Potosi – A trip into Bolivia’s most dangerous mine in the world’s highest city

“Po-to-si-po-to-si! Po-to-si-po-to-si!”  This singsong phrase, with its steady, six-beat cadence to advertise a trip to the highest city in the world (4,070 meters), is the sound bite I will remember most vividly from my journey in South America.

With five companies offering bus service to Potosi, before you have even set foot in Sucre’s bus station you have at least three of the operators yelling, or rather singing, that phrase at you.  When I later visited Matan in Israel and greeted him with a hearty “Po-to-si-po-to-si!” he laughed knowingly.

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The four hour bus ride to Potosi, compared with the 14-hour haul to Sucre from Samaipata, was relatively easy.   On arrival we were greeted by a double rainbow but we weren’t quite as excited about it as this guy.

Before we had even unpacked at Koala Den Hostel Matan was doing what he loved to do most.  Blessing us with a few sweet strums of the guitar he bought and took with him all throughout South America.

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During our four day trek in Sucre I had developed a serious problem in both of my eyes so on my first day in Potosi I went on a mission to find an optometrist.  I was able to find one after about 30 minutes of searching and was blown away at how easy and cheap the experience ended up being.

Within two minutes of arriving at a Bolivian eye doctor’s private practice her secretary had registered me as a patient and waiting for an appointment with the doc.  Fifteen minutes later I was in her office having my eyes dilated and receiving her diagnosis.

The verdict?  Pink eye.  In both eyes.  I was bummed at the diagnosis but amazed at how easy the entire experience had been.  Getting registered as a patient, getting my exam, getting my diagnosis, and filling my prescription to kill the bacterial infection in my eyes had taken a total of 30 minutes and cost me a grand total of $20.  I know there are walk-in clinics in the United States but I don’t think even they could do it that fast and that cheap.

The doctor had told me no contacts for ten days and since I only had an old pair of glasses I decided to buy a new pair in Potosi.  I went back to the hostel and had my dad email me my prescription that same day.  Two hours later I had a pair ordered in Potosi, which they told me would be ready in three days.

With a few days to kill while my glasses were getting made, Matan, Shai and I made the most of our time in Potosi.

For better or worse one of the main “highlights” of Potosi is the silver mine in “Cerro Rico”, the mountain that looms above the town.

“Rich Mountain”

“Rich Mountain”

In the early days of the mine, 400 years ago when silver deposits were still plentiful, Potosi was the largest and richest city in all of South America.  The mining operations in Potosi helped support the Bolivian economy and indeed, the entire South American economy for almost 200 years.

It is worth noting that mining labor was cheap back then because the Spanish used millions of indigenous Bolivians and imported African slave laborers as their work force.  There was no incentive to keep this work force safe so working conditions in the mine were horrible and most of these laborers died while working in the mine.  Historians estimate at least eight million deaths.

In those days the visible ore deposits could be seen from outside of the mountain, leading the Spanish to discover more silver deposits in the mountain itself.

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As this poster in Potosi illustrates, a tour of Potosi’s mine is not a feel good experience but rather a glimpse into a nightmarish workplace that makes you glad you don’t need to be a miner to make a living.

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Different companies in the town offer tours into the mine. Matan, Shai, and I did our tour with Koala Tours because we were staying at Koala Den Hostel.

After waiving all our legal rights away we were picked up and taken to a building where we could suit up in proper mining attire.

Doron, Matan, me and Shai

Doron, Matan, me and Shai

One guy helping run the tour seemed to disregard the dress code that had been suggested to us.

Never enter a mine without proper protection, ie, a gun

Never enter a mine without proper protection, ie, a gun

After suiting up we headed to the “miner’s market” where we were encouraged to purchase “helpful” supplies to give to the miners working in the mine.  “Helpful” does not necessarily mean healthy.

I guess one of these three things is healthy

I guess one of these three things is healthy

With the miners spending an average of ten hours of day in the mine, the cigarettes and cocoa leaves help the day go by faster by suppressing the miners’ appetites (and their fear).  The miners do not eat any food in the mine for fear that it will make them less alert.

After we bought some gifts for the miners our guide gave us a demonstration on how to use one of the miners’ tools, some good old fashioned dynamite.

The TNT was available for purchase for the price of 10 Bolivianos (about $3).

The TNT was available for purchase for the price of 10 Bolivianos (about $3).

You have the option of detonating your TNT when entering the mine. Bolivia doesn’t have quite the same safety regulations as the United States.

Matan, a combat engineer in Israel’s army, was quite familiar with how to set up a fuse for a stick of dynamite but for me this was something brand new.

Our guide also offered us a shot of “puro”, rubbing alcohol, the miners’ manly drink of choice when off duty.  I passed but all of my teammates took the manliness test and took a shot.  Ugh…

After loading up on as much dynamite as we could carry we headed to the mine.

Shai’s smile belies the general mood we felt as we toured the inside of the mine.  It was not a comfortable tour, physically or mentally

Shai’s smile belies the general mood we felt as we toured the inside of the mine. It was not a comfortable tour, physically or mentally

Cerro Rico is mined by small groups of cooperatives, typically groups of around six Bolivian men, who decide that they would like to take a chance at striking it big in the mine.

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