Silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia.

Potosi, a city founded by the Spanish in 1546 as a silver mining town, is one of the highest in the world. Located at an altitude of above 4000 m and surrounded with the nearby mountains it has a unique look.

     Our first impression of Potosi was so positive that we decided to stay there for a while. After spending four days in a car touring south-west of Bolivia we decided to enjoy the civilization in a nice hostel. The one we finally stayed in was in the city center at the altitude of 4100 m. The city itself is difficult to describe as it is one full of contrasts. On one hand it has a beautiful, renovated city center in the higher part where you will find beautiful old buildings, churches, a nice square as well as many restaurants, bars and cafes. On the other hand its lower parts are dirty with unfinished brick-houses built all around and pigs running on the streets. As we’ve learnt (from one of the taxi drivers, who usually know most about the city they drive in) in the 16th century it was one of the largest industrial complexes in the world. It was built by the Spanish who found silver there and exploit the mountains by building a mine and a town beneath the highest hill in the area: Cerro de Potosi also known as Cerro Rico (the rich mountain).

     Those few hundred years ago it was lamas and mules that were used for the transportation of silver from the mine to the Pacific coast. Nowadays it is young boys and men who push the heavy trolleys filled with rocks through the broken trails to the outside of the mine. We have visited the mine with a trip organized by the hostel we stayed in (Casona Potosi Hostal). If I was to decide again, I would not go with them. I’ll let you know why at the end.

     Now a bit about the silver mine itself. It is still functioning and people continue extracting minerals from it. Mostly it is silver and zinc. Today there are more than 60 independent groups of miners working for their own profits in that one mine. They earn money by selling the minerals to different companies who buy them from all the groups. So the more minerals the miners find, the more they earn. It means that those 60 groups compete against each other inside that mine. When one group finds a silver vein they exploit it using dynamite until the mineral is gone. If two groups find the same silver vein the one that can exploit it faster wins and earns more money. As far as job preparation is concerned they learn all about how to work in the mine. There are no trainings before so all teaching is done by the more experienced miners from day one of your job.

     The guide said that miners have to buy the explosives (dynamite, nitroglycerine, gunpowder and fuses) with their own money. So before entering the mine each group of tourists is lead to a store nearby the entrance where on the street, behind a metal gate you can buy all those explosive materials for 3,50 USD. You can also buy the coca leaves and 95%-alcohol, which the miners use when working underground. According to the guide - the former one to prevent feeling hungry and the latter one to stand 12 hours of work and to feel braver and more confident when preparing the explosive set… Talking about explosives. Our guide wanted to show us how dynamite works so when we were inside the mine, he prepared two sets of explosive materials in front of us, took a few matches and went into one tunnel a bit distant from the place we were in. When he came back a minute later he just said: “Wait!” In the next minutes we heard and felt two explosions, which shaken the whole part of the mine we were standing in. It was the most scary experience in my life so far!

     Well, now you probably know why I wouldn’t recommend going on such a tour. Maybe some agencies organize it well, but the guide we’ve had, a miner who called himself Choco-Loco (loco means crazy in Spanish), was that type of a guy who boasted about how much he could drink in one day. Actually, he’d had a few shots of 95% alcohol after buying the explosive set and before we all entered the mine. Throughout the whole trip he was talking mostly about how much the miners drink and how stupid all nations in South America are (except of Bolivians, of course). He played with the dynamite showing-off how brave he was… All that made the whole trip annoying and a bit scary. Yet, by seeing the mine itself and observing how it functions nowadays we could see a little bit of true life in this part of Bolivia. So, you decide.