2004 Journey Bolivia Erik's Travels

Bolivian Mining

Thursday June 24th I was in Potosi and went on a tour to the mines there. It was a gringo tour so I once again figured it would be an easy enough venture, but was once again wrong. The tour group met at the tour office in the morning and we headed off to get ready for our tour. The tour company gave everyone a pair of waterproof pants and a coat and a hardhat with a lamp. Then we went to the Miners Market where we bought some presents for the miners we would see on our tour. I bought a stick of dynamite with a detonator and five minute fuse and a bag of some chemicals (ammonium nitrate?) that magnify the explosion for 16 Bolivianos (US$2) and a liter of 96% Alcohol for my presents. Others bought some coca leaves and sodas and waters for presents. After our shopping venture we drove up to the mountain where the mine is that looms over the town of Potosi. The mine was first started by the Spanish in the 16th century and then silver was the main mineral, however nowadays it is mostly zinc they mine because all of the high grade silver is gone or still hidden deep in the mountain.

So we arrived at the mine and started our tour inside. During the first bit I only had to duck a little but the shaft was very narrow. It was ok and there were no worries yet. We visited the museum which was near the entrance and saw a effigy of the devil (El Tio or The Uncle) as the miners call him. The miners offer the statues of the devil coca leaves and cigarettes so that they will have good luck and find silver during their workday. So we finished up in the museum and started the real bit of the tour. The mine we were in (there are loads of different ones) had six levels to it. We entered through the top level and after walking for a bit we came out to a bit of a open area in the shaft. We stopped there and divided up into two groups, my group had six gringos the other five. Our guide Pedro told us about the mine and we rested up before heading down to the second level. To get to the second level I had to crawl on my stomach to fit through this little passageway and then crawl on my hands and knees downwards before sliding down the rest of the way. It was about this time I realized that there I was way in the middle of this huge mountain in a little tiny passage with no easy way out. So I tried to block that out of my mind. We walked through the second level for a while, it is here that it started to get warm and I could really notice how dusty and sticky the air was. We were soon at the passageway to the third level which was much easy to negotiate then the first to second floor passage.

Upon arriving on the third level we met a group of miners working hard. Basically one group of guys would work together in one section of the mine that was theirs and would share all the profits made by the group between them. Some of the miners whacked the walls with picks to break off the minerals and then would dump the minerals into a big wagon which was on railroad tracks. Once the wagon was full, two men would push it and two would pull it with ropes as hard as they could and it would barley move because it was so heavy. They would then have to take it to the end of the mine shaft and then come back for more.

We gave the miners some of the presents we had brought and then moved down the shaft to see the miners in action. After watching them work for a bit we reached the passageway to the fourth floor. I started down but after getting a good look at the passageway backed out. It was a narrow hole that one had to kind of slide through and then grab onto a ladder and then cross over to another ladder below. I thought there was no way I wanted to be down there. I was terrified enough in the “roomy” shafts we had been through already and had no desire to battle my fears. So I hung out at the top of the passage and waited until the group came back up ten minutes later fully covered with sweat and relived to feel the “clean & fresh” air of the third level. I was very glad I did not go down.

We had been in the mines for about two hours at that point and then started back up. I was not looking forward to the small passages I would have to go through but did not have much of a choice. We took a different way back up to the second floor which kind of turned into the passage up to the top. First there was a wooden ladder with shaky wobbly steps which got us up to the second floor then the same passage back up to the top. It sucked so bad. I had to crawl up this incline not knowing what was in front of me because I had to look where I was crawling and kept hitting my back and head into the rocks above me. Towards the top I started getting really out of breath but had no place to stop and had to keep crawling upwards. Finally it started to even out a bit and up ahead the rest of my group had stopped to rest. When I got there I plunked down next to Pedro to try to catch my breath. He started to blow on me to cool me down and after a few minutes I was good to go. We started off again but luckily while scrambling up to the top floor I had navigated all the worst parts in a frenzy and during the rest of the way did not have to crawl again. Just a lot of ducking. Most of the mine looked the same to me so I had no clue how much further it was until I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It was at that point when I could see the sunlight pouring in and feel the fresh cold air from outside that I realized what that phrase really means.

I stumbled outside covered in mud, dust and sweat and very happy. After resting up for a couple minutes it was time for our dynamite demonstration. Our guides showed us how to prepare it and then lit the fuses. After lighting the fuses they passed around the bags of dynamite to hold and then went and tossed them in a nearby field. After a couple minutes of waiting they blew up. I was prepared for a loud bang but even so the explosion made me jump. Really, really loud. Then they drove us back to town and that was that. I will be happy if I never go in another mine ever again.