Finding the Silver Lining in Potosi

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go.

In Potosi, going into Cerro Rico (rich mountain in Spanish) to see the the working mines is considered THE thing to do.

Before arriving in Potosi, I was certain that I would skip this particular attraction because I thought taking a tour of people working in less than ideal conditions would be awkward and strange.

But Pedro, a tour guide for Big Deal Tours changed my mind.

One of the people I was traveling with was intent on taking a tour of the Potosi silver mines, so I was along when he was talking to Pedro, who said to REALLY know Potosi you MUST see the mines.  He said miners are proud of their work and it is not a sad experience. Pedro is a former miner — he spent 10 years working there.  In fact, all the guides at Big Deal Tours are former miners (although most of the tour companies in town say that about their guides.)

In the end, I was won over by Pedro´s enthusiasm.  So the next day I found myself suited up to walk through the dirty mines and shopping at the miner´s market to buy them gifts such as water, soda and dynamite.  Yes, if I had wanted to I could have bought a stick or two.  Soon I was traipsing through muddy waters, sometimes bent at the waist to accommodate the low, stone ceiling.

The mines in Cerro Rico used to be government owned but are now cooperative operations.  This means that one man can own a mine and work it himself or with people he hires and they keep all of the profit.  The mountain yields silver, zinc, tin and lead… but no gold (other than fools gold.) This helped make Potosi one of the richest cities in the world at the time and the major supplier of silver for Spain during the time it ruled Bolivia. It also coined the saying in Spanish:  valer un potosí, “to be worth a potosí” — or, “a fortune.”

We didn´t see many miners during our visit since it was a Saturday; perhaps it would have been a different experience if we had seen dozens of them toiling away.  One miner we did see said he had been working 24 hours straight, which is a common practice from Friday morning into Saturday, before they break for the weekend  He had a giant sack of silver on his back that he was bringing out, which Pedro told us would be worth about $800 US — a lot of money in Bolivia.  He looked exhausted but told Pedro that he was happy and making good money.  I don’t know how much of his response was filtered for our benefit, but he certainly didn’t look angry or sad, just tired after a long day and night of work.  He said he usually works about 6 hours a day, four days a week.  This is a bit of contradiction from the movie ´´The Devil´s Miner´´ that we saw in Sucre, about children working in the mine, the long hours miners work and the horrible conditions.  The movie said most miners die after just 10 years in the mine, but Pedro said that was a lie, that most live until 50 or 60.  That is still young.  Pedro  worked in the mine when he was 10 and said that while there are children working here today, there are very few and they don´t work very long.  Pedro told us the movie angered many miners in Potosi because it wasn’t a real depiction of the situation and it hurt tours of the mine because tourists think it is cruel.  I am sure the real truth is somewhere in between.

There was a 12-year old boy on our tour — Jaime.  He was helping with the tour and told us he worked in the mine after school.  It made us sad to hear this — but Jaime
didn’t look sad to tell us.  He smiled like the child he is when we gave him candy, but was serious when helping us in the mine.  For him it was just life.

I am glad I went on this tour in the end because everyone we met was enthusiastic and friendly and glad to have us there.  It was another reminder of how many people in the world struggle for footholds and appear happy anyway.

Jaime chewing coca leaves

Our visit was interesting but tiring and sweaty.  We climbed up three flights of wooden stairways that I am fairly certain would be a safety hazard at home.  Sometimes it was very cold and other times steamy, due to the particular minerals in that part of the mine that generate heat.  We were also told not to touch anything; not the pipes, not the stone walls, not the stalactites or stalagmites, because everything was toxic.  Nice to know we were breathing in that air…

Suited up for my mine tour

Our guide Pedro and Shawn goofing off with dynamite. Yes, dynamite.

Coca leaves: Miners chew them to help with the altitude

Cerro Rico – it looks much different on the inside

Processing plant for the minerals

Filtering silver

Inside the mine

Climbing up rickety wooden stairs

Looking down at the hole we just climbed up through

Some kind of toxic copper – don´t touch!

Another interesting aspect of the mines was El Tio.  Bolivians consider themselves to be Catholic and devoutly attend church.  But they believe this only protects them above ground.  Underground, they pay homage to El Tio.  Coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol are the most popular gifts to lay at this stone devil´s feet.

El Tio. Check out all of his booty

Potosi was actually on strike when we arrived.  The entire city was blockaded, which sounded dangerous but in reality was a non-event.  Our taxi had to drop us at the city limits, and the protesters moved the blockade for us so we could pass through and get a taxi on the other side.  Strange, but not dangerous.

Blockade at Potosi city limits

At more than 13,000 feet, Potosi bills itself as the world´s highest city (although the Guinness Book of World Records says otherwise: Wenzhuan, China at almost 17,000 feet.)  When I wasn´t stopping to catch my breath from the altitude, I was admiring the colonial ambiance, pleasant square and ornate architecture.  I also visited the former mint, where metal from the mine was turned into currency.


Potosi´s main plaza

The former Bolivian Mint (Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia)

Inside the Mint

Old coin

I spent a brief but pleasant time in Potosi.  Next up… THE SALT FLATS!!!

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