Down The Mines

There isn’t a huge amount to do in Potosí but it’s definitely worth wrapping your eyeholes around for a couple of nights. Even just one night if you fancied. The main draw here is the tour of the mines, you could stay the night, get on a morning tour, then bugger off in the afternoon on the next bus to wherever you want. I actually really like the city though. The altitude kicked me right in the tits, I’m not going to lie, but you don’t come to arguably the world’s highest city (that’s city, not settlement) at 4100 m.a.s.l. and expect to be able to breathe.

Always gridlocked Potosí.

We found a hostel we’d earmarked and checked into a twin room because we’ve not got the lady balls to ask for a double please and thank you, booked our mine tour for the following morning, then wandered off for a little look around. I remember last time I was in Bolivia twelve years ago there were people dressed as zebras directing traffic. Here they’ve opted for white tigers and I’ve no idea why. Zebras, I get that because zebra crossings are the same in Spanish. Maybe they ran out of zebra costumes. They’re very exuberant considering they’re wrapped in a hot costume at 4100 metres.

Honestly though, if they didn’t have the tigers or actual police directing traffic it’s a lawless wasteland of drivers blocking junctions because they wanted to get through the lights and didn’t consider that perhaps the vehicles in front weren’t going anywhere for a while.

We strolled into a market area, Mercado Vicuña, which seemed to have a cluster of shops selling traditional medicines. Shops here that sell similar stuff are all together so if you want a certain thing you head to a certain road and visit your favourite shop on said road. If you want a dead baby llama then this is your place. They had them hanging up in various stages of growth. Some looked foetal and mummified. Some had fur. I’ve no clue what they’re used for and my Spanish doesn’t stretch to that but it’s a bit creepy. Some of the bigger ones had fake money tied to them so I’m guessing they’re for luck?

‘Scuse me mate, wanna buy a llama?

Anyway. Adrian had come straight to Potosí after the Salar de Uyuni tour yesterday and he wasn’t leaving until late tonight so we caught up with him on a lovely pedestrianised road lined with resto bars. It was a lovely evening to be fair. We drank massive bottles of Potosina which is an alright local beer, and shovelled chicken wings and chips into our faceholes. I do love the local restaurants flogging a full lunch for ten to fifteen bolivianos but I’m definitely also partial to throwing a bit of money at the massacre of several chickens so I can eat bits of them covered in sauce. We also found a bar that had games so we played a spot of jenga which isn’t something I’ve done for years.

That’s Cerro Rico you see over yonder, and this is Calle Padilla where you’ll pay a bit more for food but you can also just chill with a beer.

The next day we got up, were pleasantly surprised at the included breakfast, then we waited around for our tour guide to take us into the mines. Our guide was called Johnny. He took us into a room at the hostel and got us kitted up in rather fetching waterproof trousers and jacket ensemble. He had a good laugh at our pinheads when he had to find the smallest helmets for us, and we were fitted with powerful head torches with a battery on a belt. So we were ready then.

It’s a strong look.

Last time I did this we were picked up in a tourist van but Johnny’s approach was different. Some would say more authentic. We jumped on a local bus to take us to the miners’ market which is great but fuck me, we both felt very self conscious all dressed up. I mean, this probably happens every day, foreigners wandering around in protective gear ready for their mine experience. Johnny was dressed the same. It didn’t stop me feeling like a right numpty though.

Coca leaves, bicarbonate of soda and cigarettes. These are a few of their favourite things.

I asked Johnny how long he’d been a guide and he launched into his life story and told us all about how he started down the mines at the age of 13 or 14 to earn money to pay for his education. I think he went to university, I’m not sure, when he gets animated he stops using words and instead uses gestures and noises. I still don’t know how long he’s been a guide. He regaled us with his story until we jumped off the bus at the miners market.

Im so sorry, liver. I swear this won’t be a regular thing.

This is where the guys come to get their supplies. They sell everything from stuff for their faceholes to gloves and hard hats. You’re brought here so you can buy gifts for them. The woman packed two bags for us as Johnny showed us the dynamite used in the mines and the things the miners enjoyed consuming and/or offering to Pachamama and the Miners’ Devil; coca leaves, cigarettes, and a 96% alcohol that you can drink assuming you weren’t planning to use all of your brain cells today.

Potosí from Cerro Rico. Not the top of it though, that’s at about 4800 m.a.s.l.

He poured some into the bottle cap, sprinkled a little on the floor for Pachamama and shot the rest. Then he invited us to do the same. Well it definitely burns! He told us that it can get cold in the mines and this warms you up, probably by melting several internal organs. Tarrant actually likes it. I’d say Tarrant had no taste but that would be quite the self-burn. You can buy this shit all over Potosí should the mood take you but I’ve seen it in Tupiza too. You could annihilate nations with this stuff.

Just looking at the mine entrance makes me a wee bit nervous.

