Adamant that we should probably do something touristy while in the area we booked ourselves a 6am taxi ride out to Potosi, the highest city in the world, to visit the mines there. En route we stopped at an unfathomable bridge that looked brand new, was in the style of a Victorian hanging bridge, and didn’t appear to go anywhere. Fi christened it with her breakfast, the windy roads and high altitude combining to make her feel terribly ill. We got to Potosi and made it just in time for a morning tour with another chap, Carlos, from Madrid and an English speaking guide whose name I can’t remember and may indeed never have been told.
We all met outside a supplies shop where the tradition for visitors is to purchase gifts for the miners including Coca Leaves (to stave off hunger), Soda, Dynamite, Ammonium Nitrate, & 96% proof alcohol. We both grabbed Coca Leaves and Soda and I grabbed a sneaky bottle of the booze. We were kitted out in overalls and hard-hat as well as a head light and wellies before making our way up to the mines on foot and looking like fools to all the locals. Before long we were in the tunnels while work carried on around us. Space was tight and I took to testing the hard hat out several times and was happy with the results. We visited a shrine to the devil – an interesting effigy with no shame. Cigarettes were lit for him and a separate head sculpture of an Indian that had made his fortune in the mines and left to smoke out while alcohol was poured over various parts of the devils body for luck, wisdom, strength, fertility and other stuff.
After a few tales we delved deeper and deeper into the mine breathing in all manner of dusts and seeing veins of silver & zinc, and deposits of magnesium oxide as well as apparently arsenic dripping from the ceiling. Occasionally we’d happen upon workers and after a chat hand over part of the collective goody bag that had been bundled together from all our morning purchases. We were up and down wooden ladders, leaping over precarious 15 metre drops down holes big enough to guarantee death from a miss-step and even watching the work as it happened – well I say watching but you couldn’t see a thing in the dust clouds being generated. After 3 hours we had to leave as they were apparently readying for some blasting in the afternoon but we’d had our fill and given out our gifts to the miners so were ready to head back into town.
They have it tough, that’s for sure. It’s a cooperative mine but not everyone who works in it is part of the cooperative. Some are helpers on set wages of 80 BOB a day (about £7.50) for 8 hours hard graft and there are other tiers you must progress through to become a full fledged member of the cooperative. Oxygen and water can be pumped down the mines but that comes at an additional cost so is not always done. Everything outside of the heavy machinery is purchased by the miners themselves so that includes dynamite and pick axes. It’s hard to imagine how it could be worth it – especially given the fact that on more than one occasion we’d managed to comfortably spend what we would back home on supermarket groceries (in the misguided belief that we could eat cheaper if we cooked for ourselves). They do it though and they do it in droves and while there’s still a market for what they produce they’ll continue to mine there.
After the tour we had some lunch (13 BOB each for a set menu – on these prices you see how the miners can get by to some extent) and then considered sticking around to visit some of the other sites but thought better of it and caught a taxi to the bus station. We got tickets and 3 and half hours later were back in Sucre. In the evening we ate with the other guests again before hitting the sack, exhausted from the modest amount of activity we’d become so unaccustomed to.