that sold everything from groceries and coco leaves and dynamite! The only place in the World you can buy dynamite over the counter and it was only £2.50! Known as Osama Bin Laden's market by the locals! We also stocked up on some gifts that you give to the miners during the tour.
The sad side of the tour is the conditions of the mines. After starting work in the mines life expectancy is just 20 years due to the fumes and smoke inhaled, child miners are still working and the work is so dangerous deaths from the inhalation and even mine collapse aren't uncommon. During the Spanish colonisation of the 16th and 17th century over 7 million indigenous people and African slaves died in the mines due to the conditions, most of the silver was all but extracted as well.
Miners work long hours with no set times, they chew coco leaves continuously as it enables them to keep working with less sleep and the need to stop for food. Wages are just around £10 per day.
The tour was fascinating though, tiny tunnels, meeting the miners, seeing the statues built around various tunnel points for the workers to pray for safety and leave gifts, and even one of the miners showing us how they use dynamite with a live explosion was amazing.
Most of the rock excavated is now zinc, tin and nickel. Any silver is a rarity but obviously increase the wages earned.
7,500 people work in the mines but as the government left in the 1980s all workers are now self employed and workers are joined in cooperatives to help with things such as health care, insurance, equipment and some other small benefits, although nothing much for the life led.
Leaving the mines it puts 'work' at home into perspective, no set working hours, danger, hardly ever seeing daylight and having a life expectancy of 20 or so years is unimaginable! Although part of travelling in different countries is to see everything even though sometimes it's sad to see...
Onto Uyuni next and a tour of the salt flats, meant to be one of the most impressive sights anyone sees in South America!