With a population of approximately 110 000, Potosi is the highest city in the world of its size sitting at around 4600 meters above sea level. Its existence centers around a silver, tin, lead and zinc which has been mined into a swiss cheese. There is a lot of history surrounding the mine and the Spanish invasion many years ago. Turning the locals into slave labourers and having the down in the mine for up to 8 months at a time was how they forced out a lot of the silver in the mine. There is a mine tour for us gringos which a bunch of us that are not claustrophobic went on and we learnt all about their interesting cultures and traditions. More on that in a moment. We only had one day in Potosi which I didn’t mind as the altitude was a killer. Just walking up the stairs required a nap! But into the mines!
The highlight of our visit. We got picked up from the hotel at 8am and headed straight to the miners markets to buy gifts for the miners. We were told about the coca leaves that the mines suck on and how to to it. Used for cocaine, they contain an alkaloid which makes your mouth numb and gives the miners energy to keep mining. It is also meant to delay hunger and assist with handling the altitude. There was also an alcohol that the miners use and drink every Friday which has an alcohol percentage of 96%! No wonder the life expectancy of the average miner is 10 – 15 years! We bought the miners coca leaves, dynamite, cigarettes and snacks which were to be handed out to them when we got there. From the market it was off to get dressed up in gum boots, overalls and a miners helmet with light as there is zero lighting in the mine bar headlamps.
Once at the mine, we were told about the various rituals the miners perform. Before even entering the mine, a massive black stain above the entrance turned out to be llama blood which is placed there to protect the mine and miners. Heading into the mine, 50 meters in was a little room which housed the devil. Red color with horns and a giant penis, the devil is the protector of the miners. Why? When the Spanish invaded Potosi, they brought Catholicism with them and attempted to teach the locals their religion. Obviously the devil is an enemy to the Catholics and therefore, and enemy of the Spanish was a friend to the miners. Another reason is that the miners believed that the deeper they mined, the closer they were getting to hell and therefore had to appease the devil as they encroached on his territory so as not to be cursed and suffer accidents or bad “harvest” of minerals. The daily ritual performed to the devil involved dropping coca leaves at his feet, on his head and on his penis. The the same was done with the alcohol and a sip taken the ritual performer. Finally, a cigarette was lit and places in the devils mouth. Every Friday, the miners congregate around the devil and drink, smoke and party till blind drunk before going home. There are many of these ritual places all over the mine but we only visited the one.
From there we headed into the mine and watched some of the miners work. It was a Saturday so the mission of the day was to get the mined ore out of the mine on mine carts. Everything is done manually with no fancy equipment. Further strolling in the mine got us into meter high tunnels and miners could be seen many meter below us in holes which shot of at random places. It ia quite obvious that not much planning when into the layout of tunnels in the mine. The miners just follow the veins they find and use the dynamite to blast their way through. We could hear dull thuds which was dynamite being detonated a couple 100 meters above us. The support beams are in terrible shape with almost all of them having split. Personally, I don’t think the mine will last another 20 years. Looks like its ready to just collapse in on itself. That brought us to the end of the trip. We headed back out into the sunlight and dropped off the rest of the gifts which we had not yet handed out. Bought a stone or two from a little kid wanting to make a little pocket money and we were on our way. Was interesting to see how the miners work and life. It is a hard life.
On To La Paz
Our hotel (Hotel Jerusalem) was a pretty decent hotel but with useless wifi but it was well situated and the markets just up the street was a good place to get all sorts of handicraft and street food. Besides the mines however, there is not all that much to do in Potosi, so one full day was more than enough. From here we head in to La Paz which is apparently the highlight of our Bolivian experience. It is also our last stop in Bolivia until we head out to Peru which I am looking forward to. For now, adios.