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October 26, 2012

Potosi is a high altitude (3800m) town that has grown up around the richest silver mine in town. The mine is in Cerro Rico, the mountain that towers over the town.

It is said that the amount of silver taken from the mine was enough to create a bridge to Spain but that you could build two bridges of bones from the people that died mining the silver. The Spanish conscripted indigenous people into the mines and estimate of the deaths run as high as 9 million. It is thought that out of every 10 men sent to the mines (working up to 1 week at a time without a break) 7 died.

The town of Potosi itself has narrow streets and a large number of churches. At its centre is the Casa Real de la Moneda (Bolivia’s mint, which was in operation until the mid 1900’s).

We had trouble finding somewhere to stay in Potosi – the standard overlander’s hangout was too small – but finally we stumbled across a parking lot with secure parking only a 15 minute walk to the centre and we were sorted.

The first thing we did in Potosi was sort out a tour of the Cerro Rico mine for the next morning and then we settled in to explore the town. 30 minutes later we’d seen the main sights ! Although there was some pleasure to be had by just wandering the streets.

Bright and early the next morning we were off on our tour of the mines. The first thing was to get kitted up and we were taken to the companies base to get our clothes and miner’s helmet, complete with light powered from a belt mounted power pack. So we looked the part.

From here we went to the miner’s market  – a street filled with small shops selling all the essentials. Here we were encouraged to buy some presents for the miner’s we would meet in the mine.

Bolivia is the only country in the world where you can just walk into a shop and buy Dynamite – so one of our presents was a stick of dynamite plus the detonator. I wanted one for myself but Sarah firmly put her foot down!

We also bought another essential ingredient for the miners – a bag of Coca leaves. Chewing these relieves exhaustion, the effects of altitude and eliminates hunger. The miners can’t eat while underground as it causes upset stomachs due to the various gases in the mine.

Our next stop was at a silver ore processing plant.  Looking around the plant Health and Safety was non-existent and there was even an open vat of cyanide used in the processing. None of the workers used any form of protective gear. The finished silver is a powder which is dried and sent elsewhere for the creation of ingots or used without further processing in industrial processes.

After seeing the plant we went to the entrance to one of the actual mines. There are hundreds of different mines in the area each worked by individuals or a collective.  We were taken to the Candelaria mine.

The initial tunnel was dug in colonial times and was quite large with high quality stonework shoring up the workings. As we moved deeper in the mine we reached an area of current mining. We could only get to this after passing through a couple hundred metres of tunnel with really bad air that had us all coughing because of mineral particles in the area.

Walking through the tunnels you have to keep aware of the small carts that fly down the tracks which have been laid everywhere.

We moved down into the third level of the mine where the air was stuffier and the heat increased. To get there we had to climb down a vertical shaft and through a tiny tunnel where we had to crawl on our stomachs.

Here there were miners shovelling ore, which had been dislodged by explosives the day before, into buckets to be winched up to the surface. I had a go at shovelling and discovered that it was much harder that it looked with the heat, altitude and dust.

The finish of our tour was a visit with a group of miners on a break who decided we should do some of their work for them so got us to move a pile of ore bags – at 50kg each which was pretty hard work.

After returning from the mine we visited the Bolivian mint- where no pictures are allowed (unless you pay a camera fee !) but a free guide is provided. This was really interesting as the original minting equipment was still in situ including a press developed by Leonardo Da Vinci.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 9, 2012 4:57 pm

    Your pictures of the mine tour are wonderful. I’m hoping to go to Potosi soon, but I’m still not sure if I could cope with a tour like this.

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