3) The travel time is 4 – 5 hours to Potosi from Sucre, it goes back up to high altitude and is 4060 meters above sea level and there is a winding road to get there.
Potosi is famed for its mountain Cerro Rico. It is known as the ‘mountain that eats men’ because a lot of workers died in the mines. Because of the mountain the Spanish became rich when they invaded South America in the 16th century, it gave them more than enough silver to build the bridge from Potosí to Madrid. More than 10,000 people worked in the mines and mined 60,000 tons of silver. Silver is now long gone, but the mining still goes on for the economy, and helps with tourism – former miners now run tours! Potosí, was one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the world, but now it is the poorest city in Bolivia.
The Devil’s Mine – Before the group decided to join a scheduled mine tour, we watched a documentary to learn about about mines. I recommend you watch this winning festival documentary in 5 countries, a very touching film. It is about a fourteen year-old boy’s story as a Potosi miner. We were awe-struck throughout the entire movie; anyone outside there who complains about their first world problems should watch it. Mining has gone on for over 500 years, and most people that have worked there have lost their freedom.
The film was made in 2005, after that a lot of NGOs (A non-governmental organisation) came to help children to keep them in school. Work conditions have improved a bit but are still dangerous and miners are still underpaid. Tourism increases help and other organisations contribute and offer support.
Picture enclosed left: That boy is 10 years old – he sells these rock boards he made himself. My friend and myself came across him and we decided to give him money to get by. He chased us and tried to get us to take the stone board. So sweet, you can see all types of rocks that come from the mountains.
That comment caught my eyes. “Simply filming it looked harrowing. I asked Kief Davidson (one of the directors) if he had been scared at all or found filming in such dangerous conditions challenging. He mentioned that in one scene, where they are examining the Devil in a particular mine, one of the boys looks round suddenly a moment or two before the scene cuts.
The reason (not shown in the film) was that there had been an explosion (unexploded dynamite is a constant hazard) and the miners wanted to get out before the tunnel collapsed and killed them all. But what worried them more was the fact that the film crew attempted to take some of the trappings from the Devil’s altar.
As a footnote, Kief Davidson (at the Edinburgh International Film Festival) told me how the film company, together with a local sponsor from the first screening, had managed to ensure that for those two boys at least, the dream become reality.”
Tour – When I wanted to sign up for a tour to see how they work, I was worried about being exposed to noxious chemicals, gases etc and thought what if it can collapse anytime? but when I asked Gabi ‘where are these boys from the documentary now?’ imagine my excitement when she said Bernardino (Basilio’s little brother) is going to be my guide! They were 14 and 12 years old in the film, sadly we didn’t see Basilio as he was busy with his tourism studies. Other tourists might not have had the opportunity to see the documentary but I was happy to get this by signing up with G-Adventure! My friend and myself were amazed by how Bernardino walked into a cave like the dangers didn’t faze him. He is around 20 years old now and he has been working as a guide along with his older brother.
We were given overalls to put on, wellington boots, equipment such as a helmet with a lamp and mask even though you still are exposed. The tour began with a visit to the miner’s market where they stocked up on dynamite, cigarettes and other essentials. Gabi explained “In the past, gifts weren’t expected, but with the growing number of tourists, you’d be very unpopular if you didn’t supply a handful of coca leaves and a few cigarettes – luxuries for which the miners’ meager earnings are scarcely sufficient”. After the miners market we went to a processing plant to see how they process the materials they extract from the mines.
We missed out on the explanations from the guide because we are profoundly deaf but one girl called Jasmin from the group was very kind to text what was said on her mobile and Gabi, the team leader emailed before the next day so we got the idea. That tour company my agency organised was run by ex-miners and all the profits we paid for the tour went directly to guides themselves. I was told that the dangers of going into mines and seeing people’s suffering might make me feel stunned or ill afterward.
My friend hesitated but joined at the last minute! I was all up for it but i sat it out at the last minute when i approached that hole pitch entrance -its not good idea if you are claustrophobic, my friend was so brave to go ahead and spent a couple of hours crawling through narrow muddy passageways.
The guide said miners usually die of silicosis after ten to twenty years of working in the mines. There are no other job possibilities in Potosi, they know the dangers that exist in order to provide for their families. He also told us about El Tio, devil-like spirit in the shape of a statue, there are other god statues my friend have seen.
History – They forced the local people to work 24hr shifts in the mines and they only had four hours of sleep, they kept awake with coca leaves. When the native Bolivians tried to rebel they introduced fear of the devil god statues to keep them in line. Lots of children were made orphans and had to work at a really young from 12 to 14 and they became the heads of their households. The laws against child labour are ignored. It is interesting to see that they chewed coca leaves to prevent tiredness and hunger and because it increases their strength. Do you know that the children are earning only $2 a day.(£1.37)?
I would recommend you to visit just to experience what the miners are having to live with. That deaf man i met in the supermarket had said he worked in the mountain for few years but eventually he managed to get out and is now working in supermarket. He also said it is not easy for deaf people here with no deaf awareness, about 23 deaf people are working in mountains he heard. Traveller’s describes a great story about a mine tour.
Casa Nacional de la Moneda (National House of the Mint) is a huge building, and now its a museum, dating back to 1572 and is where the silver from Cerro Ricco was minted into coins. A strange statue of a grinning face hangs over the courtyard in the museum, which is kind of suitable to show the greed of the Spanish.
The security guard was kind and gave us a grand tour, just us around a huge museum while it was closed which was cool. She passionately described through gestures each machinery, but an hour and half hour later we realized we missed our meeting!
This is a definite must do in Potosi. The English tour was excellent and there are baby mummies there too.
You can see from the slideshow that shows the display that there are tools, machines coins of different eras and jewelry work of precious metals amazing all from mountain. I can’t imagine doing a very physically big job but its much easier in modern times.
Next post: Uyuni to Salt Flats I hope you enjoy the journey with me 😀