The shopkeeper had packed two bags containing two cans of Quilmes, a bottle of juice and a packet of coca leaves each. If I were given the choice I’d have added a bottle of singani (a Bolivian brandy that you definitely need a mixer for) or Ceibo (the strong stuff) but Johnny seemed to think they’d be happy with that. Alright then. Off we fucked, onto another bus and up to a cooperative called Potosí Kury Mayu.

All photos of the miners were taken after asking permission in my bestest Spanish.

There are 37 cooperatives and they’ve all paid a few hundred dollars to operate in specific parts of the mine. Johnny left us outside for a bit whilst he wandered off to do fuck knows what then he called us into a little hut where three guys were hanging out. There were several huts here, he stressed that the miners weren’t allowed to sleep here, it was just where they changed their clothes, smoked cigarettes and slowly filled their cheeks with coca, leaf by leaf. He said the coca leaves meant they could spend six or seven hours working and not need to eat.

I’m going to guess this was a roof support beam until, well, it wasn’t. This is the opposite of comforting.

They all apparently started in the mines very young, in their early teens. One guy was 33 now which he quite proudly announced was the same age as Jesus was in his prime. The thing is, the average age a miner reaches in Potosí is 55. The national average, Johnny told us, was 75. The mines fuck their lungs right up and we were to find out why. In the meantime I did sort of feel we were paying Johnny to hang out with his mates and smoke as they spilled Ceibo for Pachamama and took a good swig themselves. I had to leave the hut, the smoke got too much.

Those long, thin tubes are hollow and brittle. An orange liquid drips through them. If you break one it’ll be back to this stage the following day.

Eventually we went into the mines, Johnny clutching his bag of coca leaves as he led the way to see the Miner’s Devil, El Tio. You can’t enter the mine before you give offerings to El Tio and, of course, Pachamama. You’ve got to ask for good luck and no accidents by sprinkling coca leaves and Ceibo on El Tio’s head, hands and dick, then some on the floor for Pachamama. Yeah do not adjust your sets, I did say dick, El Tio has a penis because of course he does. We gave our offerings, asked for protection and in we went.

It’s not too bad to be fair, I thought it would be a bit more claustrophobic. We mostly had to walk bent over and I definitely knocked my head a few times but that’s why we had hard hats. We ducked to avoid beams that I think were meant to support the ceiling but I don’t think they could support a football team right now. They were snapped and bowed. We had to crawl on hands and knees for just a few metres, and Johnny pointed out trace bits of minerals that weren’t allowed to be mined because it was the access tunnel.

Cerro Rico, the mountain we were inside funded the Spanish empire as they stripped it of its silver. There was a little bit of silver left but they were mostly mining zinc, tin, copper and lead. Plumes of orange and white something or other covered the walls and he told us it was zinc oxide and it wasn’t toxic. I bloody hope he was right because he put some of the liquid dripping out of it onto our hands and said it was good for sun protection.

Drilling holes with an air powered drill.

We got to our first group of miners who were setting up a drill to put a hole in the rock for the dynamite. They had to wait for half an hour though it wasn’t clear why. Johnny told me to give the contents of my bag to this group so I did. He explained that juice was better than fizzy drinks because you can guzzle that shit down and not end up with it spraying everywhere. They cracked the beers too but I swear most of it ends up on the floor for Pachamama. It was handed to us too so we could also offer some up and have a drink ourselves.

Dynamite ready to go. It’ll be shoved into a hole and the hole will be packed with this stuff I forget the name of, they’ll light the fuse and off they fuck.

Once they were ready to drill we watched them for a few minutes then headed onto the next group who were lower down via some pretty fucking precarious ladders. Oh dear sweet fuck, I seriously doubt my insurance covers me for this shit. There were a man and a woman waiting for the rest of their team who, it transpired, were the three guys we’d seen drilling. They’d set their charges and rushed in covered in dust. Then we started hearing the distant boom… boom… boom… boom.

Fuck these ladders.

Yeeeaaah nah, I’m quietly confident that our insurance company wouldn’t be too sympathetic if we were buried in the mines and had to wait three days to be rescued. We sat with them and gave them the contents of Tarrant’s backpack. The woman, Sophie, had been working in the mines for three years now. She’d apparently left her husband six years so I guess she needed to earn a living but she only operated the drill, she didn’t push the carts around.

Somebody produced a bottle of singani and after some was offered and drank it was topped up with juice and handed around, always to the right. I asked Johnny about the drinking culture where the children were involved and he was adamant that they weren’t expected to drink until they were 16, then the machismo culture kicks in and men are ridiculed for not drinking. Well we’re more than old enough so we drank with them as they chatted and laughed and Johnny translated questions.

As we sat the dust from the charges started to waft into the chamber so we moved and some of the guys held masks to their faces. The smell came through not long afterwards. That’s why their lungs are fucked then hey, they were waiting for the dust to settle after the holes were blasted but there was no real escape from it. We didn’t hang around for much longer after that but we’d already been in the mine for about 90 minutes by then.

Carts are filled and manually pushed out. These days, if a big level change is needed they have electric lifts. Before that they had to be manually winched by two men.

