So I had been a little bit cynical about heading to a town that was solely a tourist spot for its mines. It seemed a bit strange to go on a tour to see people working in conditions that would never pass the health and safety standards of my home country, watching them as if they were memes on Instagram. Despite my reservations however, I soon found myself in bright yellow overalls, a hard hat and a headlight, readying myself for some hot and claustrophobic spaces.
Before you judge me, I had done some shopping around and it would seem that some of the proceeds are actually dedicated to the miners. These areas are not government owned but essentially family-run businesses, whereby they have their mining plot and are entitled to whatever they mine from said plot. This is inherited down the generations and so coming to own a mine plot can be a tricky business if you are not already hereditary-ly blessed. So there are two things to consider here, these families are somewhat choosing this line of work and reaping the rewards of the business but then, it is not regulated – are the standards safe and adhered to if no real body is overseeing the productivity? I decided to see for myself.
The tour opened with a pit stop to buy souvenirs for the miners (optional but somehow obligatory). Here, we dissected dynamite, debated diamonds and then descended down into someone else’s working day.
It really is a whole other world down there. Brimming with folklore, religion and community spirit. We were in for a treat, hearing tales about devils, Spanish conquests and alcoholic superstitions.
I hadn’t realised during my carnival celebrations in Oruro but I had actually been witness to the only time the mining underworld Lord’s image is allowed above ground. A bizarre combination of devil and goat, El Tio rules the miners, offering them the gangster yingyang of both protection and threat. In the Potosi mine, we came across one of his many underground representations, draped in confetti and in his honour, drank 95% proof alcohol, pouring a tipple over each of his most important uh five limbs.
As expected, mines aren’t really for the claustrophobics. But for those that have made it their lifestyle, it’s something else. Quite incredibly, there was carnival confetti deeper than El Tio’s statue and discarded beer cans were strewn across even the remotest areas. Call me old but how they managed to keep up the party was beyond me. It had been hard enough in the streets of Sucre.
Many miners die young, around the age of 40 due to silicosis but there was once a time when Potosí was a jewel in Bolivia’s bosom. It remains a harsh reality seeing what Potosí has become. The miners of today can only dream of the riches their ancestors uncovered before them. Chewing on cocoa leaves, wads of it gathered in their mouth propelling them through the day, it’s hard to imagine that Potosí was once the fourth largest city in the world, a booming economy fuelled by silver, supporting the success of countries like Spain and China.
A crawl and a hunched walk later and we were back out into the open. Swallowing in a large gulp of air as I pulled my scarf off my sweaty face, I reflected on my one hour tour that was some people’s lifetime. Honestly, I don’t know how they do it.
It was for a mere two nights that I was in Potosi but it was well worth the stop as I felt that much more educated on Bolivia’s history and place in the world.
Seconds to Make Count
You can’t really plan for strikes in South America and they come in all shapes and sizes. Just try and ask ahead as much as possible and roll with the punches when your plan can’t go to plan.
A scarf can more than double up for almost anything.
You will eventually find a time that you are grateful for the fleece you packed.
Take a scarf, or something for your mouth/nose, the heat and dust are hard to take at times.
Shop around – you can organise tours through your hostel or through agencies in town.
It gets hot and you’re wearing overalls, only take/wear what you must! There will be somewhere safe to leave your belongings before you go down.