Visiting the Potosi Mines

Going down the Mine in Potosi, Bolivia

potosi mine trips

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.

Potosi Mountain and townToday 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

Potosi MinesThe 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 Leaves

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?

Potosi minerYes, 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.


The World’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison, La Paz

The World’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison

san pedro prison bolivia

San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the countries drug laws. It is found in the heart of the countries administrative capital, La Paz, which is on our South America backpacking route. Its fame amongst backpackers grew in the 1990’s when English inmate Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of the prison. It quickly became an essential part of the backpacking scene in South America.

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old and some of the info may no longer be accurate.

How does San Pedro differ from normal prisons?

San Pedro is not a normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to parts which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison. Every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves.

Backpackers in San Pedro Prison

backpackers in San Pedro PrisonThousands of backpackers have entered the prison since the tours first started, intrigued by what is unquestionably one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors are shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally includes visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have been murdered. Another draw for some travellers is the opportunity to take cocaine which is ridiculously cheap and perhaps what the prison is most famous for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is amongst the purest in the world. In the 1990’s many visitors would stay overnight in the prison which hosts some pretty wild parties!

Isn’t it a Bit Dangerous?

Not really because bodyguards are employed by the guides to protect you and if anything bad ever happened to a backpacker then word would quickly get out to the hostels and people would stop coming which would be bad for the prison economy. It’s a good idea to buy something from the shops or dine in one of the prison restaurants which are often better than what you get on the outside anyway. It is rare for visitors to be allowed to stay overnight when the prison is more dangerous but some backpackers have in the past chosen to do this. As far as we are aware there have been no serious incidents involving people on the tours.

Do the San Pedro Prison Tours Still Exist?

san pedro prison cellThere are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you’ve got money you can make things happen. There are recent reports of a total ban thanks to a Hollywood movie due to be released about San Pedro. The authorities don’t like to admit that the tours ever take place (they definitely do) so any sort of publicity like this tends to make it harder to visit.

Your best bet is to talk to fellow travellers in South America and especially La Paz and try to go as a large group if you are in any way concerned about the safety of it. Head to the San Pedro Plaza and hang around for a bit. You may well be approached about tours but be wary of conmen. If that fails head to the main gate of the prison where there is a steady flow of comings and goings and see what you can do. Tours are likely to cost in the region of $25 (which includes a bribe to the guards to get you in).


MFT RECOMMENDS – Hostel Perla Negra, La Paz 

This place is good for a few nights kip in La Paz. Near the bus terminal and excellent staff who are knowledgeable on the city.


Marching PowderRead Marching Powder by Rusty Young for a fascinating insight into life in the prison through the eyes of Thomas Mcfadden, an Englishman convicted of drug trafficking at La Paz Airport in the 1990’s.

 

Photos of San Pedro in 2009 and courtesy of Brenski on flickr.



This article was published in November 2011.

We don’t know the current state of affairs with regards to the tours but in Bolivia, where there is a will, there is usually a way. Please comment below if you have more up-to-date info.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018 for a more detailed look at budget travel in the region.


Backpacking Budget for South America

Backpacking Budget for South America

This page aims to give you a rough idea of what a typical backpacking budget for South America might be.

south america map

(Map of South America from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

South America is on the whole, budget-friendly and certainly much cheaper than North America and Europe but that said travel costs can easily mount up. Countries like Brazil are developing quickly and as a result prices are going up. It is also a very large region so trying to see it all is both time-consuming and expensive. Even relatively short-distance airfares are high here so unless you fancy hitch-hiking, buses and coaches are pretty much the only way to get around.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018  for more detailed info on the region.

Daily Travel Costs in South America

$20/day or less : Bolivia

$25/day : Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay

$30/day : Colombia

$40/day : Uruguay

$45/day : Chile, Argentina

$50/day : Brazil

As you can see there’s quite a wide variety between countries so calculating a Latin America travel budget can be difficult. Over the years of running this site, we’ve had various people disagreeing with these figures. Some say Peru or Colombia are far cheaper than Ecuador but bare in mind that although the cost food/accommodation may be similar or even less, you will spend much more on transport in the bigger countries like Peru, Colombia, Argentina or Chile as the destinations are far further away from each other. Ecuador is much more compact with just a few hours on a bus and only a few US Dollars separating most of the popular travel destinations.

On a similar kind of note, prices in Uruguay are comparable to anything you’ll find in Brazil or Argentina and can soar to Western European levels in places but the country is small so again you won’t be spending any extra money on flights or expensive long-distance coaches.

French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana are on the expensive end of the scale but they are so small, visitors often go for a specific purpose rather than on a general trip around the country so we haven’t factored them in. In Venezuela, there is something like 4 different exchange rates so it can vary from being absurdly cheap to extremely expensive depending which one you can get. The country is suffering from a severe economic crisis right now with violent crime rife so it’s probably not the best time to go in any case.

Also it’s well worth noting that prices can really sky-rocket around real tourist hotspots like Rio de Janeiro, Machu Picchu and the natural wonders of Patagonia. A trip to Machu Picchu alone can easily blow your Peru budget in just a few days.

Therefore please take these figures as a guide and not as the definitive answer as everyone and every trip is different.

Monthly Backpacking budget for South America

1 month – £820,  €950, $1000

2 months – £1640, €1900, $2000

3 months – £2460, €2850, $3000

4 months – £3280, €3800, $4000

5 months – £4100, €4750, $5000

6 months – £4920, €5700, $6000

(Exchange rates are correct as of Janaury 2017. Use Dollars as a base and convert it to your currency on current exchange rates if you’re reading this much further in the future)

A figure of $1000 per month is a reasonable starting point for a shoestring budget for the region. Visit predominantly the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and you can get by on less. Spend more time in the South of the continent or Brazil and you will probably need more than this.

As mentioned earlier actual transport costs are quite high so longer trips or ones that involve visiting only a few countries will give you better value for money. If you want to get by on a cheaper budget, it’s possible but you’ll have to consider hitch-hiking/camping/couchsurfing etc. which on the whole are viable options, especially in the more expensive countries, which is handy.

Remember there will still be extra expenses on top of this in terms of sorting out flights to/from the region. Many travellers opt to head there via USA with Miami a popular stop and home to some of the better value flights to South American countries, particularly Colombia. Read our backpacking budget for the USA to find out costs there.

The cost of vaccinations, visas and travel insurance are also not included in these figures. The last part is often quite expensive. We recommend World Nomads as they specialise in dealing with backpacker trips.

Read our South America budget travel overview for more on the region.


The Cost of Travel in Other Regions

Southeast Asia | Central America | Europe


How much did travel in South America cost you?

If you have travelled recently in South America then please use the comments section below to share with us your experiences of backpacking costs in the region. Budgets really do vary considerably amongst travellers so there will never be a definitively right figure for each country but the more people who comment, the easier it is for us to keep this page as accurate as possible. Thanks!


 This page was last updated in January 2017.