“I am rich Potosi. Treasure of the world. The king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings.” –from the Potosi coat of arms
Potosi was one of those places that, upon visiting and learning about it for the first time, made me feel more than a little ignorant for not having known about it before. Honestly before reading our Bolivia guidebook I don’t think I’d ever heard or read the city’s name, which is crazy- it’s flat out one of the most historically important places in the Americas.
Back during the Spanish conquest of the new world, treasure was the Spaniards’ primary goal and Potosi was where they found the majority of it. This isolated, windswept, airless (elevation 13,420 ft) place, by some quirk of geology, sits under the shadow of a large hill that in colonial times was so rich in silver that it was popularly believed to be made entirely of the precious metal. This one hill, called the Cerro Rico or Rich Hill, funded an empire for centuries and dramatically changed the course of history. Along the way Potosi became fabulously wealthy and grew to a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
By some accounts, over the course of three centuries 137 million pounds of silver were mined from the Cerro Rico, much of it carried by llamas and mules to the coast for transport to Europe via the Spanish Main. This vast wealth was a big part of the economic rise of Spain, and Europe as a whole.
It should come as no surprise that working conditions for the miners doing all the heavy lifting were pretty bad, but just how bad they were is pretty shocking. Because of the general dangers of working underground and especially the toxic chemicals involved in the mining process, workers had an average of one year life expectancy in the mines. Indigenous laborers were used up by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually African slaves were imported to die in the mines under unbelievably hellish conditions. Estimates vary wildly, but one expert wrote that 8 million African and indigenous slaves died in the mines under Spanish rule.
Obviously there was a lot of money floating around Potosi back in the day, and it was used to build hundreds of over the top mansions and more grand churches and cathedrals than you can shake a stick at. The official Spanish mint was located here. Potosi was a wealthy, important city, but by 1800 the silver had mostly run out and so began the inevitable decline.
Today Potosi is anything but a rich place. It’s still a mining town, but the thousands of miners now are their own bosses, working in self-owned cooperatives. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot valuable minerals left and no one is getting wealthy by first world standards, although today’s high commodity prices are helping things out and the miners can make a pretty good living. The hellish and primitive conditions sadly remain, and the decent money gained from a life of hard labor in the mines is offset by a good chance of being killed in an accident or a painful death from lung disease.
Tourism is a big part of the economy in Potosi now, and there are many tour agencies that will take you on a tour of the mines. This is not the safest thing in the world. You have to remember in countries like Bolivia that there are often no regulatory agencies keeping an eye on things, and you just never really know whats going to happen. You do your research and choose carefully, but you’re placing a lot of faith in a random guide and a lot of it comes down to luck. Tromping around unregulated, unreinforced mine shafts hacked out by random guys, in an environment filled with chemicals and dynamite and toxic dusts is just inherently not the smartest thing in the world to do. But it is a hell of an opportunity to see something unique and we weren’t going to miss it.
We did some research and decided on an outfit called Real Deal Tours, which we eventually figured out had been renamed Big Deal Tours after a business dispute. It’s run by some ex-miners who used to work for a rival tour agency, but got fed up with poor treatment and started their own company. Big Deal turned out to be a good choice, and was a decent price at about $13 us. Our guide, Efraim, spoke good English and was a charismatic guy who seemed to be a personal friend to everybody we saw that day. He was cracking jokes nonstop, and was actually pretty informative too.
Before going to the mines themselves we stopped at a kind of miner’s supply store, which was packed with various tools, helmets and clothing, lights, and all kinds of other stuff. You could buy a stick of dynamite, a fuse and detonator for less than $2 US, completely unregulated. Efraim, already throwing around jokes about potential terrorism, threw a stick of dynamite at us. Apparently it’s totally stable without a detonator…
Next we all bought giant bags of coca leaves for next to nothing, and had a snack of saltenas (a tasty meat pie) for about .15 cents each. Bolivia is cheap! We also picked up some bottles of juice to give to the miners. It’s a smart tradition they have going, the tourists give gifts of coca and juice and whatnot to the miners, who are then always happy to see tourists, who would otherwise just be a huge annoyance I imagine. Efraim also purchased some of the miner’s preferred hooch, a nearly 100% (200 proof) alcohol that sold for a pittance.
