By the time we finished our three-day trip through Salar de Uyuni, the end of September was sneaking up on us. We knew that there were a few sights left to see before we headed to Brazil: the mines of Potosi and the Bolivian Amazon. With these two final bucket-list items in mind, we caught a bus to Potosi a few hours north of Salar de Uyuni.
Arriving in Potosi
As happens far too often, we arrived late at night and hadn’t reserved a place to sleep. Luckily, we were traveling with three of our friends from our Uyuni tour and two of them had already made a reservation! Yay for doing your homework! We took a quick look at their phones to see where they were staying and then negotiated a taxi for the five of us. Unfortunately, their hostel was fully booked when we arrived, so we traded Facebook information to stay in touch, wished them a good evening, and began our search for a place to sleep.
Andrea and I took turns inquiring at different hotels, guesthouses, and hostels. We didn’t have much luck as most places were full or not responding at that hour of night. On our fifth or sixth try, we stumbled upon a small door with an even smaller sign: “Hostal Compania de Jesus.” We’ve learned that asking never hurts, so we knocked on the door just in case the owner was still up. To our surprise, she was! She offered us a three-bed room with heavy blankets (a must a high altitude) and even included breakfast! We gratefully shuffled into our room and promptly passed out.
The next day, we shopped around for tours and decided to join forces with our British and German friends one last time to see the Potosi mines. We negotiated a group package, celebrated our decision over dinner, and went to bed early so we’d have all of our energy for crawling around the various tunnels under the mountain. (For reference, we paid 60 bolivianos, about $8.75 USD each at the time.)
The following morning we met up at the tour office bright and early and met our guide. He introduced himself and told us a little of his story as an ex-miner. We hopped in a minivan and made our first stop at the local miners’ market. Our guide explained to us the types of products that local miners buy the most: cigarettes, dynamite, soda, and coca leaves. While it is technically optional, it’s highly recommended that you buy gifts for the miners. After all, with the terrible conditions these people work in, they need every last bit of coca and soda to get through their work.
Before I talk about our experience under the mountain, a little context:
History of Potosi Mines
The town of Potosi is over 4,000 meters above sea level (about 13,500 feet for my American friends). The Cerro de Potosi, the main mountain outside the city, is about 4,824 meters above sea level. The town was first founded in the mid 16th century, and the nearby mines there provided most of the silver for the New World Spanish Empire and supplied the first mint in the Americas. The population and local economy boomed, unfortunately largely driven by forced and coerced native laborers. Due to extremely poor working conditions and the risks of working at high altitude, the death rates were high and the Spanish crown supplemented the workforce with African slaves. Estimates vary, but they say several million died working in these mines. Productivity fell in the early 19th century and the town hasn’t seen a boom of the same level since. Nowadays miner collectives still operate in search of other metals, but conditions are still pretty bad.
With this history and mixed reviews from other backpackers in mind and our hands full of soda and dynamite, we entered the mines.
Under the Mountain
The first thing I noticed was the low ceilings. The mine was built in a fairly hodge-podge manner over a very long time, so the tunnels vary quite a bit. In some areas I could stand up quite comfortably, but in many other areas I had to crouch over and even squat. We entered through a single tunnel, but quickly realized there are many different levels. In some places we had to walk across narrow bridges and try not to look too far down holes that seemed to have no end.
The next thing I noticed was the dark. There really aren’t lights inside the mine, so it’s best to hold onto your headlamp. Crouching and walking through the mine requires paying attention to where you are and what contour the ceiling runs at all times. There are no warning signs for low overhangs, so it’s really up to you to watch your head. I must admit I banged my helmet against several protruding ceiling beams at first.
Our first stop on the tour was El Tio, translated as the Uncle, but better understood as the Lord of the Underworld. According to the local miners, God rules above ground, but El Tio reigns underneath the mountain. It’s customary to stop and pay your respects (alcohol, coca, and cigarettes) to El Tio at the beginning of each trip under the mountain.
After an hour or so we made it to an abandoned corner of the mine and our guide asked us if we wanted to experience total darkness. When we turned off our headlamps, I felt like my eyes had stopped working. I strained them and looked up, down, and around, but couldn’t make out anything.
After another hour of crawling around, I was pretty ready to get out of there and have some lunch. I’d heard about the poor working conditions and the long hours these miners work, but it’s an entirely different experience to go in there and see it for yourself. We saw miners pushing heavy carts full of rocks and learned from our guide that the miners work 12-hour shifts and don’t eat while they’re under the mountain. Coca leaves, soda, and cigarettes give them the energy and stamina to pull through, but it’s definitely not pleasant.
We came out of the mines grateful for fresh air, sunlight, and space to move around. I can’t say it was the most pleasant tour, but I’m extremely glad I went. It’s easy to discount stories of terrible working conditions from your couch, but meeting miners, putting on a jumpsuit, and going down to see where they work makes it much more real.