POTOSÍ: Visiting the Mines of Cerro Rico

The dark shadow of the stunning mountain “Cerro Rico” lies over the city of Potosí. Once the richest silver deposit in the world, mined over the last five decades. The sheer infinite amount of silver financed the Spanish empire and made Potosí one of the richest cities in the world.

Walking the streets you can see the wealth of the past slowly fading.

Nowadays the mining still goes on to such an extent, that the mountain looks like Swiss cheese on the inside. Over time the silver depleted and the main ore today is zinc. There are about 1200 men in the mines, most of them working on their own, without health insurance or a retirement plan.

The methods of mining haven’t changed for decades. All the work is done manually, there are no safety precautions, no ventilation and no electricity. The miners work 8 to 12 hours in the dark.
The air is hot and dusty. The toxic mixture of silicon, sulfur and dynamite remains fills their lungs and slowly kills them. Many have a problem with alcohol trying to make the day’s work more bearable.

It sounds crazy that anyone is willing to do this by choice, but for most it is the only chance to support their families.

My morning tour starts at 8:30am and should last 4 hours with at least 2 hours spent underground. After a short stop to pick up our safety equipment we leave for the mines. The first point on the tour should be a visit to the miners’ market where you are supposed to buy a small present for the miners like drinks, coca lives or dynamite.

On the way to the mine the driver pulls over at a small shop and hands each of us a prepared bag with a drink and coca leaves for wich we pay 10BOB. That was it, no crazy miners’ market no chance at seeing or buying dynamite. At that point I should have known that the tour wasn’t what was promised, but I kept my mood up and still hoped for the best.

After that irritating stop we arrived at the mine near to the bottom of the mountain.
At least it looked like the actual mine.

When I think of it now, it looked more like a Hollywood setting. There were some rail cars, but no ore. A worker standing next to a machine grinding stones, a woman in traditional clothing walking out of the tunnel. I later learned that women inside the mine bring bad luck and so you would never find one in an active mine…go figure.

El Tio having a smoke.

None the less we eagerly start our exploration of the tunnel and encounter El Tio, the lord of the underworld, the devil himself. A goat like statue, to which the miners bring their offerings like cigarettes, alcohol and coca lives to be safe and get strength for a hard day of work. It was really nice to see how the offering is done. The miners first smoke with Tio (giving him the burning cigarette) then drink with him and ask for strength in their hands and feet by putting coca lives over the statue. It was somehow very spiritual and very much to my liking. After that we walked a little further into the mine where we saw some salt crystals on the wall.

That was it! During the whole tour we haven’t seen a single miner at work, no dust, no heat, no nothing.

Salt crystals on the ceiling.

Back at the hostel I was so disappointed. Luckily I talked to a fellow traveler about the experience and the hostel owner overheard the conversation. He assured me that it shouldn’t have been like that and that I can go with another tour, starting like right now!

A little suspicious I accepted his offer, got my camera and started for my second tour of the mines in one day.

Our guide Oscar

This time the guide that should have taken us for the first tour, Oscar, actually showed up and the whole experience was completely different.

He started explaining right away the main (and maybe not so obvious) thing that keeps the miners alive on a daily basis: COCA LEAVES.

The whole day they have a ball of chewed coca leaves in their cheek. When they work in the mine they don’t eat anything, escept chew the coca, to avoid getting the dust in their guts through the food.

With a cheek full of coca we all start for the entrance of the tunnel, where three men with a full loaded rail car just emerge. From that point on I knew this was the real deal!

The dark tunnel was just wide enough for the rail car to pass through. The only way to avoid being rolled over by a two tones heavy unstoppable rail car is to jump into one of the hollows dug into the sides of the tunnel about every 100m.

After trying for a while not to bump our heads against pipes, beams and the low ceiling, we hear a muffled sound in the distance. The sound grows louder and a light moves towards us from the dark like a train approaching in a tunnel. All of a sudden a man appears, running in front of a rail car pushed by two other men. They move past us with considerable speed and are swallowed again by the darkness.
At that moment I realize that the rail cars cannot and will not stop for us on their way.

