It is one of Bolivia’s most controversial tours yet one that promises to be an experience you will never forget. Potosí’s famous mine tours promise a unique insight into the mining industry as well as the working conditions for those that make this their day job. Some travellers can’t wait to descend into the mine whereas others question the ethics of seeing other people’s suffering.
Upon visiting Potosí in Bolivia, I was torn by both safety concerns and the moral justification for visiting the mines. I went back and forth over whether I agreed with such voyeurism and in the end, vowed to look into companies and first-hand experiences as much as I could.
During my research, I came across the agency Potochij Tours. The company was run by an ex-miner named Antonio and had rave reviews. After meeting with Antonio in person, it wasn’t long before Tim and I embarked on a mine tour.
Getting into character
The day began around 9.30am and we piled into a minivan with a handful of other curious travellers. Antonio announced that our first stop would be at a storehouse to get kitted out with the proper equipment for our adventure.
Here we were sized up for overalls, helmets, welly boots and flashlights. Antonio also gave us gloves in case our skin reacted badly to the powder and dust in the mines.
Getting dressed up felt a bit weird which was only enhanced when Antonio brought out large dynamite and hammer replicas. We posed for group photos, all of us feeling apprehensive about what was to come.
We headed back to the waiting minivan which would be taking us to the local Miner’s Market. Here we had the opportunity to buy gifts for the miners. As well as individual products, there was also the option to buy a small hamper for 20 Bolivianos.
These hampers tended to contain a mix of fizzy drinks, cigarettes, biscuits or coca leaves. It was also possible to buy dynamite at the steal of 20 Bolivianos per stick! (Potosí Miner’s Market is the only place in the world where you can legally buy dynamite on the street!)
Coca leaves are a particularly good gift for the miners as this is how they tell the time during their working days. With no natural light in the mines, the line between daylight and nighttime can easily blur. Antonio told us that a miner will chew a full bag of coca leaves over the course of a working day. This means that by the time they get to the end of the bag, they will know it is around home time.
Tim and I bought a hamper between the two of us as well as two surgical masks for us to wear in the mines. Antonio told us that the 2 Bolivianos per mask was worth it to avoid breathing in a lot of the dust that is kicked up inside the mine.
Whilst I was surprised to see items such as fizzy drinks and cigarettes in the hampers, Antonio explained that the miners have a much lower life expectancy owing to their work, so health concerns are minimal to them. Most miners only tend to live until their mid-forties. This scary statistic really hit home and I couldn’t help but wonder if we were doing the right thing by venturing into this hopeless place…
Into the Mine
We drove up to Cerro Rico which is where the Potosí silver mines are located. Antonio bought our entrance tickets which were included in the cost of the tour.
I was pleased to find out that all of the proceeds from the cost of the tickets, essentially act as insurance in case of an accident. It wasn’t nice to imagine things going wrong in the mine but naturally, in this kind of working environment, incidents are sadly a given.
As we approached the entrance to the mine, Antonio outlined a little of Potosí’s history as a mining city and also told us about his own past working in the mine. He comes from generations of miners and it was only when his father passed away as a result of years spent in the mines, he decided to call it quits.
Antonio told us that the mine that we would be visiting was a part of his old co-operative and therefore a place he knows like the back of his hand. Although there are several levels to the mine, we would only be visiting the first two.
As we waited for the go-ahead to enter, I heard one of my fellow travellers whisper to her boyfriend, “I don’t know if I want to go in there now”. I too felt torn but strongly believe that if you are going to consume a product or material, in this instance silver, you should at least have the guts to see where it comes from.
Antonio poured some of the 98% alcohol he had bought, at the entrance to the mine. He said this was for Pachamama, to ask for our safe passage. We looked nervously at each other before he beckoned us in and we descended the long ladder out of daylight.
Whilst I had initially thought the dressing up was purely for the benefit of tourist photos, it turns out I wasn’t quite correct. The mines were incredibly dusty and the small passageways we had to traverse, often meant crouched and uncomfortable journeys.
It became quickly apparent that had it not been for the overalls, our own clothes would have been ruined. I felt much more at ease after discovering that this wasn’t a tongue in cheek impersonation of the miners but actually something completely necessary.
Antonio led us down a narrow tunnel, stopping regularly to ensure that the rest of the group were in tow. He stopped in a side passage and commanded us all to sit down. It was cramped but we were relieved to stop crouching.
