Life in the Potosi Mines

Trip Start Feb 07, 2006
Trip End Aug 07, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, May 1, 2006

Make sure to check out Andrea's Travel Blog for more stories and photos of our trip!

To the Potosi Mines

After our tour of the salt flats in Uyuni, we headed east to Potosi, a silver mining town 6 hours away.

As usual, the bus ride took longer than we'd expected. This time, a convoy of 3 busses including ours was stopped on a mountain road next to a long drop blocked by a tractor that had broken down blocking the way.

About 50 frustrated passengers watched as a handful of Bolivians carefully attempted to convince the massive tractor to move out of our way.

When there was just enough space to finally pass, the busses, one by one, slowly inched their way along the fragile ledge of the road and we were off again.

"Only 5 tourists have ever died on the tour"

Potosi was once the richest city in all of the colonial Americas. In it's heyday, it's neighboring silver mine produced most of the world's silver and the town flourished from it. Today, many types of ore were mined, and the working conditions were horrible. Tight constricted spaces, low oxygen levels and asbestos growing naturally from the roof of the mine result in a life expectancy of an average miner to be only 40-45.

Children who work in the mine have only a life expectancy of 30.

The 130$ USD per month they make ( over 3 times the average wage in Potosi ) is enough to entice thousand of miners into the mine every day.

To check it out, we booked ourselves on a mine tour. Calling it a tour gives one a sense of safety, but this wasn't a regular tour.

"We have only ever lost 5 tourists in the mine" the man selling us the tickets explained.

The mine was in a fragile state. Cave-in's happened from time to time and tourists had died in the past.

When the morning came, we headed out. First we geared up with hard hats, head lamps, boots, rubber jackets and rubber pants.

Then we headed off to buy some gifts for the miners. The market stalls carried an unusual mix of items. Dynamite, 97% proof alcohol which the miners drank to dull their senses, coca leaves which gave them strength and extra strong cigarettes.

As our guide gave us more info about the mine, he picked up some dynamite and used it as a pointer, juggling it back and forth and eventually dropping it. Un-fused dynamite is apparently safe but we didn't care, we were still a little freaked out.

Andrea had been quiet to this point and as the dynamite dropped to the ground she glanced over a worried stare.

Once we had bought some gifts of dynamite and coca leaves, we headed to the processing plants to see how they extracted the valuable minerals from the raw ore. Using chemicals and some primitive techniques, the silver, tin and other metals were separated for collection.

Previously only silver was mined, but now, all minerals where mined. This created a very dangerous situation for the mine as most of the mountain itself was extracted.

The guide warned, "I have to tell you, 11 years ago, engineers from America said that the mine would collapse from over-mining in 7 years. It is now over 4 years more and the mine has not collapsed, let us hope that it does not collapse today"

Because miners where now mining for every type of mineral, they were no longer carefully extracting silver. The bulk extraction of ore from the swiss-cheese maze of tunnels dug out over 500 years of mining had weakened the mountain. It was just a matter of time before the entire mountain collapsed.

As he explained this to us, a miner wobbled over to us clutching a bottle of 97% alcohol. It was only 10am but due to the harsh life which the miners live, it was never too early to get right smashed on this stuff.

Into the mine

15 tourists and us bussed up to the mountain where the mine was located and began to enter the mine.

The shaft into the mine had 2 train track-type rails leading into it. The rails where used to roll carts of rock out of the mine. We waited for 2 miners to roll a cart full of rocks out and quickly began the crouch and walk inside the dark maze of tunnels.

At first it was cold. This wasn't a place for claustrophobics. The roof was high enough to walk standing up but that quickly changed. Wooden beams held up the rock around us and we constantly had to duck to avoid hitting them which was unavoidable as we kept our eyes locked to the ground to avoid tripping.

The walls at our sides, most times, were so narrow that extending our arms out was impossible. Luckily, the tunnel would occasionally widen a little to give us room to duck out of the way of carts which sped our way loaded with rocks.

Andrea wasn't saying much and I noticed that she wasn't dealing too well with the dangerous tour we had begun when I asked her to look up for a photo.

"Say cheese!" I requested. She didn't even look up and seemed very tense.

After 15 minutes of walking through the dark tunnels we reached an opening where we could all huddle with the guide. The air was thick here. We hadn't been given masks and were using our hankies to filter out the clouds of dust. It was warm and difficult to breath.

When he announced that we were now headed 2 levels down into the rock, Andrea panicked.

"I can't do it. I want to go now" she begged nervously.

She'd had enough and anxiety got the best of her. She was in rough shape and needed to get out fast. The guide's assistant and I quickly rushed her back out of the mine.

