Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Sucre to Potosi
These buses run regularly, but be sure to buy a ticket from a bus that is actually loading and leaving. We had several ‘touts’ surround us as we entered the bus station promising they were the next bus. There was clearly only one that was leaving. The cost was 15 Bs ($2.15) plus 2.50 Bs departure tax ($0.35) for the 3 or so hour ride.
Take note of potential mining strikes that close roads. We know of a couple of other travellers getting stuck trying to go to Uyuni in the past few months. Just be prepared for it is all we can suggest.
Arriving into Potosi was strange. There was an early stop at a gas station near to the centre of town that we should have gotten out at and walked. Otherwise you stay on for a further 10 or more minutes to the main bus station outside of town. This then takes the best part of 20-30 minutes by Combi (1.5 Bs / $0.20) to get back to the centre depending on traffic.
This was a bit messy as there was a huge concert in town that night and floods of people. We were a little tired and settled on the first nice place we saw called Hostal Felimar (Calle Junin No. 14 at the corner of Bolivar). This was about 2 blocks up from the central market and 2 blocks away from the central square in the other direction. A private room with private bathroom cost 140 Bs ($20) and included hot water, wifi and a simple breakfast (bread/coffee).
We’d heard very little positive things said about the town, but the main reason for going is the mining tours. In all honesty, the town is no better or worse than countless others in Latin America. Areas in and around the central square are more than nice enough and spending a night here is pleasant.
The first record it holds is the World’s highest city (population greater than 100,000) at 4,060m altitude. We didn’t seem to feel the effects, but we’d spent a long time acclimatized now.
The city was founded in 1545 after minerals were found in the neighbouring mountain. It is said that it was the wealthiest city in Latin America at the end of the 18th Century. The Spanish shipped countless tonnes of Silver from the mine back to Spain to support their economy for 200 years.
Toby organised his tour through Koala Tours at 100 Bs ($14.50) including an English speaking guide. They are located just next to the main town square and open late into the evening, or early morning to book the same day. Tours tend to be morning 8.30am-1.30pm and then an afternoon at 1.30pm-5pm.
You want to be fairly fit and healthy and know that you are going into a working mine. The temperature will likely be quite warm and if you’re tall, you’ll hit your head a bunch of times like Toby did. There are narrow places to crawl into, some scrambling on loose rocks, potentially climbing a rickety ladder or two and even narrowly bypassing some wide open holes you would not want to fall into. Safety on the tours is like that in the mine, barely in existence.
It is also suggested to watch the movie/documentary “The Devil’s Miner” (2005) before going in. We still have yet to watch this, but plan to when we can get good enough internet.
Top tip: Don’t go if you have breathing problems or claustrophobia.
What you get with the tour:
-Helmet with light
-Jacket & pants or overalls – don’t wear much underneath as you’ll get really hot
What you should take:
-Small bottle of water: it’s helpful to be hydrated before going in
-Face protection: Something to cover your mouth/nose so you don’t breath in dust. They sell souvenir bandanas for 10 Bs / $1.45 which are quite nice.
-Camera: be warned it is incredibly dusty in the mine, so expensive photo equipment may not come out well at the other side.
Starting the tour
We first met at the tour office and got onto a local bus to the office with the changing area where we were assigned our gear and could leave any extra items such as backpacks that we didn’t want to take into the mine.
Next stop – the Miners’ market
We got into a mini-van and visited the local Miners’ market. The tradition here is to buy “gifts” for the miners in return for them letting you use the mine. There were 8 of us in total and our shopping list was 10 bottles of juice, 1 bottle of 96% alcohol and 5 completos. A “completo” is a stick of dynamite, a fuse and some nitro-glycerine powder. The miners cut/dig holes into the wall of the mine and use this to break out rock that they can take out of the mine.
On top of this, we also bought several bags of coca leaves. This is used by all miners to reduce the impact of altitude, give energy and reduce appetite. Most miners do not eat inside the mine as you’ll ingest dangerous chemicals and so forth.
All up the total cost was around 25 Bs ($3.60) per person.
Next we were off to the mineral refinery. This is where the raw material is brought and processed. It’s a noisy and confusing area with a lot of machines doing a lot of spinning.
Then we drove up to Cerro Rico, the entrance to the mine. There are apparently 400 currently active mines in the hill and the one we entered would have some 300 people actively working inside. The view from the top of the hill looking back over Potosi is really quite impressive.
Outside the entrance shaft is an array of wagons that weigh 300kg empty and up to 2 tonnes when full. Our time in the shaft was spent trying to avoid these coming either way with shouts of hurry up and get to the side. This panicked some more than others and can get a little intense at times. Just breathe and stay calm.
Entering the mine
We followed our guide into the mine as a group and were told to stay close and move quickly.
The daylight soon disappeared but with 10 or so lights shining around it was surprisingly bright.
The colours on the side of the walls at times showed the variety of elements that exist.
Our first mission was to find some miners working so we could stop to talk to them. Along the way we would run on and off the tracks to give the miners space to maneuver their wagons. Our guide would hand out juice as we met groups of 3 pushing their wagons at break neck speeds.
It took about 30 minutes before we reached a small shaft that we needed to climb down by ladder. The ladder was solid, but it was missing a rung, so some of the shorter girls were getting quite anxious about safety.
This ended up being a dead end that we would need to return from. We would then go crawling through what looked like an impossible hole to find some miners at work.
Our guide would ask a few questions and translate to the group in English things like age, how long they’d worked in the mine, how many family members they had and so on.
We would then continue exploring the mine and return past ‘El Tio’ the god/devil of the mine. They usually leave gifts of alcohol and coca leaves to thank him for the continued minerals found in the mines.
We spent 1 hour and 45 minutes within the actual mine and would be back at the change rooms around 1.30pm at the end of a nearly 5 hour tour.
Our guide told us that the wage you earn is based on how hard and long per day and how many days per week you work in the mine. A typically wage is around 4,000-6,000 Bs per month ($580-$870). Considering the shortened life span and tough conditions, you can see how hard the work is for such a small amount of money in global terms.
We were also told that 15% of our tour fee was paid to the mining cooperative and shared amongst the miners.
Upon returning to the hotel it took a long hot shower to scrub away the dirt. It’s hard to imagine trying to stay clean having to work in such conditions.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/