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Finding My Fortune in the Silver Mines of Potosi

Smoking a dynamite

Smoking a dynamite!

It is health that is real wealth and not

pieces of gold and silver

Mahatma Gandhi

The day started the usual way. We headed to the market and bought some dynamite, coca leaves, 96% alcohol and orange juice. It might sound like a pretty epic Thursday evening, but that was not the case this time.

We bought these supplies as we were heading to the silver mines of Potosi; Cerro Rico, the rich mountain that was famously thought of being made of silver. During Spain’s colonial era this mountain provided most of their silver.

Cerro Rico, the rich mountain

Cerro Rico, the rich mountain

Machinery for processing metals found from the mines

Machinery for processing metals found from the mines

Even though the mountain depleted after 1800, it is still being mined to this day. There is not enough silver to make it commercially viable, so it is individuals or more usually groups of individuals that continue mining the mountain in hope of silver and other precious metals.

It’s not something people do with hopes to get rich, but because it provides a better living than anything else available in this remote location. This better quality of living does not unfortunately come for free as we later learned. The quote from Gandhi sums it up. The miners die younger because of all the dust they breath in the mines and because of all the accidents that happen. They know this, but they still go into the mines to provide for their families. And I can’t really fault their choice.

We dressed in blue overalls and rubber boots; we got a torch and a belt. The uniform of the miners if there was such a thing, although we later found out that the miners usually wore jeans.

We took a short ride in the van and arrived to the rich mountain. We had a quick explanation of safety rules, which basically was “do not wander off and get lost!”

And then we entered the mines; if you are claustrophobic, this is not something I would recommend.

Entrance to the mine, to Cerro Rico

Entrance to the mine, to Cerro Rico

The entrance is still quite wide and high

The entrance is still quite wide and high

We had to let some miners thru with a cart

We had to let some miners thru with a cart

Quite quickly the day light was left behind, and the only source of light was the head lamps on our helmets. I have never been in a man-made cave such as this. The darkness felt almost solid. The idea of losing your head lamp was terrifying.

It’s a whole network of caves and shafts, reaching who knows how far under the mountain. There are no signs, no logic. To me it seemed we were taking lefts and rights at random, and going down shafts purely by chance. It didn’t take long for me to give up on the idea of ever being able to find my way out of the mines by myself.

So it became clear why you shouldn’t lose the sight of your guide. The guides are all ex-miners, who’ve made the transition to tourism and therefor know the mines like the back of their hands.

We sometimes helped the miners to push their carts

We sometimes helped the miners to push their carts

It gets sometimes really dusty

It gets sometimes really dusty

The caves are narrow and often quite low. I hit my head at least twice and I am not the tallest of people, so helmet is definitely a worth having! Lots of times we were walking hunched over, and often we had to get to our knees or almost crawl to fit thru some places. Some of the ladders we took didn’t seem that safe either.

Your head lamp shows you dust floating everywhere; you can feel it as you breathe in, but there is no point in coughing; you’ll just breathe more of it in.

Like I said, if you are claustrophobic, you shouldn’t go. You can also pretty much forget all normal western safety standards.

But back to the supplies we bought in the morning. Occasionally we would run into miners, and we would give these supplies to them and exchange a few words. We’d give them some dynamite or some coca-leaves.

Eventually we came upon a freakish looking statue covered in stuff, the statue of the Devil, also known as El Tio (the uncle) by the Catholics. He’s the lord of the underworld and therefore he’s also the lord of the mines. There are countless of these statues in scattered around the mines.

Miners sacrifice alcohol, tobacco and coca leaves for him in exchange for protection and better metals; and once a year they even sacrifice llamas for him by slitting their throats.

There is a belief that the purer the sacrifice the purer the metals the devil will provide. Therefore pure alcohol is popular as a sacrifice, although it is of course also drunk. And I can contest that it does indeed taste like rocket fuel, I wouldn’t recommend it even with the orange juice.

Our guide, an ex-miner, with the Devil, El Tio

Our guide, an ex-miner, with the Devil, El Tio

You can find some interesting colours

You can find some interesting colours

Our guide told me that this shiny thing was worthless

Our guide told me that this shiny thing was worthless

It doesn't feel very safe

It doesn’t feel very safe

Sometimes you hear rhythmic knocks in the stones, there is a certain code that informs anybody within hearing distance that explosion is about to occur. Afterwards, you can hear explosions vibrating thru the stone.

After what seem like forever we finally found our way back to the surface. We had only been underground in the total darkness for a few hours, but I was still surprised to find out that it was actually sunny day outside.

It is a weird but an eye opening experience. And I do admit I felt uneasy being there. These people were working here to earn a living; and I came to sightsee. I’ve seen plenty of touristy places that were just created for tourists, but this was different.

It is one of the few places that I have ever visited of which I am still not sure if I should’ve. It did teach me a lot about Bolivia, its history and its people; more than any of the museums I visited. It’s a grim reminder into to the history of South America.

Coming out of the mine

Coming out of the mine, back to the daylight

Would you visit the Potosi silver mines?

8 Comments

  1. It seems so ironic that Cerro Rico is called a rich mountain ’cause it looks so dull and dry… By the way, did you find real silvers in your adventure there?

    “Would you visit the Potosi silver mines?” – I don’t think I have the guts to visit the place ’cause it looks so dangerous there!
    Jemma recently posted..Kawasan Falls in Badian CebuMy Profile

    • Yeah it doesn’t look much from the outside. Nope, didn’t find any silver or any metals, maybe next time :)

  2. This looks like such a cool adventure, well worth putting up with any discomfort or claustaphobia. So pleased you didn’t strike it rich (in a good way) otherwise you’d retire from blogging and we’d be deprived of reading about your future adventures.
    Iain Mallory recently posted..Postcards from Iceland; Favourite Destinations Photo SeriesMy Profile

    • hehe :) yeah, it is quite interesting once you get inside, very claustrophobic! Yep, I’ll obviously have to find another way of striking it rich! 😉

  3. Wow what an adventure, I think I’m too claustrophobic to do this myself, but thank you for sharing. It is a shame that people still have to put themselves in danger to put food on the table for their families.
    Helen recently posted..VancouverMy Profile

    • Yep, there are other ways of making a living in Potosi, but this does offer the best income, although at a price.

  4. I was there a few months ago and agree it’s not a pleasant experience, but it is one of the ones that will stay with me forever. I was really touched by how upbeat and personable the miners were when their days must be so tough. I’ll never complain about having to work in an office again.
    Arianwen recently posted..Dona Marta favela: is it safe?My Profile

    • No, it isn’t a pleasant experience as such, but yes, like for you, I learned a lot. And yes, they are still very upbeat even when they are working in those conditions very long hours. So, that’s the thing, I don’t know if I should recommend people going or not.