Bright and early on Monday morning we got up and signed up for the famous Potosi mine tour. Again this is a proper 'travelling' activity to do because everyone is intrigued to find out about a fully functioning and active mine. So the tour takes you into the mines to see the miners and the terrible conditions that they work in.
The city of Potosi is famous for it's mining heritage and at it's peak was once the most lavish and extravagant city in the whole of Bolivia due to the money that the mining brought in for the economy. It is now in slight disarray and is no longer doing so well, but the mines are still active and thousands of Bolivians work there.
The conditions are awful and the average life expectancy of a worker in the mine is just 50 years. There is no governing body or health and safety laws, meaning there is no minimum age and the youngest in the mines is around 10 years old. But women are restricted and are not allowed to work inside because an old superstition says they will bring bad luck.
Miners all work for themselves and are not monitored by anyone so this means that they can work as long as they want, as long as they need, or as long as their bodies can cope. Some work 20-24 hours a day for 5,6,7 days straight, whilst others work relatively 'normal' hours. Coca leaves help them to do this as they give energy, keep you awake and kill your appetite meaning the need for breaks is somewhat removed. I still think it takes ALOT of will power to work those hours in a mine with no light or glimpse of the outside world, let alone without breathing some natural air for a few hours per day.
Before we could head into the mines themselves, we were required to put on boileresc type suits with wellies and helmets. So our first stop was to go and get suited and booted whilst having a briefing in an attempt to prepare us for what was to come.
Once we looked the part, we stopped off at the 'miners market' which is set up especially for miners and their families to be able to get everything they need. It is just a little street filled with shops selling essentials and to enter the mines we needed to buy a few small gifts to give to people inside. The essentials to a miner are (in this order):
- Coca leaves to chew all day to give them more energy and kill their appetite as no one is allowed to eat in the mines
- 95% alcohol (which tastes like paint-striper) which they swig from the bottle throughout the day as if it is water. Some people do this to help kill germs, others just to make the whole experience more bearable
- Dynamite and fuses for blowing holes in the mines to make more openings for mining (not at all safe and definitely not environmentally friendly). AND anyone can just stroll into one of these shops and buy it over the counter!! There really are no health and safety laws in Bolivia!
- Water and sugary drinks as the mines are sooo hot and to give them energy
Not wanting to buy anything to dangerous and outrageous, Alice and I got a couple of bottles of water and a huge bag of coca leaves to give out along our way.
Next we went to the factory where they remove the minerals and silver etc from the waste rock in order to sell on. We watched the process and saw the conditions here which were 1000 times better as the workers were not in the mines themselves.
It was then time to go into the mines and visit 3 different levels to see what they were really like. All in all our time in the mine was expected to be around 1hr30 and we were warned that it was going to be tuff and hard going. The opening and starting walkway was small but at human height so we were able to walk only ducking or with bowed heads for about 10 minutes.
Things then got a little more intense as the tunnels got smaller and lower meaning we had to crab walk through them. The air was getting thicker, it was getting hotter and most of us were starting to panic and had to constantly remind ourselves just to stay calm and breathe. At this point a couple of our group got a little freaked out and decided to be guided back to the entrance and wait for us in the fresh air.
We then climbed through some really low and daunting tunnels to get to a shrine of the 'mine god' that they worship, celebrate and give offerings to - normally empty alcohol bottles and coca leaves. But the god we saw was also decorated with streamers and paper from the recent Carnaval celebrations. Our guide gave us quite a bit of information about everything here in an attempt to keep us seated for 15 minutes so we could all have an opportunity to calm down and relax.
That was the end of level 1 and to get to level 2, we had a 15 minute climb down. The tunnels and trackways here were so low in most places that we had to crawl on our hands and knees to fit through. The temperature was getting hotter and the air was getting more sickly and dusty the further we went. It was also getting darker and darker the further we moved away from the natural light, so we only had the torches on our helmets to rely on. The whole time we were all chewing coca leaves, which are foul, bitter and a disgusting texture to have in your mouth but we needed them to give us more energy and to help with the altitude fluctuations.
The climb down was quite daunting but my attention was focussed on getting there safely rather than the small space surrounding us. At level 2 we encountered our first miners to talk to and see them actually working. One guy was coughing up blood and washing it down with the neat alcohol which was pretty horrific to see as he didn't seem to be bothered by it at all - must be a pretty regular occurrence.
The climb down to level 3 was the longest and continued on for about 30 mins. The air was so thick and the gas/ sulphur smell was so strong that you could hardly breathe. It was like your lungs, the air and the walls were closing in. The temperature was around 38 degrees by this point. About 10 minutes into the walk to level 3, I started to get freaked out and decided the only way to calm down was to get the hell out of there, so with an escort I began the 30 minutes walk back to daylight and clean air! By the time I got outside I was covered head to toe in dirt, was drenched with sweat and to be honest was so glad to be out of there!
After getting over the shock of the tour, we got back onto the bus and went back to the hostel around 2pm. Alice and I showered and changed and headed back out into the city for the afternoon. We only had the rest of the day to enjoy Potosi as the next morning we were leaving for Sucre and we wanted to make the most of it.
A very testing but interesting day with the majority of my limits pushed to the absolute maximum!