I had a bit of a whistle-stop tour to Potosi, being in and out in the space of a day (not even one night) and spending a good chunk of that on a bus, but I was running out of time and my priority was to get to Uyuni for the salt flats. So, I arrived at the new bus terminal in Potosi at around 10am where I caught a taxi for 7 bolivianos (86p) to the town centre. I headed straight for Big Deal Tours – as recommended by Lonely Planet – and enquired about their mining tours. There has been a lot of controversy about the mine tours – the element of voyeurism, whether it is really ethical and what reason you are doing it for – so I had decided that if I was going to do it then I would do it with Big Deal, as it is the only agency set up and ran by ex miners themselves. If ex miners are happy for the tours to exist then I felt better about it, plus a cut of the tour price goes to the miners themselves in terms of rice and food.
I paid 150 bolivianos (£18) for the tour at 1:30pm and then left my big backpack at the tour office while I went to explore the city for a couple of hours. I didn’t get very far – only to inside the Mercado – before I was stopped by a Peruvian man whom wanted to know where I was from and chat to me about my travels. Somehow, all of sudden, he became my tour guide of Sucre – knowing the city well as he does regular business there – and began taking me around the many Iglesias and museums of Sucre. Unfortunately most were closed – apparently places shut early, or completely, on Saturdays – so I was unable to go to many of the miradors listed in my tourist map, but I did get to sample the local Peruvian sweet snack (I can’t for the life of me remember the name but it is similar ish to a doughnut in texture but more oily and dripping with maple syrup) and he took me to a different viewpoint of the city where he asked for a photo of us.
He was very touchy feely, which isn’t wildly unusual in my experience of South American men, but when he asked for us to pose for another photo together and went to kiss me – actually, he managed to make contact before I could say no – it went too far for me and I asked for some space (espacio) and was much more wary after that. Not long after I said I had to leave to make my tour; not untrue, but slightly earlier than necessary. I then spent a bit of time on my own wandering the streets, purchasing my second salteña in Bolivia (this time a carne one) and finally succumbing to the cream-topped street dessert I had seen literally everywhere. The classic version is a plastic cup filled half with jelly and then topped with cream but I went for one that had one third flan, one third jelly and one third cream, which basically tasted like a trifle but without the sponge, so my idea of heaven (especially at only 2 bolivianos, or 24p).
I was back at the tour office just before 1:30pm and we (me and 5 other tourists) soon set off in our minivan. Our first stop was at a market stall to pick up some gifts for the miners; coca leaves for the altitude and a big bottle of juice as it helps with the effect on their lungs. We did not buy them cigarettes as recommended in lonely planet, as this actually really isn’t food for them considering the other health risks and other fumes that go into their lungs. We then stopped at a mining office to pick up our equipment, being provided with wellies, trousers and jacket to prevent toxins going on our clothes, as well as a helmet with a light attached to the front and a drawstring bag for our valuables. Not for the first time in South America (or even Bolivia) I was looking pretty fetch.
We were then driven to a site that was almost like a mining workshop, or factory, where the rocks that had been collected and removed from the mountain were separated and the minerals produced. It was incredibly noisy and fascinating. I found it pretty difficult to breathe here, and the heat was stifling, but the workers seemed genuinely happy and apparently had no issue with us visiting to watch.
We were then taken to Cerro Rico – the mountain where the mining takes place – where I was surprised to be gifted with pretty decent views of Sucre as well as to stumble across children of the miners playing up the side of the mountain, using parts of cable to climb. It reminded me of how kids in the UK used to always play outside, in the dirt, but now we are so health and safety conscience, aware of the dangers of kidnapping and rape as well as sadly spoilt by technology that I rarely see this at home. I felt warm from what I saw but also sad by what I hardly ever see anymore. Before going inside the mountain I gave my coca leaves and juice to the wife of a miner and mother of the children, and then we were in.
Thank goodness for the helmet as, even though we were told repeatedly to keep low and kind our heads, I managed to knock my head against the rock above me a whole three times in the first 20 seconds. I’d make a pro miner, me. We squat-walked through the narrow and low passageways, at times having to use the mouth masks we were provided with as the fumes felt too strong (not for the miners – they are used to it and none were wearing masks) and taking care to breathe regularly and properly as the affects of the altitude and the confined space could suddenly hit you. We did a lot of crawling, ducking and climbing, coming across a miner finishing off his days’ work with a wheelbarrow full of rock, before finishing back at the start next to the shrine of El Tío.
Translated as The Uncle, El Tío is believed to be the “Lord of the Underworld” whom rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction; there are many statues of this spirit in the mines of Cerro Rico and miners bring offerings including cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol, believing that if he isn’t fed he will cause destruction. Sat by the statue as we listened to the story, we then finished by taking a sip of pure alcohol that the guide had brought with him, toasting El Tío before pouring the rest over the statue.
What surprised me the most – after everything I had read and heard about the terrible conditions the workers were under – was that it actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. Our tour guide, an ex miner himself, told us how the conditions had improved greatly since the mountain was rented to smaller companies; the pay was better, the miners got an 85% cut of the profit and, by and large, they could decide on the hours they worked. Whereas they would previously work 15/16 hours a day they now worked from 9 til maybe 3/4, finishing early on Saturdays to drink cervazas together and get drunk, and they would have Sundays off. Their pay was close to 4 times better a month than a worker in a coffee shop; yes, there are more risks (explosions, asbestos, etc) so it is only fair they should be paid more because of this, but most of the miners we came across had been working in mining for 20/30 years and wouldn’t want to leave; there was a sense of community amongst the miners.
I am not tying to glamourise mining and it was definitely tough, exhausting and potentially dangerous stuff, but what I saw of it and what I was told by our guide was not what I had been expecting and there was something heart-warming listening to the brotherhood that exists between them. Maybe I got it wrong, maybe the reality was being covered up – which would really upset me – but I genuinely got the impression they enjoyed what they did and were more than happy for us tourists to be there. Also I personally wouldn’t want to work in those conditions; I experienced cabin fever and a stifling, breathlessness after only 2 hours in there. But it was an interesting experience and I would recommend it if you have the time, although if the mining tour doesn’t interest you then I would probably advise skipping Potosi altogether.
Back at the tour office just after 5pm I picked up my backpack and took the bus (minivan with the destinations writing on placards on the dashboard) to Ex Terminal – the old bus terminal – for 1.50 bolivianos (18p), paying 30 bolivianos (£3.60) for the 6pm bus to Uyuni with Diane tours. I needed a good nights rest before hopefully going on a salt flats tour the following morning…