11th - 12th November 2003
It was a long 7 - 8 hour journey south to Potosi, famous for its cooperative mines that you can visit. We thought we were in luck as we travelled along a really good paved road, but shortly we were diverted off the nice comfortable road and onto a rough corrugated, often potholed, dirt track. To add insult to injury, as we continued along this road for the remaining journey to Potosi ( 3 hours ), the good paved road ran parallel. It was being surfaced, hence no vehicles allowed on it. A long, bumpy ride!
Along the way we passed the usual Dust Devils and a llama cull. For some reason we passed about 4 different villages all killing llamas on the same day.
We still arrived in Potosi fairly early. Which was fortunate as we struggled to find a hotel that had a vacancy and parking. Eventually we found the Hotel Jerusalen, checked in and headed into town to book our mining tour for the next day. We decided to go with Koala tours as the guides speak English, they are ex-miners themselves and 15% of the fee goes back to the miners (for food, medical supplies etc).
The mine tour started with a visit to the miners' market where you can buy presents for the miners - coca leaves, pure alcohol (96% proof!) and even dynamite! (Ed couldn't resist buying some dynamite.) And then onto a mine processing plant, before visiting the mine itself. Our guides, Pedro and Wilson from Koala Tours, were good fun and spoke excellent English. They were both ex-miners so could tell us a lot about life in the mines.
A short walk into the mine there is a small museum outlining the history of the mines and communities in Potosi. (At this stage you have a feel for what the mine will be like and can turn back if you find the tunnels too claustrophobic or hot). There is also a model of the devil (El Tio) here. Offerings are made to the figure by the miners - coca leaves are scattered within easy reach, lighted cigarettes are placed in its mouth and a little alcohol is poured on the ground before the statue. The miners make the offerings as they believe that because the environment they work in is similar to the conditions of hell - hot and uncomfortable - the devil must live beneath them and must own the minerals. By making the offerings, they hope to be able to find the minerals. Ed couldn't help but keep up the tradition by pouring a little alcohol on the statue and then drinking a drop himself. Not the smoothest tipple!
It is by no means a pleasant or comfortable experience and it really gives you an insight into the awful working conditions of the miners. You spend most of the time crawling through a labyrinth of small passageways, clambering down holes to get to the lower levels, stooping through muddy tunnels - avoiding dangling electrical cables - and trying not to breathe in the dust and fumes (silica dust, arsenic gas). It is also extremely hot in some parts - temperatures can reach over 40 degrees centigrade and the trolleys move at high speed through the tunnels, so you have to get in against the walls pretty quickly to avoid being run over.
We stopped a few times to rest and chat to the miners. They were all very interested in us but on the whole wanted to know which females amongst us were available! The youngest was about 17 and the oldest 47. Their lunch consisted of coca leaves and we couldn't get over the number of leaves they all got through, their cheeks getting bigger and bigger as they kept popping more leaves into their mouths. Our guides also got stuck in to the leaves.
Finally, what better way to end the visit than by detonating some of the dynamite we bought from the market........Luckily not inside the mine, but just on the outskirts. The dynamite stick was broken up and massaged into a bag. The detonator and fuse were pushed into the ball and the whole lot stuck in a bac of nitrate fertilizer. The fertilizer makes the explosion more powerfull. After lighting the fuse, Wilson and Pedro merrily handed the whole thing round for people to hold and take pictures, the fuse getting hotter and shorter as each new person took hold of it.
All in all the mines are well worth the visit and are an unforgettable experience. Thirsty and tired, there was nothing for it but to spend a few hours after the tour eating and downing a few beers with some people from our tour. (We didn't fancy the miners' lunch of coca leaves!)
Back at the hotel we bumped into the Dragoman bus again. A quick chat and then a much needed shower.