We checked out a refinery where they used machinery and chemicals to separate whatever minerals they could from the rubble hauled out of the mines. It was a pretty nasty, dangerous place, filled with enough hazards to give an OSHA inspector a lifetime of horrible nightmares. We found ourselves inching past roaring machines that would take off your head or hand in an instant, then send you falling down a story or two into a vat of noxious chemicals. We had bandanas wrapped tightly around our faces against the chemical smell, which had a rather cancerous bouquet
Finally we found ourselves at the mine entrance, one of hundreds entering into the Cerro Rico, at all different elevations. Supposedly the hill is so riddled with excavations that there is a real chance that some time in the future the entire hill will just implode like a collapsing volcano. I tried not to think about that as we hunched over and walked into the darkness. We were wearing thin protective outer clothes supplied by our tour company, along with rubber boots, helmets and headlamps. As we walked deeper underground we found ourselves sloshing through shin-deep water, as temperatures rose and ceilings dropped. I was stooped and claustrophobic; Efraim was in his element, babbling about how much he loved the mines and how at home he felt with the proud, hard working, vulgar miners.
The miners are a hardy bunch, putting in long hours of incredibly hard physical labor, and passing the time telling each other the nastiest dirty jokes you can imagine. Every time we met one we’d hive him a big handful of coca leaves, which they chew endlessly for energy. These are some course dudes, and Denae won their undying love by learning some dirty words in Quechua and randomly spouting them off. The miners would cheer and tell her to wait while the found their friends and have her say it again. They told me my plumbing must be broken because we didn’t have any kids.
There were crazy minerals in all different colors everywhere, and at one point I reached up to feel some feathery white crystals growing out of the tunnel ceiling. “What is this,” I asked Efraim, “Salt?” I was feeling the soft mineral between my fingers, where it turned to powder. “No that’s arsenic,” he said. “Wash your hands after the tour.”
Just walking through the mines was hard work, and deep inside the heat was pretty intense. At one point Denae looked at me and asked if I was OK, and I realized that in fact I wasn’t feeling so great. I pulled out our water bottle and effortlessly drank an entire liter of water.
Almost passing out by just doing their commute made me appreciate the work the miners do, shoveling tons of ore into carts and pushing them by hand outside where the ore can be transported to refineries. We helped push a cart up some slight uphill sections and that is some hard labor. Next up, we crawled through a particularly tight tunnel to find our way to Tio.
Tio (Spanish for Uncle) is the Devil, but he’s a semi-benevolent combination Christian/indigenous god to the miners, who say that Tio lives underground and therefore owns the minerals they seek. Each mine contains a statue of Tio, and the one we visited was a scary looking life size Devil, complete with a giant erect penis. Efraim poured a couple shots of the overproof booze on the ground, one for Tio and one for Pachamama, and forced us to take a shot of the nasty eye-watering liquid out of respect. He put a lit cigarette in Tio’s mouth (this was a lot like San Simon in Guatemala) and told us about growing up in a mining family, and in the mines. He said miners don’t drink Cafe con Leche, because milk is for babies. And he used to wonder why his father chewed coca like a llama, but after entering the mines and finding the camaraderie and traditions he understood.
None too soon the tour was over and we found ourselves squinting in the sunlight, relieved to be out and trying to clear our flehmy throats after breathing in so much nasty dust and who knows what else. Anyone who wants to learn to appreciate his crummy job more would do well to take a Bolivian mine tour, and he’ll be employee of the month in no time.
We headed back to our $17/night hotel, which was expensive for us but the only cheap accommodation we’d been able to track down was downright dungeon-like and sketchy, so we’d ponied up for the decent place. The bathroom still smelled strongly of sulfur, and after visiting the chemical filled refinery we decided to buy bottled water rather than treating the tap water with our Steripen like we usually do.
