As the bus descends into the lower lands of Bolivia I finally feel like I can breathe again. Me and my travel companion stare out the window without saying a word. I glance over and see the expression on her face. She looks pale. We get lost in our thoughts while we try to make sense of our visit to the mines in Potosí. What seemed like a fun tour turned out to be a profound life experience. We both try to answer the same question: was it responsible to explore the mines in Potosí?
A VISIT TO POTOSÍ
Potosí, a city in Bolivia located at 4090 metre altitude, claims the title of highest city in the world. The town is more than a three hours drive from the capital of Bolivia. Potosí is mostly known for its silver history and colonial architecture. The two most popular attractions are the Casa de la Moneda museum and a tour in the mines of Cerro Rico. As it is a special place and is on the route to the Uyuni salt flats this unique city is on many traveller’s bucket lists.
You don’t need a guide to visit Casa de La Moneda. A visit to the mines on the other hand can only be booked with a guide. Tours depart in the morning or afternoon from Potosí or Sucre. I only have one day in Potosí and after little hesitation I decide to spend it in the famous mines of Cerro Rico. The visit to Potosí was quite spontaneous and due to a lack of Wi-Fi and time me and my travel companion hadn’t looked into what to expect of this visit, but it seemed like an interesting experience.
FIRST STOP: THE MARKET
Upon arrival at the hostel we book a tour to the mines for the next morning. We are told to rest well that night and not to put on our best clothes. We sign a disclaimer before departure in case something would happen to us. The next morning we are picked up in a van by our guide and ex-miner Johnny. To set the tone we exchange our clothes for overalls, boots and a helmet with a light.
The first stop is a market where you can buy the most random things. Our goal at the market is to shop gifts for the miners. We can choose from one of the following 5 items: soft drinks, coca leaves, strong alcohol, heavy cigarettes and dynamite. Little did we know Potosí is pretty much the only city in the world that allows the sale of dynamite on a market.
After our group bought presents and shot Instagrammable photos with the dynamite we drive up to Cerro Rico. Upon arrival Johnny instructs us on safety procedures in the mines. I find it hard to focus as I am having trouble breathing at this altitude. By splashing a dash of alcohol we ask Pachamama [mother nature] to watch out for us during our tour through the mines. I glance over at the disappearing panoramic view of Potosí as I climb down a ladder to enter the mine.
THE MINES OF POTOSÍ
My eyes need some time to get used to the new dark environment. Cerro Rico is located at an even higher altitude than Potosí and the air in the mine is heavily polluted. After 5 minutes or so I am having difficulty breathing and I am gasping for air. Johnny points a flashlight on an object that I don’t immediately recognise: El Tío [the uncle]. El Tío used to be the devil who kept the slaves in the mines working, but over time the devil has developed into the god of protection for the miners.
While we observe El Tío the mineworkers move our way. Our group hands over the items we bought at the market one by one. The men seem to particularly like the strong alcohol and pour a little over El Tío before they take big sip. After a short introduction to the miners we enter a tunnel network. Deeper in the mine it gets darker and moist, until we find the tunnel that guides us to the outside world.
THE STORY OF THE MINEWORKERS
Outside the mine I feel relieved but also dazed. Johnny asks the group to sit on the ground. He tells us about the horrific conditions in which sometimes 15-year-old mineworkers live and work. There are little employment opportunities in Potosí and a career in mining generates a good income for Bolivian standards. That is why the mineworkers risk their lives every day.
The living conditions of the miners are dangerous, on the short and long term. A fatal accident is just a collapsing tunnel or exploding dynamite away. The mineworkers are exposed to harmful substances every day at a bizarre height where oxygen already is a luxury. This combination of circumstances is extremely unhealthy for the lungs, which considerably shortens the lifespan of the miners.
The dynamite we gifted is used for work and the other presents are offered to El Tío, but also to make the living conditions for the miners more bearable. Coca leaves are a medicine against altitude sickness and suppress the feeling of hunger. Alcohol and cigarettes make life just a little bit better. The soft drink are for the kids.
HISTORY OF POTOSÍ
To understand why living conditions in Potosí are this way we have to look back in time. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time Potosí was one of the richest cities in the world. The city could be compared to contemporary New York or Paris. It was a time when Potosí was associated with wealth and migrants from all over the world whom dreamt to work and live in Cerro Rico one day.
Cerro Rico, also known as rich mountain, was one of the richest mountains in the world. A lot of silver has been extracted from Cerro Rico over the course of history, first by the Incas and then by the Spaniards. The extraction of silver brought prosperity and contributed to the growing economy of Spain. But just like it does today the natural wealth of Cerro Rico caused much pain and misery.
In colonial times the life of the mineworkers, back then slaves, was already bad and relatively short. Silver greed led to local disputes that cost many lives. The silver wealth peaked at the end of the 17th century, after which the value of this commodity dropped. Potosí had fallen. In the mid-18th century the demand for silver rose again accompanied by a need for another raw material: tin. Potosí’s economy slowly started to grow again without the burdon of excessive greed.
By the end of the Second World War the demand for tin fell significantly and so did Bolivia’s economy. North America bought the last supplies of tin at a bargained price and Bolivia has been one of the poorest countries in South America ever since. From an economical perspective at least, because when it comes to minerals Bolivia is dirty rich.
CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE YOUR VISIT TO THE MINES
Overwhelmed by all that I learned I doubted whether a mine tour in Potosí was a responsible activity. A visit to the mines can be dangerous and the things you see may have a significant emotional impact. But in the end it’s all about making a decision with consideration. To make a decision for yourself whether or not to visit the mines there are two very important aspects to consider.
Firstly, it is very important to think critically about your health. If you already have some type of lung disease I strongly advise against doing a tour in Cerro Rico. Physical impairment or claustrophobia also make your visit to the mines harder and therefore with one of these conditions I highly recommend you to skip the mines.
Another very important aspect to consider is sustainability. In a tour of this nature it is extra important look for a balance between people and profit. Unfortunately, the living conditions of the miners in Potosí are terrible and you as a traveller can’t do anything about it. But you can help a little by ensuring your financial contribution ends up in the right place. Unfortunately, Tour Operators in Bolivia are not always honest about this. But you make the difference by handing over a contribution to the mineworkers during your visit. This way you know for a fact you helped someone have a meal that day.
VISIT THE MINES, OR NOT?
Visiting the mines can be a sustainable experience if you make your decision with consideration. The key is also in having the right attitude before your visit. For example, in hindsight I am not proud of the photo where I pose with a stick of dynamite, something I realised when we had already explored the mines. This tour is about the mineworkers and can be a profound life experience where we have the opportunity to learn from the history and take our time to recognise the significant differences of living conditions between countries. And in the end a visit to the mines generates a small positive contribution to the economy in Potosí, one of the most special places in Bolivia.
So should you pay a visit to the mines in Potosí? That is entirely up to you. But with good health, the right attitude and an additional financial contribution it can be an enriching experience for you and for the miners in Cerro Rico.