The main reason for visiting Potosi is to visit the silver mines which it’s famous for. They are the richest mines in world history producing 60,000 tons of silver. But at a price – back in the 16/17th centuries up to 9 million African slaves and indigenous Bolivians were thought to have died through forced labour in them. The town went from great wealth and a population of 160,000 to being one of abject poverty and a population of around 30,000.
So what we reckon is we should at least go along and pay homage to all those people and to find out a bit about how it might have been for them.
There are tours every day and everyone that enters the mine has to have their details given to the local police … just in case there is an accident we guess, as there often is. Traveller friends went a few weeks ago and said a bridge collapsed. When we got there we realised how easily this could happen.
The internet in this hostel is pretty poor and last night we’d sent a hostel an email looking for accommodation in Sucre but were now unable to see if we had a reply. A tad annoying as we are going to be away till after lunch and are planning to go there tomorrow. In fact if Bernice has her way we’d leave this afternoon after the tour as she dislikes the hostel so much (it’s a lovely old colonial building with an inner courtyard and fountain but they never clean the bathrooms, they are totally filthy). But there’s not much we can do just now with no Internet – apparently someone hacked in and changed the admin password and the access password and nobody could fix it.
So the mines … Unfortunately Nick and Alexi don’t join us as Nick has been poorly all night, and having bumped into Richard and Stephanie from the muddy bus in the hostel last night we thought they might have considered and joined us, but they didn’t. We get kitted out at the hostel and leave in a mini-bus which stops about 10 mins away from the hostel at the miners market. We’d read about this but it didn’t make it any less bizarre. We all piled out (there’s 11 of us) of the mini-bus in our mining suits, lamps and helmets to stand around this wee hatch in a doorway.
The guides then explained how the miners eat a couple of meals worth of food for brekkie before doing an 8 hour (or more) shift down the mine. During which time they survive on coco leaves and a drink which is a mixture of an alcohol which is 96% proof and a juice. The idea of us stopping at the market is to encourage us to buy some ‘gifts’ for the miners. But there’s more choice than this. We can buy some cigarettes which look really dodgy or even a stick of dynamite. Yes dynamite. The stick (just like you see on the movies) and a fuse and a detonator. Yes really. All three of these items together would set us back about £1.80!!! The price of the cigarettes wasn’t mentioned but the juice, alcohol and huge bag of coco leaves together would set us back another £1.80 (20bolivianos). It was suggested that we got the dynamite between 3 or 4 and the juice pack each. It’s not like it was a huge amount of money or that we felt ripped off, and it was Friday and the miners finished early today, so we all agreed and happily parted with our money.
Bundling back into the mini-bus we carried on up to the mine. It’s called Cerro Rico – rich hill – and it dominates the town. Arriving it was all pretty dusty and ramshackle but this still didn’t prepare us for the inside view. There was some waiting around as we were advised to chew on a few coco leaves for about 20 mins before going inside.
Another group arrived from somewhere nearby and entered the mine a little before us. They’re average age was probably around 55 so we were guessing it wasn’t going to be too strenuous. How wrong we were. We entered and almost immediately were having to crouch down and duck and dive to avoid low hanging pipes, wires, wooden props etc….
We are walking along a rail track that the guys push the cart loads of minerals out of the mine on. It’s about 10cm or so deep of water that we wade through. Just inside we visit “El Tio” the uncle of the miners a devil god who each miner goes in and visits when arriving for work, giving offerings of coco leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to before they enter the mine.
Then we carried on our journey quite a bit further dodging out of the way every time a cart came past – if there was space. A couple of times they had to wait as there was nowhere for us to go and because we caused them inconvenience we gave them some of our gifts.
After about 15 mins walk we went down a hole. There were no ladders to speak of and we really just felt like we were caving and not in a proper working mine. Health and safety back home would have a fit!! Especially as a lot of the walls were covered in arsenic deposits among other substances. Down the hole and along another channel we eventually came across a group of miners at work. Two of our guides used to work in the mines and it was with this group where one of them had worked. We climbed back up into another tunnel and all sat around a slightly wider area and thats when things got interesting and very very surreal!!!
One of the guides asked for some of the alcohol, coco and juice we’d been carrying and with a knife the cut a smaller bottle they had in half. While the other guide poured some juice into an empty bottle. Just enough to make room for the contents of the alcohol bottle, then with the addition of a few coco leaves put the lid in and gave it a good shake. Femka (a Dutch girl in the group) was nominated as pourer and instructed to pour and pass to the right around the group. Each person in turn had to pour a little out and toast “Patchamana” (mother earth), a little more and toast the “jefe” the groups boss, a little more and toast the group that we have a safe journey in the mines. Then down the rest. Simple. Then the next person and so on around the group, including the guides and the miners.
It was then revealed that anyone who did this with their left hand was actually raising bad luck and should do it again. Not only that we should all have said “salut” too – which none of us had. So we went around again. While all this was going on the guides discovered that the miners were planning to do a dynamite blast at about 1pm and thought we might be interested in staying to see this. Of course we were and so rather than go explore further groups and areas in the mine we stayed put. For 2-3 hours. What do you think we did to pass the time? Well we continued toasting the god of the mine, mother earth, the miners and the group!
We helped put together the dynamite – assemble the detonator and fuse. And gradually got more than a bit tipsy. Yes including the miners!!!
As 1pm arrived the miners assembled the dynamite up in the mine face they intended blasting and we took chances each at going in close to see and hear the operation as it progressed. Then when we were all safely (!!!) back in our little corner we’d been holed up in all morning they set the fuses and came and joined us. Moments later the blasts started (40) and some rocks fell, some smoke wound it’s way through the tunnel towards us and then all of a sudden we were being told to move.
We had to get back down the caves. There was gases escaping (methane or worse) and we had to retreat further away from the blast area. So more than a little tipsy we quickly gathered our wits about us and moved swiftly to another area retracing our steps a little.
Some ways down the mine we found another wide area and all gathered together again. Sat down. And yep you guessed it, carried on drinking. The miners were with us too, and we can only assume now they’d done the blast they’d finished for the day. At some point we presented them with what was left of our gifts (we think we’d probably gone through 5 or 6 of the 11 bottles of alcohol at this point) and then did a whip round and one of the miners went out for beers.
The tour was supposed to finish at 1pm. It was probably well after 3pm before we left and although we hadn’t seen a great deal of the mine. It may seem that all we did was booze in a hole in the ground but it can’t be under estimated how much of an authentic experience we actually had. It may seem like the most bizarre bar we’ve ever drunk in but this was so real. These miners were in these conditions all day every day. They drank they worked, they worked, they drank!
When we saw daylight again more photos were taken (K, one of the group, had his canon SLR with him and it was really really dusty now!)
The guides (we have a separate driver, who hasn’t been drinking) suggest taking us on to the miners club after we get out of our kit back at the hostel and give us 20-30 mins to get showers and re-group. Unfortunately or is it fortunately, Bernice is a bit sick after her shower, must have been the altitude(!), and so we don’t join them. The rest of the day, not that there’s much left is pretty much written off. So much for leaving today. Huw tries to sort the hostel situation out for Sucre but although the Internet is back on it’s really ropey. To top that most hostels appear booked or are showing no vacancies – this is usual the day before!
Dan sorts out bus tickets for the three of us to Sucre and him and Huw go out for chicken and chips while Bernice has a sleep.
Bolivia, so far, has been totally random!!!