We arrived in Potosí just in time, about half an hour before it started raining big time, which meant our trudge up the hill to town wasn't miserably wet. Our hostel was actually an old hotel and pretty empty but not too far to walk to the Plaza de Armas.
We made our way to the main square in the pouring rain, realising upon arriving there that sight seeing would be futile, instead finding ourselves enjoying coffee and cake in a café. Our budget doesn't allow for coffee and cake, yet it's something we find ourselves indulging in regularly. Rain is one of the better excuses.
When the rain had eased a little (or as much as it was going to) we walked the streets in search of a short-list of tour providers we wanted to enquire with to do a mine tour. Eventually we settled on an operation run by local ex-miners who seemed like a nice bunch of guys.
Potosi sits at the base of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), which has been mined for centuries for predominantly silver, but also a variety of other minerals. It is said that enough silver was mined here to build a road from Potosí to Madrid. This hill was responsible for the prosperity of the Spanish Empire.
Potosi in its boom years was the most prosperous city in South America. It is no longer a booming city but the remnants remain, and the mines are still in operation. The miners now work under one of 30 or so cooperatives.
A miner will initially work for a more experienced miner, being assigned to a vein and being paid a small percentage of what is recovered. In his second and third years he is paid a higher percentage, after which he pays entry to the cooperative and owns that vein. If the vein runs dry he has to start again.
We did the tour the next morning. After arriving at the office we were driven to the mines, with a short stop at the miners market where it was expected we spent a few dollars on gifts for the miners. We purchased the easy option, a bag with a bag of coca leaves, a bottle of juice and some books for their kids to use at school. You could even freely purchase dynamite and the miners choice of liquor, a bottle of 96% alcohol (completely safe to drink according to the bottle)!
We were then driven to what seemed like someone's house, where we were given gumboots, pants, jackets, face masks and helmets with a lamp before continuing on to a processing plant where we saw the machinery and processes used to extract the minerals.
Finally we arrived at the mine entrance. While women aren't allowed to mine (for risk of upsetting El Tio, essentially the Devil but the God of the underground), they are fortunately allowed to tour the mines. We entered one of the tunnels and walked along for a stretch, having to duck quite low in some places and trudging through mud in others.
The entire mine, which actually consists of 30 or so mine areas each belonging to a different cooperative, is all dug by hand or using dynamite. It probably more closely resembles a giant ants nest, a conical shaped hill intersected with an absolute maze of tunnels and passageways. It seems easy to get lost, and apparently new miners sometimes do.
The first miners we encountered were what they called contractors. These guys are paid on the quantity they move out of the mine rather than the quality. So far that day they had filled 27 bags with rock they had cut out, which they were loading on carts to wheel out. We gifted then some items we had purchased before moving on.
Not much further along we came across a kid who said he was 14. Although there is a legal age limit of 18 to work in the mines, apparently no one really polices this. This kid was helping his family of miners while he was on school holidays. We thought best not to give him any coca leaves but gave him a bottle of juice. This regulation didn't always exist, and even our guide, an ex-miner, had started working in there at the age of 8. He had worked there for 21 years, before starting up the tour company with other miners. He's now 34.
We were shown different veins of various minerals, and even found some scraps on the ground which had a few flecks of silver in them. The colours running through the mines were really varied, with reds, yellows, blues, greens and more.
After a little while on that level, we had to climb a series of ladders to reach a higher level of tunnels. It was in this area we found one of the older miners. He was about 60 years of age, from memory, which means he has well outlived the average life expectancy of a miner in Potosi which is about 40 years of age.
The miners don't wear face masks in the mines, as they say it gets too hot and uncomfortable, and of course there is no one to make them. Between years of breathing in dust and potentially harmful gases, chewing huge amounts of coca all day (which in turn means they can suppress their appetite and therefore work all day without taking a break to eat), drinking 96% alcohol, smoking, rarely seeing sunlight and generally taking very poor care of themselves, they die very young.
Why do they do it? Our guide told us mostly for the money. It seems like men from the area are more or less expected to become miners, and they take on the risk so they can earn enough money to support their family. What do they earn? Apparently most of them earn around $700 Bolivianos a week, which is equivalent to about $100 US. It seems like a horrendously small amount for the disgraceful conditions, and it is. While it is a little more than the average Bolivian weekly wage (about $400-$500 Bolivianos), it is disgustingly low.
After chatting with this "elderly" miner who looked after himself a little better than most, we visited the largest of El Tio's in the mine. This large model was a confronting and quite hideous sight. This devil, ruler of the underground, had an enormous appendage as a show of his strength, perhaps? He had been decorated with streamers in a recent miners celebration of some nature, and all around him were scattered remnants of cigarettes and empty bottles from those who had shared some of the 96% alcohol with their protector.
We too shared some 96% alcohol with El Tio. Our guide made some wishes on our behalf, and poured some of the horrible liquid for El Tio before we took turns taking a couple of sips each (everything has to be done in twos, due to the symmetry). Oh how it burned! You could feel it burn in your mouth, down your throat and all the way into your stomach.
Further along in the miners discoteca, we were treated to a very pretty sight, of stalactites and crystals that had formed from the dripping minerals. Mostly these were blues and greens as a result of copper.
One of the last groups we chatted to were busily working away hand drilling blast holes. The hole they were working on had taken all day. We spoke to them for a while, learning that the work required for this task depended on the rock, harder rock could take them a week to make 1 hole, softer rock just a few hours.
One of the miners was kind enough to show Fergus how real men mine. After providing a demonstration, he gave Fergus a turn. First he had to hammer a rod into the rock, twist, then hammer again, before using another rod with a little scoop on the end to remove the dust. Fergus was told he had done an adequate job.
Nearby a miner nicknamed "Monkey" was deep in a hole working away. He heard us and called out to ask for some dynamite, but none of us had purchased any at the market, so he settled instead on a packet of cigarettes.
There are no geologists or engineers or even much machinery in these mines. Safety is not monitored or enforced, it's just every man for himself, with the knowledge and experience passed on to them from those they work under. Mines collapse and people die. It's believed around 8 million (!!) men have died in this mountain since the 1500's.
Soon, after some more extremely hunched walking and about 2 hours in total underground, we were out of the mine. As we walked back to the van we found some kids who were very excited to receive some books. They were possibly the most snotty children we've ever encountered, and after agreeing to a photo and looking inquisitively at the camera, one of them quickly lost interest and decided to carry on picking his nose.
With the tour over we left with really mixed emotions and thoughts on what we had witnessed. We met men who work in what must be up there with the worst conditions of any job known to man, being paid next to nothing, and with the knowledge that they will die before their time. Yet they are more than happy to humour a bunch of tourists, gawking at them like zoo animals in exchange for coca leaves, juice and cigarettes.
Those we spoke to (as best we could with limited Spanish) were more than happy to answer our questions and they seemed perhaps even moderately happy. Despite their reactions to us and genuinely welcoming attitudes, we still couldn't help but question the ethics of the type of tourism we were participating in.
These conditions don't exist because of tourists. This is a job for them and they will carry on regardless. Hopefully if anything our presence just makes their life a little better, as supposedly some of the profits from our tour go to the miners. 10,000 people work inside Cerro Rico. We saw just a small part of it and only a handful of those people, but we will likely remember the experience for a long time to come.
For the rest of our time in Potosi we simply darted around from cafés to undercover areas in the pouring rain. It rarely stopped raining, in fact. We attempted to visit the Casa Nacional de la Moneda, the National Mint and what is supposed to be a really good museum, however it seemed everyone else wanted to visit it also (the only wet weather activity) so the queue was huge and we decided against it.