Eat dust - in the highest city of the world

Trip Start Nov 28, 2011
Trip End Apr 09, 2013

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Where I stayed
Koala Den
What I did
Cerro Rico Potosi
Read my review - 4/5 stars
the Mines of Potosi
Carnaval Parade

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, March 25, 2012

At 7.00 pm we left from Uyuni towards Potosi, were we arrived at 0.00 at night. As we are used to bumpy rides we did not mind those hours in the bus. After 2 1/2 hours we even stopped. Nice! A bathroom was made mae us getting our of the bus. Just when our question ´¿Donde esta el baño?' was answered with ´No hay´ we raised our brows. eh.. where to go? ´Baño naturalesa.´.

Indeed, so we got our tiolet paper and looked for a place not too close to the street, but as wel not too far to the chasm, while figuring which is the best side tu turn to the streetside and the approaching car´s lights. The front, or the back?! however, we made and got into our bus quickly. Mario our driver fortunately was waiting for us. It seems they don´t always...

Arriving in Potosi, we shared our taxi with Fien (who was travelling with us since Salta) and Natalie because we had the same reservation at the Koala Den (Anexo) Hostel in Potosi. After a few minutes, we arrived at our hostel were we went to our beds! Saturday, a beautiful day in Potosi, so what to do? We decided to book a trip to the silver mines. Said and done and for the afternoon we were scheduled to go to the mines.

On our way to the office we passed another celebration where women were dancing in their best dresses, to the music of the musicians who lead the group through the city.

Having reached the Koala Tours office we were picked up with a bus to go to their place and change into 'propper' clothes, gum boots and have a scarf to cover our nose and mouth against the dust of the mines. Sebastian from Bariloche was so enthousiastic about the mines that we definitely wanted to go. Most of them are in Cerro Rico (the rich mountain) where silver had been found centouries ago and Africans and Indigineous people been slved into the mines. After those had been abandoned by the Spanish the local people had started to harvest the silver vains that were left. It is a tough work and currently there are still 40.000 people in Potosi living from the mines. But even worse, within the last centuries more that 8 million dien in the mines. The film ´the devils miner´ also gives a good insight in how children are styill working in those, even at the age of 10...


Another problem actually is that most of those who work there blow their way through the mountain as they think is the best. To be more detailed; there is no map, plan or idea of all ways and tunnels in the mountain an currently it is expected to be quite instable and getting more unsafe. Therefore more and more cave-inns are reported where the miners get trapped as the ways are blocked by stones and rocks falling into the tunnels.

However, as there we no recent tourist accidents reported (only one in 30 years) we prepared and with the whole tour we stopped at the miners market to buy some gifts: coca leaves, lemonade and dynamite. All packed and some Bolivianos less in our pockets we went further and prepared ourselves with some coca leaves which were stuffed in our cheeks.

Before entering the mines we visited the places where all the silver is extracted from the rocks and processed for sale. The prices unfortunately went down in the last years, meaning less income for the miners. However, only with one good vain they can as well make some small fortunes...

But now there was the time to go into the mines. We went in and te first part was quite high, the tunnel supported by extra walls, but could could already smell the dusty air and quickly it was getting warmer and warmer. The lights on our helmets provided enough light to see the sulfit coloured walls and the helmets themselves prevent our heads from bigger damage when the tunnel where getting smaller, more narrow and difficult to walk through. Fortunately we had our gum boots so we could walk through the water that was on the ground, just between the wood and the rails to get the rocks up.

The miners work alone or in corporation, sometimes they also hire or are hired. Actually they earn what they get out of the mines resulting in tough working hours and they actuall spend whol days in that mountain. That is why coca leaves are so welcome as a gift, they prevent them from getting hungry or feeling the thirst so they can spend hours in there without eating or drinking. The lemonade very welcome as well but much more to carry for them, while the dynamite is the most expensive and can only used by one group or person (whereas the other gifts can be shared). Recently they used to show groups how to blow up dynamite in the mountain but for security reasons it is no longer done in the mountain and outside as well to preserve the natural surroundings and the stability.

During our walk, well, crawl would describe it better, we went deeper into the Cerro Rico and the air was getting very dusty and it was even harder to breathe. Compared to the locals for us it is much more hard the breath due to the difference in height and the fact that we are not used to it. But we were rewarded with meeting a group of miners. The break did us well so we could breath better and have a small rest. Small movements already give you a hard time as the air is getting worse and the tunnels smaller...

The miners took their time to answer our questions, it was a group of three, a father, his son and another friend who exploit their own silver vain. Since the early morning they wee inside and currently resting while having an own destilled alcohol in a small bottle that had a small which came close to glue or other hazardous chemicals. Their eyes were all except of clear and sweat was dripping form their foreheads while the apathic look in their eyes avoided looking at us. The youngest, just 17, was part of the group and while we are visiting school at that age he is part of the coorporation, and together they would head deeper into the mountain - to their part after having paused on this Saturday afternoon.

Further we went and as I was suffering from the height and having difficulties to catch breath, it was getting worse with he dust. To avoid having all the others to retourn later, we asked the last guy walk us back to the better part and easier to breathe. Jörgen and Fien joined me, just before the part where you wind yourself down to the other level, like a snake through a tube feeling unable to move forward or backwards at one time or another.

We sat outside and discussed the luck, again, only four letters, we had to be able to make our own choices and how blessed we are. We definitely have seen things differently since then and still shocked though. The fierceness of the experience, the apathy of some miners, the encouragement others show and the strength to continue as well as the power to go in there day for day...

Respect. Chapeau

...and definitely something you should not miss if you make it to Potosi.
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