We arrived in Potosi around mid-afternoon and went for an orientation walk around this historic city, which was once the largest mining town and mint in the Spanish colonies.
With global mineral prices falling the town is now poor compared to its hey days in the 1600 and 1700s. The population of 180,000 live at an eye watering altitude of 4,200m, making it the highest city in the world.
The narrow winding streets are lined with beautiful coloured houses, intricately carved doors and dozens of old colonial churches.
The whole city relies on the silver and minerals from the over 200 mines that dot the mountains around the valley.
The main attraction is organised tours of the working mines which cost Bs.150 or around U$25. We all signed up and were picked up at 8am and taken through the city to a store house where we kitted up in safety gear, including overalls, helmets and head lamps.
First stop was the miners market, a kind of corner store to get all your essentials; coca leaves for chewing, industrial 96% alcohol for drinking and your sticks of dynamite for blowing shit up. We bought a goodie bag as a gift for our hosts – somehow travelling numbs you to the dangers of carrying half a dozen sticks of dynamite in your bus.
Our visit also coincided with the annual Llama festival, where these gentle animals are slaughtered as an offering to the mountain devils and all the miners drink and BBQ. On arrival at the mine, five wide eyed creatures were tied up outside and thankfully when we exited they were still alive – whilst I accept it’s local custom and they’re no different from the cows we eat back home, I still was in no rush to see them being slaughtered.
After handing over our ‘gifts’ to the miners we headed inside a ramshackle entrance and within 50 metres were crouched over in the pitch black and ankle deep water. It was as claustrophobic an experience as you can possible imagine, scrapping backs and banging heads of solid rock walls every few metres.
The walk through the winding tunnels was physically exhausting at the altitude, added to the lack of fresh air in the mine, the constant dust and walking hunched it was tough to imagine how the locals did this six days a week for an average pay of just £250 a month.
The tunnels were in places supported by old wooden beams but for the most place they looked incredibly unsafe. It was little wander that the average life expectancy of a miner is 50, mainly due to industry accidents, mainly falls, cave ins, explosive related accidents and siliconises.
When we reached the half way mark we were all ready to leave, but first we had to pay our respects to the mines Tao, or resident devil. We offered the creepy looking statue some alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes before climbing on hands and knees through a small pass to reach our exit route.
Before we started our half kilometre walk out, we first got to witness something being blown up. The guide used two sticks of dynamite, attached to a single fuse which sparked when lit. We hoped his four minute calculation on the fuse was correct as we walked speedily up the tunnel and stopped in an adjacent corner. All out of breathe, we paused and were just getting our phones out when first one huge bang and then a second shook the whole mountain.
The guide motioned for us to leave quickly before gases escaped – it seemed good advice and we upped our pace back up the tunnel. After what seemed like ages we eventually made it to the entrance and to fresh air and daylight. The universal consensus was that everyone was glad they’d done it, but never ever again!