Down the Potosí Mines

I’d been looking forward to a tour of the Potosí mines ever since I first heard it was possible, and it didn’t disappoint ONE BIT!  It was easily one of the best adventures I’ve had traveling EVER – and hey that’s saying something…!

First stop was to get kitted out in all the protective gear.  We were given some pretty abused clothing (check out my wicked faux leather plastic jacket!), gum boots, a helmet, and a miner’s lamp.  Next stop was a trip to the Miners’ Market, where the miners buy all the gear they need for a day in the mines: bags of coca leaves (not to be confused with cocaine!), a rough local booze containing 96% alcohol (that was surprisingly drinkable), carbide lamps (to test for noxious gases), explosives (to go bang!), pipe fittings, shovels, etc.

On our way to the Miners’ Market we crossed a big protest march planned for the day.  Apparently Evo Morales (the President, who I think is an idiot) is planning to re-nationalise the mining industry (like he’s doing with the oil industry) and raise taxes, and let’s just say the miners aren’t happy one bit about it.  It was a peaceful march, but where other protesters do it with drums or firecrackers, these miners were setting off detonator caps and sticks of dynamite on the street!

After a lesson in what’s what around the market we set off to buy some gifts for the miners.  As we’re entering their mine (it’s a co-operative) it’s expected that you come with a few gifts as a token of appreciation.  High on their gift list?  Coca leaves, explosives, cigarettes and booze!  I went for a bag of coca leaves (which really aren’t that unpleasant to chew on, make your lips and mouth go numb, a great for your digestive system, and act as an appetite suppressant…) and an explosive “kit”.  For just 17Bs – that’s around $2! – anyone can score a ready-made bomb-making kit consisting of a stick of dynamite, a detonator with a one-minute slow-burning fuse, and a small bag of high-concentrate ammonium nitrate fertilizer (which is an explosive when used in the right – or wrong – way).

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(L) Fun with dynamite!  (R) Our guide explains the virtues of coca.

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A few scenes from the Miners’ Market…

Next stop was a visit to one of the many small ingenios (smelters) that are used to process the ore from the mines.  These are all along the old riverbed (the river dried up over a century ago) as the plants were run using the water to turn huge waterwheels.  Here the ore is crushed up and water added to create a slurry sort of paste, chemicals are added, the mixture is agitated, and a flotation method is used to separate the silver.  The result is silver of about 60% purity, which is then sold on international markets.  The by-product liquid from the flotation process is further separated and settled, and the remaining “mud” is dried in the sun.  This is also about 60% silver and tin (with zinc and copper in there as well) but as the Bolivians don’t possess the technology to separate out the ore themselves, the “mud” is sold to companies in the US and Europe for further processing and value-added activities.

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Inside the smelter.

With all that behind us we drove up to Cerro Rico to the Candelaria Mine (at 4,200m altitude!), which has been worked for several centuries.  We walked in a couple of hundred metres to a small “museum” which explained some of the history of the area, and then the tour begun in earnest.  We started at a small shrine to El Diablo (the devil), who the miners call Tío (Uncle).  When the Spanish invaded the Americas they brought their Catholicism with them and quickly instilled an image of heaven and hell into the indigenous mining population, and as the mines were a pretty close approximation to the biblical version of hell (underground, hot, not much fun!), the miners felt that mining underground was like taking something from the devil.  So, before each shift, the miners make offerings to Tío to appease him for “stealing” what is rightfully his.  The offerings are the usual: coca leaves, booze and cigarettes.

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Views from up near the mines.

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(L) At the entrance to the mine.  (R) A shrine to Tío with offerings to him.

We then entered the working part of the mine, full of narrow and irregular passages that follow the veins of ore and some fairly rudimentary shoring-up where necessary.  The temperature climbed substantially and the air took on a foul, noxious and acrid tang that made it difficult to breathe, which stripped my throat raw and which smelt sharply of nitrates (used in the explosives). To climb down from the first to the second level (some 30m below) we had to slide down an old timber incline that was used to haul trolleys of ore from level to level.  It was about 40 degrees steep and quite dodgy in parts!  Down at the second level we saw a group of miners sifting by hand through rock that had been blasted the previous afternoon and splitting it with a mallet.  The dust was choking!  After a scramble down to the third level we saw rock being loaded onto the trolley to be carted up to the surface – and hey who am I to shy away from some hard yakka, so I picked up a shovel and gave it a go myself (to the miner’s great amusement)!  It was the true definition of hard work: oppressive heat, thick dust, foul gases, and all in such thin air at high altitude.  Almost everything we saw down in the mine was done by hand by the teams of miners that spend 8-12 hour shifts underground.  Incredible…

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(L) Down the incline we go…  (R) Choking dust!

Once we left the mine we still had some more excitement in store.  A couple of us, myself included, had bought an extra explosive kit for “recreational purposes”.  We were shown how to break up the stick of dynamite, push the detonator into the middle of the explosive, wrap the bag of ammonium nitrate tightly around it and bundle the whole thing up in a small, neat package.  Turns out that that tiny little thing I’m holding in my hand (see pic below) packs enough punch to break up about eight tons of solid rock!  Once the fuse was lit we had one minute to snap a quick pic with the fuse fizzing away, place it some distance away and then run like the clappers!  KA-BOOM!!

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(L) My package is ready to go “boom”!  (R) “Ohmygod she’s gonna blow!!” (and yes the fuse was actually lit at this moment – sorry Mum!)

In all, I have to say the tour gave me a fairly shocking first-hand experience of working conditions as they are through much of the developing or undeveloped world.  Now that I’ve seen what goes on “behind the scenes” it’ll definitely make me pause for thought before I next go and buy some silver jewelery.  But, like all things, it’s a trade-off.  These miners evaluate the risks to their health as being worth the $10 a day in wages theyr eceive, which is a startlingly high amount of money to earn here in Bolivia, especially given that two-thirds of the country are considered poor and half either unemployed or under-employed.

With the tour over, we ventured back into town mid-afternoon and found the protest marches still going on full swing.  The miners had all headed back underground but other groups were taking their chance to air their own grievances.  Here are a few images of some of the locals in the town square – they look like a pretty harmless bunch?!

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After a refreshing shower to clean up, I had a bit of the afternoon spare and went for a final wander around the town.  I made my way to one of the town’s many beautiful churches, and while the interior wasn’t too exciting, I was invited to climb up to the roof for some fantastic views of the town and surrounding mountains.

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