Once we walked her out, I gave her a hug, and I hustled back in with the assistant to meet up with the group who had gone ahead.

As we walked back following the rail tracks in the dark, I could hear the distant sound of a cart coming our way. I tried to get the assistant's attention but he dismissed my warning.

A few seconds later, we continued to walk through a narrow part of the tunnel, too small to get out of the way of a speeding cartful of rocks, he now saw the head lamps of the incoming miners.

They were speeding towards us fast.

"Rapido! Rapido!" He said and began to run towards the incoming cart, hoping to outrun the cart and reach an opening before the cart slammed into us.

Adrenalin kicked in and we ran until the walls widened and he grabbed me and tossed me aside out of the way of 2 miners zooming down the rails with a loaded cart.

After that, we walked much faster to reach our group. When we finally reached the point where Andrea had turned back, we walked 10 paces deeper into the mine and reached a small hole.

I looked down and realized that it was a good thing that Andrea had turned back.

We would now have to slide down at 45 degrees through a rock hole just big enough for my body down to the 2nd level.

It was so dusty there that I could see the dirt as I inhaled it gulping for air.

The tunnel was so narrow that at times we had to crawl on our hands and knees.

The group hadn't gone far. They all sat at the bottom of the tiny downward tunnel huddled together around one girl on our tour. It was her turn to panic. The trick to avoiding panic was to not think about all of the warning and stories which the guide had told us. To not think about the fact that a 500 year old, over-mined mountain sat above our heads and could collapse at any time.

She hadn't been able to avoid those thoughts and our assistant scuttled her back up the tunnel and out of the mine to keep Andrea company.

We kept on going. Deep into the mine where miners shoveled rocks into baskets and groups of 4 pulled ropes attached to carts throughout the mine's rail tracks.

It was so dusty that I could barely breathe. Finally it was time to head back out of the mine.

On our way out, our path was blocked by a cart and our guide brought us to shaft where the rocks were pulled up to another level from.

As soon as we arrived, he climbed up the shafts and waved us up. The shaft was 10 feet wide, 45 degrees and built with smooth lumber which made it easy to pull up loads of rock. Unfortunately it didn't make it easy to climb out of the mine from.

Kevin went first only to get his boot stuck in the wooden planks half way up.

When he finally made it up, Corrina went next. I stood behind her and waited my turn.

As she began to climb, only a few steps up, she slipped and fell causing a few basketball sized rocks to landslide down into my knee. I caught her as she fell but the rock banged my knee, which was already sore and healing from the Torres del Paine trek in Chile.

This wasn't good. Corrina was fine and I shuffled out of the way to avoid more rocks as they fell. My knee was hurt and to make things worse, my head lamp was dying! I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

Climbing my way out wouldn't be easy and adrenaline started to kick in.

Luckily, an Israeli on our tour used his head lamp to light the way up as I climbed up in pain.

The way out was worse than the way down. We crawled out, me on my bad knee, continuously smashing my helmet into the rocks above due to the lack of light from my dead head lamp.

When we finally exited we were happy to have made it out alive. Tears streamed down other's faces as we finally reached safety and sunlight again.

To finish off the tour, the guides made some explosives from plastic bags, TNT and a used water bottled and ignited them in their hands before running to leave them on the mountain top. 3 giant explosions ended our trying tour.

When I took my hanky off of my face, I noticed that it's white color was now brown from dust. If that was the dust on the outside of the hanky, I wondered what I had inhaled during the tour when I couldn't use the hanky because there just wasn't enough oxygen!

After it was over, we all thanked god that we weren't miners.
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camille on

Takes me back...
Hi Lucky, I see you went with Koala Tours to the mines and that Juan was your guide. Seeing your photos and reading about your story takes me right back to the 2 months I spent there. I see they still try and scare people with the same stories! I think that one about the mine collapsing is one of Juan's favourites.

I hope that the rest of your time in South America is amazing. Have fun, Camille

Bobby-z Lambert on

I built a sculpture to honor the miners and it is now fixed to The Miners Museum where the bus stops up on Cero Rico... I mined with the men of the Powerful Mine 3 times and drank with them and got to know many of the miners of that mine... it was one of the most important times of my life I am now painting a series about The Miners of Potosi and hope the paintings do them the justice they deserve some of the gratest humanbeings I have ever had the plesure to know... I can also recomend my friend and really was like a brother Jorge from Potosi Specialists as a gide and The Powerful mine to visit I'm not saying it's safer then any other but there's much less dust then some and thats a big plus trust me.

Tasmanian Artist Bobby-z Lambert

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