Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Jul 24, 2011

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Koala Den

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, March 19, 2011

Potosí was once the richest city in the world due to the copious gold, silver and minerals that were discovered in the mountain that towers over the city: Cerro Rico. As such, it has a bygone feel about it – traces of its past include the imposing cathedral, beautifully paved streets and a vast city Mint where the silver ingots were converted into pieces of eight. Quite a contrast to the dusty Wild West feel of Tupiza and Uyuni.

Of course hundreds of years of mining have taken their toll – the mountain looks visibly ravaged by the effects– but nonetheless some 12,000 miners still work within the mountain, seeking out the few mineral deposits that remain in small cooperative groups. The Government wants to close the mines as the mountain is rumoured to be on the verge of collapse – but this clearly has not gone down so well with the thousands of Bolivians who depend on it for their livelihoods. As it stands Potosí feels like a city on the brink – relying on a dying industry with great uncertainty around what the future holds. Many people depend on mining – not only the miners themselves and their families, but also the mining markets that sell everything from lamps to dynamite (for just £2 a stick).

Like the many tourists who pass through Potosí the main attraction is to do a mine tour and see the hellish conditions that thousands of men still endure on a regular basis. This was not a decision we took lightly – the mines are still dangerous (cave-ins and noxious gases still an issue) and it feels a very uncomfortable form of tourism. But many people had told us it was a fascinating and sobering experience – so we donned our hard hats and signed on the dotted line waiving any responsibility for our welfare. Having both seen mines in Europe, James and I were both shocked by the contrast in Bolivia. The mines looked like they had not changed since the arrival of the Spanish (and they probably hadn't!) Instead of an entrance supported by solid beams of wood, the entrance was a hole hewn into the rock. The galleries differed in width and height – ranging from full standing room to crawling on the ground on our stomachs. But the most shocking thing was the air – it was heavy and thick with dust and within half an hour I was struggling to get my breath. We only walked along the first level – real miners have to travel much deeper into the mountain in order to find any valuable minerals.

The reality of mining life became apparent shortly into our trip when we ran into a 63 year-old miner called Don Cirio who was bringing his meagre find out of the mine. It is worth saying that Don Cirio has only reached the grand old age of 63 because he started mining just a couple of decades ago: the average life span for a miner is mid-40s. Don Cirio was huddled over his metal cart, his eyes red and streaming and his mouth black from the grime he was coughing up from his lungs. Our guide explained that many miners suffer from Black Lung, a condition that is eminently treatable if discovered early. But the reality is that many miners cannot afford to stop working – so prefer not to find out. It’s no wonder that despite being Christian, miners tend to worship a devil figure they call El Tío, giving him offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol. A fair reflection of the living hell they endure every day.

Our return back to the city brought some light relief - a religious festival meant a procession of cars were parading through the city. For reasons we are not yet sure of, the cars were lavishly adorned with brightly coloured cloths and covered with everything from shedloads of silver, to grapes and wine keg, to a stuffed white tiger. It made for quite a sight!
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