Going down the Mine in Potosi, Bolivia
NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some info may no longer be accurate.
The Highest City on the Planet
Believe it or not, Potosi was once one of the richest cities in the world. The mountain, popularly known as the Cerro Rico once contained vast silver reserves which were mined between the 16th and 18th century and to a large extent funded the Spanish Empire.
Today however there are few reminders of the cities glorious colonial past. At 4000m above sea level, it is a pretty tough environment with the sun shining brightly during the day before the sun sets and the bitterly cold night roles in. The mines are still the main source of income in the town, but all the silver was depleted long ago.
Nowadays around 28,000 miners work daily in some shockingly bad conditions to scrape out whatever ore deposits they can. In doing so each day they are inhaling dust and most of them will eventually contract silicosis. Because of this the life expectancy for the miners is shockingly only around 40 years of age, but it remains the most profitable job in town so many teenage boys and men have to work down here just to feed their families.
Visiting the Potosi Mines
Tours of the mines run every day and are very easy to arrange. There are several travel agencies in the small town centre on the roads around the main plaza. Your hostel will also most likely be able to sort you out with the tour (Koala Den definitely does). All of the tours are to some extent dangerous so you will be asked to sign a waiver should anything bad happen. There tends to be a morning and afternoon departure with tours lasting around 4-5 hours and costing in the region of B$100 (roughly US$14 or £9).
The tours are all roughly the same. First of all you will be picked up from the agency you bought the ticket and will meet your guide, most of whom are former miners themselves so are very knowledgeable. You will then get kitted out in a fetching orange miner’s uniform, complete with helmet, torch and boots. Next stop is the miners market where you can buy gifts for the miners such as coca leaves and drinks and for under US$2 you can also buy some dynamite! (Some tours include a demonstration where you are allowed to set off the dynamite yourself although it is supposed to be bad for the mountain). Next stop is the ore refinery plant where the miners sell everything they get to companies who extract the raw materials.
Finally you will enter the mine itself, which is a co-operative so the miners work for themselves, often in teams and are free to choose their own working hours. The tunnels are small so you will find yourself creeping along and having to dodge out the way of oncoming carts. You will spend a couple of hours down the mines and depending on your tour, may go to the deepest level. There will also be an opportunity to meet and talk to some of the workers, at which point you can hand over any gifts you bought in the markets.
Coca is the main crop in many regions of Bolivia and is used most famously to make cocaine but also many other legal products such as coca-cola. The leaves are chewed by many people in Bolivia’s mountainous West to give them energy and help them deal with the altitude. The practice is especially popular with miners who almost without exception chew the leaves before heading down the mines. Coca leaves are dirt cheap and can be bought from the miners market. Your guide will probably show you how to chew correctly and you will need to get through at least 100 or so before you begin to feel any effects. (Chewing coca leaves won’t get you high!)
Are the Mines Dangerous?
Yes, if you decide to visit be aware, you’re not visiting a museum but an active working mineshaft. Around 35 miners a year die down here mostly from gas explosions or falling rocks. Of course as with all mines there is always the risk of a deadly cave in where the whole shaft collapses trapping miners underground. It is believed that one day, probably within the next 50 years, the entire mountain will just completely cave in, such is the extent of mining that has taken place over the past 5 centuries. It gets more dangerous every year.
Now finally some good news. Tours have ran every day for many years and so far no tourists have been killed with the exception of a Japanese man who fell down a shaft around 20 years ago. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that visiting the mine for just a few hours has any long-lasting health effects.
Altitude sickness is another real danger as Potosi is over 4000m above sea level and just walk uphill can leave you breathless, not to mention trawling around the mines in heavy clothing. It’s best to acclimatize to the altitude for several days before attempting the tours. Also if you suffer badly from claustrophobia then it’s not advisable to go down the mines. It is reasonably physically challenging but there are plenty of travellers over 60 who go on the tours and have no problems. If in doubt ask around the different agencies as some tours are slightly more challenging than others.
Thanks to Jennifrog on flickr for most of the pics.
This article was published in June 2011.
UPDATE AUGUST 2014 – Some travellers have reported really bad experiences with Greengo Tours.
Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018 for a more detailed look at budget travel in the region.