Exploring Potosi was fun. There are something like 80 colonial era churches scattered around, and the picturesque streets are lined with grand old faded mansions and lots of cool architecture, always with the Cerro Rico looming in the distance. The town square was pretty and every night had a bunch of things going on, from protesting miners to horrible high school marching bands who managed to be both off-tempo and off-key at the same time, although it didn’t seem to bother the large and enthusiastic crowds of onlookers. People were out in droves every night despite the freezing high altitude temperatures. There were plenty of fireworks around also, and we watched one guy shoot off a hand-held roman candle type thing and hit a pigeon sitting on the church facade. Good fun!
We did feel like the center of town was a little under-served by reasonably priced restaurants, but we located a nice tea lady in the market for our daily coca teas. We also visited the Casa de Moneda (house of money) museum, which is a grand old building taking up an entire city block. Built in 1757, this was the Spanish Mint for many years, and the original hardwood coin-presses that were turned by teams of mules were very cool to see.
After a couple days in town we were ready to move on, so we caught a cab to the bus station. Unfortunately when we got there we found out the miners were striking and had blockaded all the roads leading out from Potosi. This is a common thing in Bolivia, where striking seems to be almost a national pastime and blocking transit a good way of getting attention. Resigned to another night in town, we headed back in and found a hotel with cable. We spent the evening watching a marathon of Criminal Minds and chewing our leftover coca leaves, like llamas.
The next day we tried to get to a nearby hot spring but the transit strike made it impossible. Denae wanted a wool True Grit hat like some of the local ladies wore, so we spent a lot of time trolling markets looking for one, but only found bowler style hats. The ladies would encourage Denae to try them hoping to make a sale, but couldn’t hold back the laughter when they saw how ridiculous the gringa looked in the local attire. Things just weren’t going our way, but then we stumbled upon a chicha stand selling the drink out of large dried hollow gourds. The locals were amazed and happy to see gringos drinking chicha, and even though it wasn’t as good as in Peru we felt cheered up.
Back at the hostel we sat in the lobby using wifi and listened to other travelers trying to figure out how to get out of town. I googled Potosi transit strike and read about a group of tourists getting stuck in town for two weeks (!) the year before by a similar strike. We had some time constraints with a flight coming up and were feeling pretty discouraged. Finally word came that there was a bus leaving that night for La Paz, that would definitely be able to pass through the strike.
So that night we were back in the bus station, arriving an hour early to be safe. Finally the 9pm departure time arrived and we boarded the bus, and proceeded to… wait…. for an hour and a half, during which time half the Bolivians gave up and left. Finally though we headed out, but only drove for ten minutes before we came to a huge traffic jam ending at the roadblock. Everyone got out of the bus and walked around, trying to pass the time. Later an earnest group of Bolivians came by, recruiting people to go and try to talk some sense into the miners. If enough people asked nicely, surely they would let us by? Nothing seemed to come of it though, and after a while everyone was back on the bus, trying to sleep and waiting it out.
Suddenly a young woman burst into the bus, shouting in Spanish “there’s just no reasoning with them, it’s no use!” She looked around and said “Oh, I’m on the wrong flota” and scurried out. At one point we heard the luggage compartment beneath the bus open and a man climbed in and closed the door behind him. Worried about theft, someone went below to check what was going on and the man yelled at him, telling him to go away and let him sleep. It was a weird, surreal night that passed slowly.
Later one of the other tourists on our bus burst in and said he’d been at the roadblock and a bus had busted through! Apparently the driver just got fed up and gunned it straight at the protesters, who’d had to get out of the way and then thrown things at the bus as it sped away. Potentially dangerous stuff.
Finally around 3am we turned around in defeat and headed back to the bus station. We got in a taxi to head back to town, but on the way I thought to ask the driver if there were any collectivos or anything that were leaving for Sucre that night, a possibility we’d heard about earlier. He said there were, and even though we were tired and discouraged we decided to give it a try. The driver dropped us off a the right place, and we got lucky and were the last two people to fill a waiting minivan, and a few minutes later were on our way out of town on some kind of back route. Three hours later we were in Sucre, searching for a hostel to finally get some damn sleep as the sun came up.