Potosi is not a bad place really, surrounded by stunning, rocky mountains with a nice centre of town (I’ve found this is common in every South American city/town I’ve visited) but Potosi’s fame comes from the minerals and metals found inside the surounding hills, that brought and still brings wealth to the people.
The mines around Potosi produce principally silver and zinc, and visitors to Potosi can tour the mines if they so wish, and I thought it was an interesting idea and something quite different from anything I’ve seen so far on my trip. In fact, it’s the first time I think I’ve visited a mine whilst it is in operation.
So I went with ‘Big Deal Tours’. I chose this company because the tours are taken by ex-miners and they seemed to have a sensitivity about going into working mines. It was an amazing few hours walking through some pretty cramped passageways. It’s at altitude too – over 4000 metres, so it wasn’t easy going for me and I frequently found myself well out of breath.
The tour started with us buying a little present for the miners – a small bottle of whiskey for less than two dollars. Then it was into gear to keep our clothes clean and the very important helmet. I probably wouldn’t have a head now if I hadn’t worn it, hitting my head on the rocks over and over again.
We visited a refinery first which was interesting – the miners get paid for what they produce and they bring it to the refinery. There it is all mixed up and refined and then is left in the sun to set. The fumes were heavy but we only spent a couple of minutes in there. We did have masks for the experience too.
Then to the mine – the view was stunning. A miner pushed a cart into the mine on the tracks and we had to let him past. The tunnel was low at times and I had to bend over, but for half the time I could walk upright. I did get puffed when crouched. Our guide talked to us about working in the mine, finding a vein, collecting the raw material. It’s a bloody tough life. And our guide had to quit because he hurt his back, but he was happy to be a guide now.
A good miner can do very well, but there are many who don’t, and luck in finding veins and so forth is vitally important. Once a miner starts a tunnel, it is his and the others respect his tunnel. But to investigate and mine, the miner must pay for everything such as dynamite and equipment and others to help.
Then we saw the same miner from before loading the cart, and gave him the whiskey which he was very happy about. He said he filled around 9 to 10 carts a day, working by himself and pushing the thing too by himself.
We passed over some points in the tracks which had a big hole under them. There were rocks held up by wood, and occasionally from verttical holes rocks would roll down. Others heard dynamite being blasted from elsewhere in the mine. I didn’t but there was no doubt, this experience was very real.
Despite the dangers – you sign a waiver before you go in – I think it was a great and worthwhile experience. Big Deal Tours do a good job as well. May the Journey Never End!