Johnny led us out blinking in the light, we watched a couple of carts being pushed out and tipped, then we headed off to catch a taxi back to the hostel. So it was good and we learned a lot but it’s important to touch on the ethics of a voyeuristic tour such as this. The miners were pleased to receive the gifts but as we were such a small group, just two of us, I think we should have taken more. The second group asked Johnny to recommend that the tourists bring singani rather than beer the next day which is fair enough, it goes further. Another guy we bumped into asked him for coca leaves but we had none left so yeah, I do wish we’d brought more.

Johnny bought our tickets at the entrance to the mine so I’m assuming that money goes to the cooperative. I should have asked. We were made to feel welcome in the mine, we were included in the drinking and they didn’t seem to resent us being there. The first time I did this it was presented as a “look how awful the working conditions are and isn’t this terrible and let’s interrogate this poor teenager in a hole as we all gawp at him” sort of thing and yeah mate, health and safety isn’t a thing that exists and their lives are shortened by the dust in their lungs. But this was more presented as a “this is how things work and now let’s chill with them for a bit”. They were Johnny’s friends, he went to school with one of them. I feel like if they didn’t want us there they’d say so. Voyeuristic tourism is never going to be a completely comfortable thing for anyone I don’t think, but as long as the miners are enjoying the gifts brought for them and the tourists are learning a thing or two, there’s no harm.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Potosí, Potosí Department, Bolivia

Stayed at: Hostal La Casona, Potosí

Hostal La Casona. It’s nice enough, the courtyard is pretty and it’s covered which is handy as we were there in the rainy season and it pissed down every afternoon. It’s cheap, only Bs100 for a twin room with a shared bathroom but this includes a good breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, yoghurt, orange juice and a hot drink. It’s cold though, if you get caught in the rain there’s nowhere to get warm and dry.

Useful shit to know…

  • We booked our mine tour through the hostel.
  • It was Bs100 each, but if we didn’t need an English speaking guide it would have been Bs80.
  • I’m not sure if you’d get Johnny either way.
  • The gifts came to Bs20. I’d have been happy to buy a bit more but Johnny seemed to think this is what they’d want.
  • Another option I’ve heard good things about would be to book through Koala Tours. I think that’s who I went with last time and it was good.
  • There are loads of places in Potosí to get cheap eats.
  • Look for almuerzo familiar or almuerzo completo.
  • You’ll get a soup and a segundo for Bs10 to Bs15.
  • Some places you get a refresco, a drink, too.
  • It took four hours to get from Uyuni to Potosí.
  • We used Quijarro, our tickets cost Bs30 each.
Bus timetable from Uyuni to Potosí, February 2023.
  • The bus dropped us at the old bus terminal which is where you catch buses to Uyuni as well as other close destinations.
  • You can take a colectivo to Sucre from here too for Bs50 but if you want a bus you’ll have to go to the main bus terminal out of town.
  • The old terminal’s proper name is Interprovincial and Tourist Bus Terminal.
  • It’s about 2.5 kilometres to the centre of the city. You could walk if you want but you’re at 4100 m.a.s.l. It’ll be hard work with your bags.
  • Several buses with Mercado Central in the window went past. It seems you can jump on and off anywhere, it doesn’t have to be at a stop.
  • We got on one of these. You pay the driver when you get on. At the time of writing it was Bs1.50 each.
  • The main long distance bus terminal is inconveniently located about 5 kilometres out of the centre.
  • You can easily take a local bus there for Bs1.50 each.
  • On the north side of the Plaza 10 de Noviembre you’ll see a yellow building with a large, green sign saying Servicio Publico. Stand here.
  • Jump on any bus with Nueva Terminal in the window.
  • Pay the driver when you get on.
  • You might need to request the stop, just copy what other people say. I went with “La parada por favor”.
  • Traffic in Potosí is generally always hideous and if police or people in costume aren’t directing the traffic the junctions get snarled up. Leave plenty of time.
  • It took about 45 minutes to get from the Plaza 10 de Noviembre to the bus terminal.
  • There are toilets at the bus terminal, they cost Bs1. They’re downstairs.
  • Ticket offices are upstairs, people will be shouting destinations. You’ll easily find a bus for your destination.
  • It costs Bs2.50 to use the terminal and you pay this when you go onto the platforms.
  • You’ll be given a ticket, keep it safe as it will be checked.
  • If you’re only there to buy tickets for another day you don’t need to pay.
  • If you manage to dodge the fee (but why would you try?) someone will board the bus as it leaves and you’ll have to pay then.
  • We used Transtin Dilrey, our bus tickets to Sucre cost Bs20 each.
  • The woman we bought the tickets off actually came to find us at the platform, gave us a ticket for a different company and led us to the bus.
  • If you really can’t be arsed to go all the way to the outskirts of the city you can take a colectivo to Sucre for Bs50 each from the old terminal which is also where you get buses to Uyuni and places closer to Potosí.

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