After our 4×4 convoy escaped Uyuni we finally made it, albeit a few days late, to the city of Potosi. It is capital of the Potosi province and also one of the highest cities in the world at 4090m (14,318 feet). As our only experience of Bolivian civilisation so far had been Uyuni, Potosi came as a bit of a shock. The city was once considered the richest in the world due to the huge silver deposits in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). The silver meant that the colonial families were hugely wealthy and were able to build luxurious houses, churches and monasteries that still exist today.
Whilst we’d travelled up to 5000m crossing from Chile, we wouldn’t say we were acclimatised. By normal standards the streets in Potosi wouldn’t be called steep, but in our oxygen starved states the 2 block walk from the plaza to the hostel was exhausting, then we found out our rooms were on the second floor…
The city of Potosi has been shaped by it’s relationship with El Cerro Rico. When the Spanish discovered the quantity of silver in the mountain, around thousands of metric tons were mined, funding much of the Spanish empire. This meant the city became one of the most important in South America. To this day, although most of the silver is gone, a large chunk of the male population head into the mountain to mine for the remaining minerals, mostly Zinc and Tin.
With the silver flowing out of the mine, the Spanish crown established a royal mint in the city that still exists today. The 2 hour tour of the mint is well worth a visit and teaches you not only history of Potosi but also explains a lot about the history of money in the western world.
Tours of the mines can be easily arranged all over town, although Koala Tours is considered one of the best. Whilst we originally had little interest in visiting the mines, as it seemed a bit voyeuristic considering the dangerous nature of the work and the fact that millions of lives had been claimed by the mountain, we were lucky to have come at the right time of year.
A few times a year the miners make a sacrifice to the god under the mountain, Tio. This meant that during our visit their were no men working in the mines. for us to gawp at. Tio was originally an invention of the Spanish but the locals couldn’t pronounce Dio (God in Spanish) and so Tio was born to keep the miners in check. The llama sacrifice is a very important occasion for the miners who have a very real belief that if Tio receives the llama blood then he won’t ask for theirs. He is both their protector and the enemy under the mountain.
Before heading to the mines it is customary to visit the miners market. This is both a place that the miners can pick up tools and food and also where tourists can collect gifts for the miners. As we were going for a party and no one would be working we were told not to buy one of the most common gifts, dynamite. Instead we loaded up with beer, coca leaves and the miners favoured 96% alcohol and headed up to the mine, another 500 meters above on the slopes of the Cerro Rico.
Of course as you’re going into the mine, you’re expected to dress up in the appropriate safety gear…
The first stop on the tour is one of the refineries, the machinery is very simplistic but clearly does the job as our guide was happy to smear some newly refined silver on our hands.
We were next given a lesson and explanation of the coca leaves. Coca leaves are the source of cocaine, however most of the leaves contain less than 0.25% of the alkaloid and therefore have none of the effects of the drug. Coca leaves are deeply ingrained into Bolivian society for both social and practical reasons. The leaves are one of the easiest ways of treating altitude sickness, either through tea or by chewing a large wad in your mouth as the miners do.
The miners also use the leaves for another reason, they believe it increases their strength and endurance. Whether this is true or not, during their 14-18 hour shifts they will only chew coca and won’t consume any food that day until they leave the mine. Tough work on empty stomachs.
The llama sacrifice saw 16 llamas lined up outside the mine to be sacrificed to Tio…
This little boy was saying goodbye to his llama by giving it a pat on the head.
The rest of the llama is efficiently and rapidly butchered and barbequed ready for the party.
As we headed into the mine past the now fairly intoxicated miners they let us join in the ceremony by smearing llama blood on our faces. I found it was best to smile and stick your cheeks out as trying to avoid the blood led to them being far more liberal with it.
All the mines are owned by collectives of between 3 and 40 miners, the smaller collectives hammering the dynamite holes by hand and the larger using pneumatic drills. The miners are assigned areas by the government but since no maps of the honeycombed mountain exist accidents are common.
We of course had to pay our respects to Tio on the way out. Each mine has its own Tio statute that the miners leave offerings at.
As we left the mine the party was in full swing and the smell of cooking llama wafted in the mountain air. The now heavily drunk miners were keen to grab unsuspecting Gringos for a dance.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Potosi mines, hunt down a copy of “The Devil’s Miner.” This documentary is about the children who live and work in the mines and shows you the conditions and society that the miners live in.