” A visit to the cooperative mines will almost surely be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have in Bolivia, providing an opportunity to witness working conditions that should have gone out with the Middle ages. You may be left stunned and/or ill. “. Lonely Planet
With a write-up like this and the constant tales from other travellers that seemed to get more scary and change like a game of Chinese whispers as we got closer to Potosi, I had a real panic attack the night before doing this tour,even going as far as sending ‘I love you’ messages to close friends incase I never came out alive….and yes if you didn’t get a message, we’re not really that close 🙂
Reading and learning about the mines before hand didn’t really help much with the fear given that over 8 million miners have died in the mines since the 1600’s. The majority of them were initially indigenous Indians ( later imported black slaves) who once over 18 years old, were forced to work 12 hour shifts in the mines via the law known as the Lay de la Mita.
Naturally these miners, who became known as mitayos, didn’t last long with life expectancy of 10-15 years once entering the mines, usually caused by silicosis pneumonia. Before you think it, that’s doesn’t really mean much to me either, but the list of the toxins inhaled down there should make things a little more clearer; silica dust, arsenic gas, acetylene and asbestos gases for starters!
After 1800, the silver mines were depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Nevertheless, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy dying around 40 years of age.
Before starting the tour we had to sign a declaration form explaining that we were aware of the dangers and that Koala Tours were not liable should anything go wrong, which considering we are in Bolivia (the country with the worst health and safety record in the world) actually made me think it wasn’t worth the risk. The fear of being known as the pussy who bailed out was obviously stronger than the fear of something awful happening since i went ahead with it anyway.
Thankfully the tour guides were extremely professional and made the whole experience fun and informative since they are all ex miners with a wicked, dirty sense of humour constantly taking the piss out of each other.
As soon as I saw the guide introduce himself below whilst getting changed I began to relax and actually found the whole experience an amazing, eye-opening experience that made me really appreciate the job I actually do for a living.
Before actually entering the mines we were split into groups, ours being ‘the Llama Fuckers’ and taken to a miners market first to buy gifts for the miners which consisted of 98% alcohol, water, coca leaves and dynamite! Yes this is the only market in the world where anyone can openly buy dynamite!
The miners work is some of the most horrendous conditions, with small narrow passageways ( at times crawling on your belly!) temperatures that can reach up to 45 degrees which at that altitude made the 3 hours we spent crawling around in there at times a little challenging for me, let alone 6’5 Andre!
The mines like most things in South America were owned by the Americans although were nationalised over 100 years ago and now form part of a cooperative were groups of miners work for themselves with the hope that they will hit the jack pot and find a part of the mountain that is rich in silver or tin ore.
Part of the tour was to also visit a refinery where you see them actually separating out what they have mined which was really interesting to see the process in its entirety, making me realise just how little actual saleable material it produced from all that hard work!
The best time to visit Potosi is during one of their festivals, the main one being in June and August known as the ‘Fiesta del espiritu’. It’s sounds like the most bizarre event which is all in aid of honouring Pachamama, directly translated as earth mother whom the superstitious miners regard as the mother of all Bolivians.
The entire ritual which included the sacrifice of a llama is conducted according to a meticulous schedule;
10am – one miner from each mine buys a llama and the families gather for the celebrations.
11am- everyone goes to the entrance of the mines and chew coca leaves and drink the 98% alcohol until 11.45
At precisely 11:45 they prepare the llama, tying it’s feet and offering it coca and alcohol.
At high noon it’s throat is slit and the miners pray to Pachamama for luck, protection and the abundance of minerals. The blood of the llama is caught in glasses and splashed around the mouth of the mine to bless it.
For the next three hours the men chew coca and drink while the women prepare the llama parrillada ( bar-b-q).
The stomach, feet and head of the llama are buried and then the music and dancing begins with everyone getting complete hammered!
The miners superstition can also be seen by the shrines all over the mines which are of the Devil ( believed to live in the mines) where they make offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca to keep him happy.