Down The Mine!

Trip Start Apr 27, 2009
Trip End Apr 27, 2010

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Where I stayed
Hostal Carlos V

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, April 5, 2010

The journey to Potosi from Uyuni was very scenic which distracted me slightly from the state of the road - fortunately it was a day bus so I wasn't trying to sleep anyway! We made a stop for lunch at the Bolivian version of motorway services - a restaurant and a little portable table with sweets and drinks. It was nice to get a chance to stretch my legs.

Once I got to Potosi I found out that the hostel I intended to stay at was fully booked so had to look about for an alternative. Carrying my bags around looking for a room at over 4,000m altitude was not one of my better moves! Eventually I got a room in a really nice place close to the centre of town (and got a discount because they were pretty quiet!). Next on the agenda was picking up some food to last me til Monday as all of the shops were closed on Easter Sunday. The closure wasn't for any religious reasons though: it was election day! In Bolivia it is mandatory to vote and if you don't you can be fined, don't get state benefits, get paid less by your employer and can't travel to other countries so everything shuts down - there was no public transport either.

Once I'd done my shopping and had a wee walk about the centre I went back to the hostel and didn't leave again until Monday! Sunday was a lovely, relaxing day doing nothing except watching football, playing about on my laptop and reading - the perfect way to prevent any altitude problems in the highest city in the world.

On Monday morning I walked about the town in the morning, it's a nice enough place though it's obvious that the economy isn't great. In the afternoon I got kited up with a helmet and lamp and some overalls and headed down one of the mines that are the cornerstone of life in this city. The mountain where all of the mining takes place is visible from almost everywhere in the streets and much of the population make their living from it. Our guide Julio was a young guy, maybe in his early 20's, who had worked in the mines for 4 years from when he was 14. We stopped on the way up to the mountain to buy coca leaves and fizzy drinks to give to the miners who will normally go without food or drink all day. We also bought a stick of dynamite between the group for the princely sum of 1.50 - more on that later!

After instruction from Julio about instructions he would give (and a brief worry about a train car running over my toes if I didn't get out of the way quickly enough) we were on our way inside the mine. The tunnels were dark and damp and we frequently had to duck to avoid the roof but it was incredible to think that all of the work had been done by hand. The mine we visited has been used for over 500 years and holds tin, zinc and silver. Men work down there with a hammer and chisel for 8 to 10 hours a day to get about 35kg of material. Each day around 4 tonnes is extracted - I'm no mining expert but that doesn't sound much to me when there can be 10,000 people working there. The conditions are horrible - dark, cramped and with the risk of inhaling poisonous gases that claimed the lives of 14 miners in 2009. A miner's life expectancy in Potosi is 35-45 years.

On our tour we bumped into a few miners, some on their way back to the surface with their spoils in a bag on their back. Another couple were using hammers and a metal bar to pierce holes in the rock so that they could insert dynamite - it takes about 2 hours to form a hole 40cm deep. They offered each of us a go at hammering and I think it's safe to say that none of us were likely to be able to survive as a miner! Julio took us to seen one of the mine Tios (uncles). The Tio had been there for hundreds of years and had a huge buildup of offerings from miners in return for safety and luck. Items such as cigarettes, coca leaves and bottles of 96% alcohol (which the miners also drink!) are given to the Tio often in addition to an annual sacrifice of a baby llama. These old traditions are understandable when working in such a harsh environment - I can't imagine having to live like that and would probably grasp any straw that offered a hope of safety too!

We began to make our way back toward the surface and the air temperature became more comfortable again. At our furthest point it was around 30 degrees and my glasses were almost permanently steamed up! It was nice to have my vision back again as it began to cool down - it was one of those times that I should have worn my contacts! Just as one member of our group said that he was struggling with the altitude and lack of fresh air we entered the final tunnel and could see daylight beckoning us. We were down the mine for probably 2 and a half hours and I was really glad to get out into the sun again - 10 hours every day would definitely not appeal to me!

After shedding our miner's lamps we went for a demonstration dynamite explosion. In the mines they use only small amounts to prevent accidents but as we were in the open air we went for the whole stick and added some nitroglycerine as well for a bit more ooomph! Julio took the explosives to an area that had obviously been used for that purpose frequently then ran back up to continue his countdown. At the moment he said "now" the dynamite exploded - not bad considering he wasn't wearing a watch! The explosion was a little louder than I thought it would be, I was really glad that it hadn't gone off while I was holding it!! All that was left to do after the grand finale was make our way back into the city and be grateful that we didn't need to return to the mine to work.

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