Potosi, Bolivia, is one of the world’s highest cities, located at 4,060 meters (13,320 ft) above sea level. The city is most well known for its large number of silver mines in Cerro Rico, which have been in use since the 1500s. I arrived in Potosi in the late morning after a short bus ride from Sucre and checked into the Koala Den hostel (really great, definitely would recommend). The hostel is associated with Koala Tours, which runs the best reviewed silver mine tours of the city. I booked the tour for later in the day and headed out into the city to wander around and take in the sites before the 1:30 tour.
Potosi has a surprisingly beautiful city centre. The main plaza, 10 de Noviembre, is surrounded by colonial architecture and a beautiful cathedral. I wandered down the various side streets radiating from the plaza to photograph the old wooden balconies attached to the earth-tone colored colonial buildings. I stumbled into a tourist information centre which had access to Torre de la Compañía de Jesús, and old church bell tower with stunning views of the city and Cerro Rico (and also featured on the Bolivian $50 bill).
I grabbed lunch at a really nice cafe, called La Plata, located right in the main plaza. The guy running the place looked like he could have been working as a barista at any cafe in the U.S. and seemed to be a pro at making specialty coffees. I think this place is the only cafe in this part of Bolivia that has a good coffee and not just instant, for all you coffee people reading this. I had an amazing hot chocolate drink made with cinnamon and milk which was very thick but maintained a perfect temperature for drinking. While I was sitting in here, a parade of students passed by celebrating something which I never figured out. After I finished eating I went back to my hostel to prepare for the upcoming silver mine tour.
I was picked up at my hostel, along with one other person staying there, to head to the bus to the mine. We got to the bus and met the other two people on our tour and headed to the Miner’s Warehouse to get protective clothing for inside the mine (over clothes, rubber boots, helmets and head lamps) and meet our guide, Ronald. Once we left here we went to a processing plant where the chunks of mineral ores are refined into the raw materials which are then shipped abroad for smelting. There are no places in Bolivia which can smelt the silver into solid pieces, so all of the processed mineral goes to Chile for shipment to Asia, mostly to China and Japan, to be used for electronics.
We left the processing plant and headed to the Miner’s Market. This is where miners can purchase everything they need for working in the mines — drinks, coca, tools, clothes, boots, and dynamite. They can also purchase pure alcohol and coca leaves for rituals, called ch’allas, to El Tio, the god of the underworld who they believe protects them from harm in the mines and brings good luck. The belief is that the more alcohol they can drink for El Tio the better luck they have in finding minerals. Workers in the mines get paid based on the amount of minerals they extract, rather than by the hour, so it’s important that they find lots of silver veins in order to provide for their families. We as a group bought eight two-liter bottles of juice and two sticks of dynamite (dynamite cost 22 bs, about $3.10 USD and juice $1 USD).
Once we finished purchasing gifts for the miners, we went up Cerro Rico toward the mine. When we reached the location of the mine, there was a great panoramic view of the city below. The area outside of the mine entrance is full of old rusty mine carts and miners getting fresh air before re-entering the dark and dusty mine. The four of us followed our guide into the dark hole that was the entrance to the mine. Just inside the entrance is a long tunnel with a fairly short ceiling, perfectly fine for most Bolivians but not for anyone taller than 5’5”. Along the walk down the tunnel there were many times where we had to step to the side to get out of the way of the two-ton carts of mineral ore heading out of the mine. We split off of the main tunnel and went down to one of the locations where miners were working.
We first visited some workers who were drilling holes for dynamite with jackhammers. They drill holes that fit a stick of dynamite inside the holes to blow the veins of silver out of the walls. At each stop like this, our guide asked each miner their age, how many years they had been working in the mine, and how long they work every day. A great majority started the work in their early teens and work about 10 hours a day inside the mine. They chew coca throughout their shifts as they cannot eat in the mine due to the dust and have no breaks until they are finished for the day.
As we continued through the mine, there were many places which were difficult to navigate. The mine is full of broken ladders, steep slopes of blown up stones, and deep holes with little space to navigate around. Many parts were full of extremely dusty air which was hard to breathe. The conditions are absolutely dismal, but for the men of Potosi, there are no other alternatives. Life expectancy of those working in the mines is only late 40s, mostly due to a lung cancer they call silicosis which is caused by the constant dust inhalation and is untreatable here. When men die in the mines, which happens fairly often, their oldest male child has to start working in the mine in order to continue supporting the family, as it’s the only source of income for residents of Potosi.
The miners work for cooperatives which represent the miners for the central government. There are many of these cooperatives in Potosi, each of them owning sections of the mines. However, they do not provide the workers with any equipment for their jobs, such as clothing, tools, or helmets. All of this has to be provided by the workers themselves. The entire system is very exploitative of the miners, who receive little for the amount of work they do every day. The mine tour was a fascinating and disturbing way to understand the conditions of miners in Potosi and hear their stories.
There were recent protests in the city addressing the problems with the mines. For 27 days, the people of Potosi blockaded the roads into the city from all directions, blocking all traffic into the capital of Sucre on the popular Potosi-Sucre highway. A large group marched from Potosi to La Paz to state their reasons for striking in front of the government offices in the main plaza. The people of the city want a greater amount of the profits from the mine – currently they only receive 3%, the rest goes to the federal government or to foreign companies. The were also requesting that the government invest more into the department of Potosi, as it’s the poorest in Bolivia and has little available. For example, there is no hospital in the region, for emergencies people have to go to Cochabamba, La Paz, or Sucre, all of which are far away and expensive for people to get to in an emergency. The people in the city don’t like President Evo Morales as he has not done anything to improve their living and working conditions, while he has in other departments.
Overall, Potosi was a worthwhile stop on my trip through South America. I had initially planned on skipping the city but had a last minute change of plans, which was very fortunate as it was an incredible place to visit. I’m now heading by bus to Salar de Uyuni, which is my final stop in Bolivia before crossing over to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.