Mining Tour in Potosi

September 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the reasons why I thought I should see the city of Potosi is the Cerro Rico, the “rich mountain”, see the picture above. The parts from the middle to the top of the mountain look red, which is nothing else (as we were told) as silver-oxid. In this post I will show you some pictures of a guided mine tour I did with some other tourist, and I will also give you some background information on mining in Potosi.

Potosi (160.000 inhabitants) is one of the highest cities in the world, at an altitude of appr. 4000 meter. Silver was discovered in the 1544, and thousands of people arrived the following decades to be part of the “silver rush”.My guide book says:”By the turn of the 16th century, Potosi had become one of the largest cities in Christendom, rivalled by only by London, Paris and Seville.” So Potosi was an extremely rich city, but now it’s nothing like a poor place where they still mine some tin, silver and lead.

Before entering the mine we visited the “mercado de mineros”, the miners market, were miners can buy everything they need for their work in the mines, e.g. protection wear, helmets, tools, dynamite (see photo above!) and also 96% (!!!) alcohol, in bottles that say “para beber” , to drink. But one can hardly imagine that this stuff is any good, no matter how much they drink from it. During my time in Potosi I saw quiet few drunk miners, many of them drink whilst working or at the end of their exhausting shift, mixed with juice.

A very common drug though is coca leafes. The miners do usually not leave the mine during their min. 8-10 hour shift, and they don’t eat during that time. But they have always coca leaves with them which can be bought everywhere, a big portion for 5 Bolivianos (ca. 50 Euro Cent.) A bunch of coca leafes is put in the mouth, better said in the cheek, and remains there sometimes for hours. Like this the miners don’t feel the hunger that much and it’s easier for them to do the hard work. The disadvantage of using the coca leafes like this is that many miners soon get sick stomages, gastritis. The next image shows coca leafes as sold on the market, plus a bottle of the above mentioned alcohol.

We then visited quickly a refinerie, where the ore from the mines is processed and purified. In this refinerie, silver was extracted from the ore. We could just walk though this place, and as you can imagine European safety standards do not apply here. Again, the working conditions here were really bad allthough for sure better that in the mines.

Silver on my hands!

It is hard to believe but working conditions in the mines seem to not have changed very much since the Spanish in the 16th century begann mining in Potosi. The tunnels are very narrow and few machines are used, a lot is still labour by hand. The miner on the left transports heavy bags of ore to the outside.

In the mine. Different tour agencies go into different mines, the guides are usually ex-miners. But most tours have in common that you go through very narrow tunnels, sometimes even crawling on hands and foots. You get very dirty and are happy they gave you some protection clothes. The air is always extremely dusty and I guess only the 2 hours we spent in the mine where already bad for my lungs.

Group shot with the ladies I shared this tour with, in the background see the mercado. This moment was actually before the tour, we were way dirtier after the trip.

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