Huge scale. I’m talking HUGE scale when it comes to the silver mine in Potosí.
There was so much silver mined from the mountain Cerro Rico they say the streets were paved with it. Crazy, right!?
Everything’s huge about it except for the tiny tunnels.
Today it’s still a working mine! As in, any day of the week people will be working in the mine to feed their families. The best part is, you can take a tour while they are working. I sure didn’t need any convincing to go check it out. This is cool!
Potosí Silver Mine Tour
50 years ago, the silver tours in Potosí were quite a bit different. If I wanted to see the mines, I had to find a miner around town and have him take me to his “job” in the mines and show me around. Visitors usually brought a gift to the miners so they wouldn’t mind him disturbing their mining that day.
The tours are a bit more organized today, but the gifts and dangerous working conditions are still the same.
We started off getting dressed in a hideous-looking getup with XXXL-sized big-boy trousers and a pair of galoshes. I had a grimy light that I wasn’t sure would last for more than a half hour strapped on top of a hard hat.
None of us were sure all of this was quite necessary. Right?
Silver Processing Plant
15 of us rode in a cramped mini-bus to one of the processing plants around town for the first part of the tour. They take the mined rock here from the mountain and turn it into silver and other precious metals.
I don’t know much about mines except there’s a lot of dirt and dynamite involved, but I was surprised that they don’t actually mine chunks of silver out of the mountain. They have to grind tons of mined rock into powder and dissolve it in some pretty crazy chemicals before they can extract the metals. Seems like a lot of work!
Out tour guide cut to the chase and made us all believers by giving each of us a sample of the famous silver!
The Miners’ Market
Even with such a huge mine, each miner has to buy all the tools he needs to work in the mine, from boots and headlamps to the pick axes and dynamite.
Our guide freaked us all out a little by taking a stick of dynamite and throwing it on the ground to show us how stable it is. We all thought we were going to get blown to pieces! I must admit though, he’s a good teacher – all of us will remember for our entire lives that dynamite doesn’t explode unless it has a blasting cap in it.
This is the best part of the tour!
I bought a stick of dynamite and bag of anfo for 2 dollars as a gift for the miners.
I am still kicking myself for not buying an extra one to try out in the desert!
Some people cut out of the tour early here. So, if you’re not game for a chancy mine hike, you can still see the city part of the mining tour and even take home a stick of dynamite for a souvenir!
Off to the Mine
We all piled in the tiny mini-bus van again to head up the mountain. I don’t think it was cut out for this high-altitude work. We had to try a certain steep hill 3 times before we finally made it up with a furious running-start and half of us outside pushing!
Whew! Never a dull moment.
The mine mouth was nothing more than a little hole in the side of the mountain with rail-cart tracks poking out.
Normally the mine is in full operation, but this day was their city-wide carnival, so instead of blowing up dynamite inside the mines they were out in the city blasting it off! I was more than a bit disappointed. I consoled myself thinking that it would be much safer and there would be less dust and caustic chemicals in the air.
Not Much Air to Breathe Down Here
This tour isn’t for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic. Even though the altitude of the Cerro Rico peak is 15,827 feet, I was surprised how breathless I got during our hike in the mine. The high altitude, combined with strong chemical-smelling dust really made it hard to see straight at times!
The tunnels were so small we could only stand up straight a few times while inside the mine. The tunnels were obviously made for the shorter Bolivians, not tall North Americans or Europeans.
I definitely whacked my hard hat pretty good a few times on the low ceiling. One time we had to crawl through a tiny tunnel about the size of a big doggy door.
Right before the doggy-door crawl, Alyssa decided she had had enough. The fumes from the mine and the evil spirits lurking in the dark were too much for her and she turned around to wait in the daylight.
I’m glad I didn’t push her to keep going too much because it only got crazier from there.
The tunnels were supported by a few pieces of wood here and there. The ladders were pretty shaky, and sometimes missing a rung or two. We had to cross a few puddles in the tunnel that were almost deep enough to fill up our tall gum boots. Eeep!
Got My Daily Dose of Arsenic
I asked the guide what made the bright colors and growths on the ceiling and he nonchalantly replied “Arsenic.” Oh, hmm, yeah, I better stop touching that with my fingers. I should probably hold my breath too so I don’t breathe it in…
He explained that when it reacts with the water in the tunnels it generates heat. That explained why we went from a cold mountain-top at the entrance to a 90 degree sauna down here, and why we were all sweating profusely.
Maybe I shouldn’t have asked… Innocence is bliss.
This picture is one of the spots that was big enough for our guide to explain a little about the mine to our whole group. He is on the left, with the big wad of coca leaves in his cheek.
The Sunglasses-Sporting Devil Idol
We came face-to-face with their superstition about the devil protecting them in the mines. They believe that God will protect them above-ground, but think he can’t enter the mines to protect them there.
They turn to the next obvious choice to protect them in the mines – the devil. They sacrifice coca leaves, alcohol, and cigarettes to their statue of him every day before beginning work. Our guide took us by their sunglasses-sporting devil, and it was more than a little creepy.
He’s certainly not what I imagined the devil to look like, but we could sure feel a weird spirit down there.
Survived the Mine Tour!
On our way out, we had to hike uphill and climb all the ladders we had some down an hour before. I was sweating like a pig from the arsenic heat and the exertion of climbing at 15,000 feet!
The fumes and dust were so bad I had to use my sweater as a mask. This made it even more difficult to breathe!
When we finally emerged from the miles of tunnels we were quite a sweaty and dirty group. I can only imagine what the actual miners look like after a long day in the mines!
That’s a lot of work for a few flakes of silver!
The Potosí silver mine tour was the highlight of my trip! I highly recommend you check it out if you’re in southern Bolivia.