Potosi mines

ihana.com - big trip - diary - bolivia - april 2003

Shop selling everything a miner needs, coca...

...96% alcohol, fertilizer and dynamite...

...lets buy some!

Tuesday 29 April

The main thing to do in Potosi is to go on a mine tour. We'd heard stories of blowing up dynamite down dingy mines from other travellers and were keen to do the same.

We met two other tourists, one French, one German and got in the van. To our dismay we stopped by a hotel and out poured a big group of Israelis who promptly joined us. Just before the scarred and madly coloured mountain of Cerro Rico the van stopped and we were luckily split from the others who were escorted off on a separate tour, our guide telling us that he refuses to work with Israelis as anybody who's ever spent time with them would know.

First thing is to don waterproof trousers, jacket, wellies and hard hat with a lamp on the front. Then we tramped up the road a short distance to a shop which was selling a fantastic array of toys for the budding miner. A woman was sat doling out potions of coca leaves from a huge bin bag, beside her on the ground were little grey tablets of compressed banana ash which can be masticated with the coca to help release the good bits. On the table was a bottle of 96% alcohol (yes, to drink!), bags of nitrate fertilizer (makes the dynamite explosion many times more powerful), very rough looking cigarettes, and the hallowed sticks of dynamite. The latter costs about a $1 a stick, the alcohol much less. We bought some dynamite, fertilizer, mingingly fluorescent fizzy drinks (probably glow in the dark), coca and fags as presents for the miners we were about to see at work. Healthy stuff.

Click to see the extra part of the shrine!

Into the Kunti mine...

...but the miners are no pussies

Lets blow something up!

Offering fags and coca to the well endowed El Tio


Before entering the mine its important to go to the shrine inside the miners hut. Above the shrine hangs a different kind of goddess and written on the shrine itself was the name of this particular mine, Kunti. Aye...! Despite being a lot taller than the miners we didn't have too many problems entering Kunti. After about 150m the tunnel splits into two and the roof had recently collapsed in. The miners are making a more direct tunnel in order to install electric carts but seem to be having a bit of trouble. As they were all busy on this we weren't going to see any drilling or blowing up of things which wasn't wicked.

We continued into the mine, up to about a kilometre inside. Cerro Rico has 300 mines and 8000 miners in it but when the Spanish came to Bolivia they worked to death something like 5 million indians extracting the fabulous amounts of silver inside. Now only a little silver remains to be extracted along with tin, zinc and lead.

This mine uses drilling equipment powered by air and a $30,000 air compressor sits outside the mine. Water is pumped in to the tools to reduce the dust and increase the life expectancy of the miners. Its a tough life, a dusty environment means only a few years until asbestosis or silicosis kills you. This mine is cooperative, the miners get a reasonable salary, $200 a month, double that of a teacher, they have some semblance of safety standards, don't allow (very) drunk miners to work and have a retirement package. Its also one of the few mines to have administration offices and a changing room - which dynamite is now sensibly banned from after some drunk miners dropped a fag into the bag and blew themselves up.

Water drops glowing on the roof

The fuse is lit...run!

Pushing the cart

Check out the cheeks full of coca

Red puddles

Out in time for lunch

We climbed up some ladders and crawled through some very narrow tunnels to reach another mine with no safety standards but there wasn't anybody working in that part. Not wanting to be the victims of a dynamite blast, we didn't enter without anybody acknowledging our shouts. To cheer us up our guide took a stick of dynamite and a bag of nitrate, lit the fuse and left it fizzing at a dead end tunnel while we strolled casually to safety around the corner to await the inevitable. Suddenly there was a BOOM and a shock wave of heat and sound enveloped us then it was all over, just a growing cloud of nasty dust that you don't want to breath in creeping down the mine.

As we came out past the previously collapsed tunnel where all the guys were working we were roped into helping them out a bit. Although we are underground its still over 4000m about sea level and hard work digging rocks and throwing them into the cart. Apparently an English guy had enjoyed his mine tour so much that he worked for a week without pay pushing the cart in and out. We have better things to do.

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