Time to meet Tio
After we were settled, Antonio pointed out a sinister figure sitting at the end of the tunnel. He introduced him as Tio. The model looked similar to a man but with horns. It was explained that this representation of the devil is everywhere throughout the mines.
Tio is the creature that the miners make offerings to in order to ensure their safety. He is an extension of the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and it is believed that if presented with offerings, he will protect the miners from harm.
Old habits die hard and Antonio scattered coca leaves at the site and also poured alcohol over Tio’s feet and hands. I had been cynical when Antonio told us the strength of this alcohol but after he passed it around the group and we all had the chance to smell it, I completely believed him!
Exploring the tunnels
After making some offerings to Tio, we all reversed out of the side alley and followed Antonio to level one. It was here that we saw the first of the miners working.
Surprisingly, the miners were very jolly and greeted us with enthusiasm. It was then that Antonio said we should hand out a couple of our gifts that we had bought from the market. The miners thanked us and then went on their way.
Antonio explained that although working in the mines is not a hugely desirable job, it pays very well compared to other options in and around Potosí. A waiter in a city restaurant makes around 50 Bolivianos per day, whereas a miner makes around 150 Bolivianos, three times the average.
Of course, mining comes with huge health risks but many men are willing to risk it for the money that it can offer. Although it is predominantly younger men working in the mines, they all have different jobs. For example, it is only the oldest miners that set off the dynamite. The younger miners tend to work more with the trolleys and do the heavy lifting.
As we made our way through winding tunnels, I heard low rumbles in the distance. Antonio informed us all that this was dynamite.
We spent around an hour inside the mine and crawled up narrow passages to see the miners work. Although I had feared this could be a voyeuristic visit where tourists revelled in the discomfort of the miners, it felt nothing like that.
All of the miners we met seemed very happy that the tourists were visiting their place of work. I’m not sure whether this is a direct result of the gifts that we handed out to the workers or because of their desire to share their world with us. Either way, they certainly seemed welcoming of tourists and I never once felt like I was intruding. I felt much more like an invited guest.
Whilst my trip into the mine was definitely eye-opening, I do not regret it. As a consumer of the minerals mined, I think it is important to realise the human cost of such luxuries. I also think, that if you are going to tour the mine, it is hugely important to go with a responsible provider. Antonio, as an ex-miner, knows the plight of these workers only too well and is determined to make sure that they benefit from tourists.
As well as the fee from the entrance ticket directly benefiting injured miners, a significant percentage of the proceeds from Antonio’s tours are also flushed directly back into the mine. As these tours could so easily turn into a voyeuristic exploit, it is definitely important to choose a company with a social conscience.
As we neared the end of our time inside the mine, one of the other travellers in our group asked how many accidents happened inside. Antonio refused to discuss deaths or accidents inside the mine saying it was bad luck. This was the point where the danger of what we were doing dawned on me once more.
Is going into a mine safe?
It is important to know that if you go on one of Potosí’s mine tours you are not going to a replica mine. These are real, active mines and yes, they are dangerous places.
After we had exited the mine, Antonio thanked Pachamama for ensuring our safety and started to explain about the frequency of accidents. Collapsing tunnels are very common and explosions also go wrong with alarming frequency. Just one year ago, someone accidentally blew themselves up and had to be recovered in pieces.
The threat doesn’t stop for miners when they leave the mines either. Owing to the dangerous powders that the miners breathe in every day, they also suffer long-term effects from their job. Breathing conditions like emphysema and silicosis are persistent problems for ex-miners and can result in their untimely deaths.
Advice from the NHS says that visiting a mine on a tour is unlikely to leave you with any lasting health conditions. You would need to be very unlucky for something to happen during the hour or so that you were inside the mine. However, this isn’t to say that these things don’t happen.
If you suffer from claustrophobia, severe altitude sickness or any kind of physical condition that won’t allow you to bend freely, you should avoid a visit to the mine.
Despite being a shadow of its former self, the mining industry in Potosí is still big business. If you are going to venture into an active mine, heed the following advice:
- Make sure you are entering with a responsible company with good reviews.
- Wear the correct equipment e.g. helmet and lamp.
- Remember that the miners are people too, not animals to be gawped at.
- Buy some gifts for the miners, it creates a good relationship.
- Never, ever, leave your guide.
- Treat the experience as an opportunity to learn, not to gloat.