We arrived in Potosi, the highest city in the world (13,420 ft) with one goal in mind: tour the famous silver mines. At one time, Potosi was the richest city in the world due to its massive silver deposits. The mines have been worked since the 1500’s and are located within the mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill in Spanish).We decided to go with Big Deal Tours based on a recommendation by a fellow traveler and were not disappointed. Big Deal has only been around for about one year and is the only agency in Potosi fully owned and operated by ex-miners. We began our tour by heading to the miners market to pick up some necessities: dynamite, 96% alcohol, cigarettes, soda, and coca leaves with catalyst. Nothing like a few swigs of 96% alcohol at 9AM to get the day started off right. These items were given to the miners as gifts throughout our tour.After stocking up at the market, we stopped off to change into our miner’s clothing. Our gear included rubber boots, pants, jacket, bandana, hard hat, and head lamp. We looked ready for some mining!We got our first glimpse of silver at the processing plant. The plant brings in the bulk material and separates the silver oxide from the waste material. We were told to don our very protective bandanas as the plant uses many chemicals in the separation process. The first thing I noticed is the complete lack of safety equipment and the mode of chemical storage. There was no machine guards, no guardrails, no safety glasses, and the chemicals are stored in open drums. Who knew we would encounter danger before we even entered the mine!Our guide Pedro skimmed off some silver oxide flakes and gave Annie a ring. He didn’t know that I had already put a ring on it a few months ago. We also got to see the bulk silver oxide that is shipped off the Brazil, China, India, and other countries to be refined further. The silver we saw in Bolivia is only worth 10% of its final value.With the anticipation building, we were off to the mines! Entering the mines was very surreal and definitely a shock to the system. The tunnels are small, dusty, and dark and the bandanas we wore over our faces made breathing difficult. The initial impressions were so intense that a Dutch girl on our tour had a minor breakdown. After the initial shock and awe off, we were all excited to see how the miners made a living in the “Devil’s Mine.” After a short walk, we arrived at a makeshift statue of a devil named “El Tio.” The miners pay tribute to the statue every Friday by giving El Tio cigarettes, alcohol, and coca leaves in exchange for his protection while mining.
We continued through the mines and had the chance to meet a few miners. The miners all speak Quechua, but we were able to ask them some basic questions about their lives and jobs in Spanish. The men working here were very humble and inspiring. They work the mines on their own accord in a cooperative and are very proud of the job they have.
The tour definitely had its share of dangerous elements: huge crevasses, rickety ladders, leaky compressed air hoses, low tunnel walls, and even live dynamite being used around us. At one point we heard multiple booms and the tunnel walls began to shake. Annie loved this!While walking through the mines, we came across one section of the tunnel ceiling that was covered in blue stalactites.After about 3 ½ crazy hours, we finally began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We ended up walking through the entire Cerro Rico and came out on the other side of the mountain. Once on the other side, we got a great view of Potosi and the surrounding mountains.
Annie and I both took away a great appreciation for the lives of the miners and their positive approach to such a hard and dangerous job. It was an experience we’ll never forget and would highly recommend visiting the mines when in Potosi for a truly eye-opening experience.
And for those of you who don’t fully understand the title of this post, please refer to this YouTube video (approximately 2.5 minutes into the video).