Touring the Potosi Silver Mines

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Today, I got to experience what it is like to be a Bolivian siliver miner by going deep into Cerra Rico, the silver mine that underwrote the Spanish empire for two centuries and claimed 8 milion lives in the process.

After signing my life away at Koala tours, we were picked up by our guide, "Spicy", a 5' 2" Boliviano who worked in the mines for three years until he fell down a shaft and injured his back.  Now he gives tours.  

We donned protective gear (hard hat, convict pants, rain coat, heavy boots, headlamp, dust mask, and a bandana for extra dust protection.) and headed to the market to get gifts for the miners. 

Since we were entering a working mine, the gifts ensure the miners tolerate tourists gawking at them.  We purchased Coca leaves which they chew for energy (57 cents for a big bag), hand-rolled cigarettes (14 cents a pack), 196 proof grain alcohol (57 cents a liter), and Dynamite ($3.50 per stick).


For the first time in my life, I walked up to a store and said "IŽd like a bag of Coca and a stick of dynamite, please."

I'm not making this up!  Anyone can buy Dynamite in Bolivia.  It was on a table, next to the batteries.    

"Do we get to light one of the sticks of Dynamite ourselves?"  I asked.  "Sure - buy an extra one and we'll do it after the tour." Spicy said.  

From there, we went to a processing mill where they put the raw ore in huge, loud, spinning drums with water and canonball sized iron balls to pulverize the rock.  Next, it is mixed with hydrochloric acid, and finally bathed it in frothy Cyanide foam to extrac the silver, zinc, and lead from the slurry.

"What do they do with the acid and cyanide when they are done - is it recycled?"  I asked.  "No - they dump it in the river".  Spicy informed me.  (Another reason to always drink bottled water in Bolivia)

The mining operations are run as a co-op, so the miners split all the profits from the extracted silver.  There are  hundreds of mining collectives working different parts of the mountain and the average miner only makes about $1,500 per year.  Furthermore, most miners die from siliconosis within 20 years from breathing all the silica dust in the mines.  Since most miners start working in their early twenties, most miners are disabled and close to death by the time they are forty. 

On to the mines!  

We descended about 1/2 mile into the mountain from the level 1 tunnel, which is 350 years old, down to the level 4 tunnel which they are currently working.  It was hot, dusty, and almost impossible to breathe in the tunnels.  I'm not normally clausterphobic but the inability to breathe in a hot tunnel deep in the earth really shook me up.  Plus the tunnels were dug by people about 5 feet tall, so we were hunched over most of the time.  The helmets were really useful!  

The tunnels were dark, but we could always hear a slight hiss from the air tubes that ran along the walls where they were supposedly pumping in air.  Occasionally we'd hear pop, pop, pop and Spicy would say "that's dynamite".  Then we'd hear a roar coming toward us and Spicy would say "step off the tracks" - just in time for a 2 ton rail cart of ore to wiz by with 2 miners pulling and 2 miners pushing it along by hand. 

In 1999 the mine got it's first electric winch to haul the ore to the surface.  For the 400 years before that,  miners would carry 100lb packs of rock on their backs to the surface.

"How old is that kid that just walked by?" I asked.  "Maybe 14." Spicy answered.  "But there are 11 year olds that work down here. Technically it's illegal to work that young, but no one stops them." 

Finally, after two hours in the mines, we resurfaced and could breathe again.  I never thought air at 14,000 feet could ever be so sweet and thick!

As promised, Spicy showed us how prepare the dynamite.  "OK - you get 45 seconds after I light it for photos, then give it back to me and I'll put it over there."

 "That's OK Spicy - I'll just take a picture with it unlit.  No one will know".

With that, Spicy lit the fuse and handed me the dynamite saying "too late - give me your camera"

Crap.  Once again, I found myself with a guide saying "hurry up and take the $@&^ photo"

"Hold on - one more.  Smile!"  Spicy said.


I have some cool movies of the blast and the mill, but will need to find a faster connection before I can upload them. 

Next stop: Partying Bolivian style in the town of Sucre...
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Where I stayed
hotel santa teresa

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