We continue deeper into the mountain.

It gets hotter and dustier now, the cool and fresh air at the entrance becomes a distant memory. After one of many crossroads in this maze, the path narrows even more and we climb up a slope until the only way continue is crawl.

We encountered a miner standing on a ladder. After a short conversation with the miner, Oscar turns to us with a smile and says: „You guys are really lucky, because they are preparing a detonation“.

I was taken aback, after the first tour my expectations were so low. I wanted to experience a detonation first hand so much, but now I could only wonder if the not at all secured tunnel will withstand the force of a blast.

A little reluctant we crawled up and squeezed through a narrow tunnel covered with split stone, crossed thin wooden planks over black endless holes to finally come to the point where the dynamite was being placed. The sweat was coming down my face and it felt like there was no air to breathe. It was really hard to imagine that the miners had to bring out the orethrough the same hole we crawled through with nothing more than a bucket.

Polly giving us the OK for the blast.

At a dead end I looked up and just over my head there was Polly, our blaster. You could see the hard day’s work etched in his tired face. With a smile he points out six holes in the ceiling above him, filled with dynamite and properly closed with dust, the fuses hanging out of the hole. We could just go up one by one, so after everybody in the group had the chance to have a chat we retreated to a safe spot and awaiting the detonation.

Pointing out the six holes filled with dynamite.

Oliver explained that Polly will light the six fuses and after that has just 30 seconds to come down to us.
To me it sounded like a pretty short amount of time…

After what felt an eternity we heard Polly approaching and we knew things were getting serious.
There was so much tension in the air, we held our breaths and then all of a sudden:

BOOM – BOOM – BOOM – BOOM – BOOM

The muffled sound of the detonation, the walls vibrating, the force of the explosion on my chest…it was so overwhelming. Five blasts and then dead silence – one was missing. Everybody in the group knew that if not all dynamite explodes instantly, it can go off at any time. This is the most dangerous scenario in the mine and the miners cannot enter the tunnel for at least a week!

One minute of silence passes and then:

BOOM!!!

All six detonations were a success and the silence gave way to applause!

After that Oscar turns to us and says: “Welcome to the real mines, not the touristy ones…” and I know exactly what he means!

The adventure was not over just yet. On the way out we had to run to avoid a rail car, we got to see the sacrifice to El Tio and saw how the silver is extracted in the factory. We even washed a small amount of silver and each of us got a silver ring painted on our fingers ;).

Put a ring on it!

For me the whole day was a crazy experience and in I enjoyed it so much. The second tour was exactly what I hoped for and after that I had so much respect for the work the people of Potosí are doing in the mines.

On the other hand if you would just like to get a feeling how it is in the mines without exposing yourselves to harsh conditions a tour like the first is a good alternative.


More Info

  • COST: 60BOB; I booked the tour at our hostel Compañia de Jesús.
    They told me I would be going with Oscar a very good guide, which was obviously not the case during my first tour. When they sent me with the second tour, their excuce was that Oscar had to bring his daugther to school and that there was a mix up. There was no extra charge involved for the second tour.
  • There are numerous agencies offering the tour in town, make sure that you are indeed entering an active mine and make sure they explain all the details. You will be spending additional 10BOB or more for the presents at the miners’ market.
  • Avoid going on a sunday, there won’t be much action at the mines.
  • Do an early tour, there should be more miners at work and the chance of witnessing a detonation will be higher.
  • We’ve heard from other travellers that it is possible to enter the mines independently. Getting there by public bus and then finding a miner (or they will find you when they see a lost gringo in front of the mine :D) to take you for a tour. Expect to pay 50BOB or less depending on your bargaining skills.

Have you been to the Potosí mines in Bolivia?
Did you also have a “blast” :)?

If you have any questions or want to share your experience hit us up in the comment section, we’d love to hear from you!

Safe travels,

H&M

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