Trip Start Sep 03, 2010
44Trip End Ongoing
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The first hostel that I checked (Hostal La Casona) said that they would have a single room available after checkout (10:30am) and I agreed. I saw a flier for a mine tour at 9am offered through the hostel, but was a bit hesitant after reading the following from my Lonely Planet:
"The cooperative mines are not museums but working mines that are fairly nightmarish places
After talking with Tim (an Aussie) over breakfast about great his tour was the previous day, I decided to sign up. I had some time to kill before I was able to check in anyway. Tim suggested that I ask for a guide named Chuco (pronounced choo-ko).
The tour cost 80 Bs (~$11.42), but there was a hidden cost of 40 Bs for gifts for the miners that we were going to meet. What kind of gifts, you ask?
5 Bs - gloves (that we would use, then give)
3 Bs - a bag of coca leaves
7 Bs - 1 L of juice
25 Bs - dynamite (+ fuse, detonator, and ammonium nitrate)
The tour started at the back of the hostel where we got our gear:
- Rain boots
- Jacket (rubberish)
After gearing up, we were taken to a street known as the Miner's market where they sell the usual dynamite and stuff. Chuco told us that it's the only place ire you can buy dynamite on the street. It wasn't hard to believe him.
We got back into the minibus and were taken to a vantage point from where we could see all of Potosi. While we were there, he took out a small bottle of alochol. He told us that this stuff is for "machos" and that "little girls" shouldn't drink it. He poured a capful for each of us and told us that this is what the miners drink. For being 96% alcohol it tasted really good and sweet. It burned for a solid minute and then I started to feel sleepy. A small bottle costs 4 Bs (~$0.57). A liter of it will run you 10 Bs. Too bad I can't take it back home
Chuco turned out to be a really funny, but crazy kind of guy. I wasn't sure if I trusted him right away, but he definitely knew what he was doing. He had been a miner himself, but was no longer allowed to work in the mines after a caving accident ripped a gash in one of his wrists
Next we went to a hill overlooking a processing plant were minerals are separated. There was a huge pile of pure zinc and a lake of arsenic below. Drinking that water will put you in a sleep from which you won't awake. A painless death, but a guaranteed fatality.
Our last stop was the mine, where we would spend the next 2 hours. Before we entered, we saw a couple groups of 2-3 guys pushing a mine cart out. Chuco told us that the cart itself weighs 200kg and the minerals weight 1000kg. That's over a ton they're pushing along.
Being the highest city in the world, I kept losing my breath while walking around in the mines. It wasn't in and of itself a difficult trip, but with the air being so thin and having to crouch often, I was wheezing almost every time we stopped.
Chuco primed and ignited 2 pieces of dynamite, the first time without ammonium nitrate and the second time with. The sound of the explosion of the second one was significantly greater. We got to see a couple groups of miners work and learned that they work 12 hours shifts and don't eat a meal during that time
Towards the end of the tour, Chuco introduced us to Tio. Tio means uncle in Spanish, but is basically the devil. Groups of miners make a little shrine to the devil to acknowledging that he is in charge of the underworld (the mines) and ask for his blessings to find good minerals (especially silver in Potosi). They offer him cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol. Chuco took us to the biggest Tio in the mine and told us that you're supposed to grab his penis with your left hand and drink alcohol from your right so that Tio will bless you with fertility.
It was nice to leave the mine had have fresh air. Two hours in there was more than enough time and I'm glad I went on the tour. Overall it was really informative and fun.
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