When we arrived in Uyuni, the three of us westerners from the jeep tour all agreed that this did not look like a town of action, and unanimously agreed to jump on the first available bus to Potosi, the famed city of silver about 3 hours away. In the late 1700’s, the Spanish found a mountain stuffed full of more silver than they could dream of, and promptly set hundreds of thousands of slaves to work extracting it. For a while, Potosi was the richest city in the world, while today it is a shadow of it’s former self, a city of 145 thousand inhabitants struggling to pull the last of the ores from the once rich mountain.
Potosi happens to be the highest city of it’s size in the world, and because of this mining is the only course of action for the residents. Until 20 years ago, children as young as 13 would start working in the mines, extracting a mixture of silver, zinc and tin in mediocre quantities, that in turn was 85% waste that subsequently was discarded. The city is too high for farming, there is no industry there, not a single public hospital or university, nothing for the residents except to move or work in the mines.
And then tourism came. It was interesting, the idea of touring a mine. It’s a big business here, but understandably entering a working mine is dangerous. I would like to stress the following to anyone who is thinking of doing a silver mine tour in Potosi: if you are claustrophobic, scared of the dark, asthmatic or unfit, do not do this tour. If you have any worries about inhaling dust, being bonked by a falling rock, or feel it is ethically wrong to capitalise on or support a distinctly unsafe industry then please do not do this tour.
With this in mind, I chose to take the tour with the Real Deal tour company (also, strangely, known as the Big Deal tour company, they changed it at some point but no one is quite sure which one is now the correct term). This is run entirely by ex-miners, who were slowly taught English by the visitors to the mines. They saw it as an opportunity to leave the mines, and after working for some hostels for a time as tour guides, decided to start up their own company to support their families and offer knowledgable, friendly and incredibly interesting tours through the mines they used to work in. It’s thanks to these men that I can resolutely state the following facts, in contradiction to the Lonely Planet warning:
The men in the mines seemed to be quite pleased at the sight of tourists, rather than in mindless suffering. If anything, they were proud. We bought juices and coca leaves for them as gifts, which definitely brightened up their day. Contrary to what LP says, cigarettes are an awful present for miners, as they can’t smoke them inside the mines. Juice, on the other hand, is like Myrrh after working for 6 hours in a darkened cavern. Also contrary to the facts online and in the LP, which seem to state that the average life expectancy is 40 years old, we met a 70 year old miner inside (reverently referred to as one of the ‘old experts’ by our guide) and the majority of those we met were in their late 30s, though with a few in their twenties. All seemed to be in pretty good shape to me.
Though, of course it isn’t all rainbows. The work is hard and dangerous (though pays better than most of the work in the country, on average 3 to 4 times the minimum wage) and the men inside often have little other choice. The 70 year old we met, when asked about when he was retiring, responded that he would likely die in the mine, as a miner. For them, it’s a second home.
I’m not fully sure yet how I feel about the tour. I’m glad I did it, and glad I did it with the tour company I did it with (it seemed to feel better that our tour guide was embracing the men as old friends rather than knowing nothing), though I know it’s a dangerous activity. We have to sign waivers in case of death or injury, and the risk of cave ins is a very real possibility. At times, I was doubled over trying to walk through the low roofs of the passages while wading through 4 inches of water, the only light from our miners lamps on the helmets. To escape the dust, we wore masks, but at 4400 metres up, every breath is a strain, and at one point we climbed 40 feet up a system of three rickety ladders that was both nerve racking and frankly exhausting.
But still, to quote the locals, ‘if you have not seen the mines, you have not seen Potosi’. I learned a lot, lost a little more faith in Lonely Planet (it’s approaching rock bottom now) and had a very memorable experience.
More pictures to come.