24.11.2007 15 °C
Our journey to Potosi consisted of a two and a half hour taxi ride from Sucre with our friends, Tobias and Lou. E-J and Lou were constantly engaged in conversation throughout the entire journey whilst the boys read.
We arrived in Potosi as it was raining and overcast and the place had a typical mining town feel to it. We could see certain buildings, which had once been quite beautiful during the wealth of its silver mining time and had now become rather derelict and run down. It seemed to have an almost ghost town feel about it, although towards the centre of the town, the buildings were better preserved.
Once we found a suitable hostel, Tobias and Lou went off to book their silver mine tour, while we were adamant we would not join them and decided to explore what else Potosi had to offer. After a half hour stroll around town and not in the best of moods, we discovered there wasn’t much more to explore...
We met up with Lou and Tobias in the evening and after a few persuasive encouragements they coaxed us into joining them on the mining tour the following day.
We then spent the rest of the evening in a cafe in the centre of town playing a new card game we were taught by Tobias and Lou, called ‘500’. This game immediately became incredibly competitive, as it was boys against girls!
Following a good sleep we rose to an early breakfast and made our way to the tour company for eight o’clock to meet our guide, a former miner. The first part of the tour consisted of us driving to the area where we changed into our suitable mining gear, which consisted of gum boots, black, baggy pants, an orange overcoat, a hard hat and the important head torch. We all looked ridiculous!
The second part of the tour was going to the miners' market, where we bought supplies and gifts to give to the miners during the tour. As they are all self employed they have to buy there own dynamite and tools! Our guide also gave us a talk about the history of the mines, which opened in 1544 and he told us that more than eight million people have died while working there. Also, the life expectancy of a miner is no more than about 40 years old, yet these people still choose to work there as the pay is much better than any other job they could do around that area. Miners usually work ten to twelve hour shifts and throughout that time they will go without food to avoid any reason to stop working. They survive the day on fizzy drinks and chewing coca leaves, which apparently give them enough energy to work in dark, unventilated areas for long periods of time! They work in different groups sometimes as small as eight and others as big as thirty people. Our guide also talked about the different types of dynamite they use to blow up the mines and how all the labour inside is still manual. E-J became particularly nervous at this point, especially when he threw a piece of dynamite at her!
After buying our gifts for the miners, we toured the machinery areas, where the rubble goes through the process that turns it into silver and zinc. Don’t ask us all the technicalities, as we didn’t catch all of it at the time.
To finish with, we entered the mine and this was the part that E-J was dreading, especially crawling through a hole no bigger than half a metre in width and height. As we arrived, we saw a few old miners enjoying that Friday feeling by having a few drinks of 97% alcohol! This didn't help E-J’s confidence too much either!
When we first entered the mine of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), we became incredibly aware of the lack of air and dust that circulated around the area. Also the mines are literally mud holes with rubber pipes containing oxygen running through them. These are dug through the mountain with limited safety structures, so we felt they could collapse at any time.
We were also warned not to put our fingers in our mouths as the walls are covered in traces of arsenic and asbestos. Continually, as we walked through the tunnels in a crouched position, we would bump our heads on the top of the cave and be relieved to be wearing the hard hats provided. With the tunnels being pitch black we relied on the limited light of our head torches to see where we were going.
As we walked through at a reasonable pace, the guide would suddenly tell us to move, hurry up or wait, as miners and their trolleys were constantly passing through full of rubble.
During the tour we walked through three different levels. On the first level there was a museum, which housed a statue of a devil that the miners religiously visit and give offerings to. Our guide kindly showed us this by lighting a cigarette and placing it in the statues mouth! They truly believe that this devil protects them in the mines, although we thought a smoking devil probably wasn't a great idea!
On the second level we crawled through a tiny passageway on our way to the lowest point the third level. We were then taken into the area where the miners deposit all the rubble out of their trolleys. They then manually shovel the rubble into buckets on pulleys, which get sent to the top. This is all done extremely quickly to ensure that the next trolley load of rubble doesn't cause a backlog.
This part was the most eye opening as you watched the strength and consistency of the miners in such poor conditions. They had no protection for their mouths and noses and it was blisteringly hot in the mines (at the time of our tour was 30 degrees but can reach up to 45 degrees!) We attempted the back breaking exercise of shoveling a few loads of the rubble into the buckets but immediately became breathless and exhausted, which wasn't helped by the fact that we where 4200m above sea level. As our guide spoke with his old work colleagues, he informed us that they were all set to do a double shift, meaning 24 hours in the mine! We also met the youngest miner there, who is sixteen years old and it was so sad to see someone of that age working in such hard conditions.
After we had observed this part of the tour, the reality of their lives started to sink in, we gave them the gifts and began our ascent to the top to exit the cave. It was during this point that Sam began to really struggle with his breath as he climbed through the hole, E-J on the other hand, was striding on a head with the adrenaline of fear inside her and hoping to avoid anymore feelings of claustrophobia.
When we exited the mines, it was then time to blow up some dynamite. These sorts of activities never cease to amaze us in South America, with the lack of health and safety precautions. We watched one of our guides put together some dynamite and then he lit it. He then passed it round the group for people to hold and take photos with. E-J was having none of this, but Sam rather enjoyed his near death experience.
The guide then took it back, ran down into the valley, dug it into a hole and then ran back, all in the space of ten minutes before the whole thing below up. It was a pretty impressive explosion!
Sam’s comments: Crawling through the mine for me was harder than the Inca trail. I was slightly alarmed that I was the last to hold the dynamite, but very relieved to pass it back! An amazing experience and it will teach anyone not to complain about a hard days work!
E-J’s Comments: The mines were an incredible experience, especially to see that things like that still go on. The miners have a great camaraderie and are all mainly Quechan, so speak their native Quechan language in the mines. They all have one side of their cheek almost bursting with coca leaves and although it looks like a balloon, when you touch their cheek - it is as solid as a rock. It still shocks me that people still do this job and are allowed to so in such appalling conditions!