Potosi, Bolivia: The Ancient Silver Mines
Potosi is a strange place. To western travellers it can feel alien and unlike anything they have ever encountered before. After spending some time there, I came to realise that there are a few different reasons for this.
First of all is the geography. Potosi is the highest city on earth, and the landscapes around here feel closer to Mars than Earth. The land is barren and dusty, with huge snow-capped peaks and the odd volcano dotting the scene.
Secondly, the culture is unique. While much of South America is a fairly even mix of native, African, and European influences – which can add a layer of familiarity – Bolivia is native. The people look, think, and behave differently, and this makes it feel very alien.
Third is the history of the city itself. Believe it or not this was once one of the richest places on earth. Looming over Potosi is a hill, which once contained the largest silver deposit known to man. The Spanish flocked here and many became extraordinarily wealthy. As a result the city centre is stuffed full of some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the Americas.
Today, however, many of these are in a state of disrepair. Eventually the silver ran out, and the fortunes of the city declined. The Spanish withdrew and left the indigenous population to fend for themselves. Lacking any other option, they continued to mine the hill and scraped by on whatever lesser metals they could find. Today they still do. Potosi is now one of the poorest cities of one of the poorest countries in the Americas.
Many backpackers visit Potosi to see the mines, and while I was in the country I decided to do the same.
Getting there requires taking a long and winding ride through the mountains, on one of the country’s ancient buses. The drivers are not the most cautious in the world, and the trip is an experience in itself. Once you arrive it quickly becomes apparent how poor the place is, as well as how reliant it is on mining. What else is there for people to do in such a remote and inhospitable location?
Conditions for the miners were always terrible. They were enslaved by the Spanish and most died within a few years. While today they work for themselves, having formed collectives, life expectancy is still low. Cave-ins, accidents, and exposure to poisonous chemicals are all constant dangers, which claim the lives of plenty of workers every year. Most of the guides are ex-miners who can no longer work due to injury. Mine was no different, and he had suffered a back injury a few years before.
The landscapes around here feel closer to Mars than Earth. The land is barren and dusty, with huge snow-capped peaks and the odd volcano dotting the scene.MS
Our first stop was the market, where we bought gifts for the miners we would be visiting. What would we be giving them? Dynamite, 96% alcohol, and coca leaves. Lacking machinery, tunnelling is done by pick axe and by blowing holes in the rock with dynamite. Our guide told us how competition between the different worker’s collectives was fierce. If there was a rumour that one had found a decent seam of metal, others might attack in an attempt to take it over – dynamite was their weapon of choice. To help them deal with the harsh conditions, drinking is common. Many workers spent all day drinking this ridiculously strong alcohol, as well as chewing the coca leaves (a traditional drug here which provides a mild energy boost, but which is also the main ingredient in cocaine).
After buying the presents, we headed to the mines themselves. The entrance to our shaft was nothing more than a hole in the rock face supported by wooden beams. Soon after we entered, we were taken to a room chiselled out of the side of the main tunnel. This was the home of El Tio. Alongside forcing them to work in the mines, the Spanish also tried to convert the locals to Christianity. They taught them that Satan lived underground in a hot and horrible place, and that he was to be feared and avoided. The Bolivians did the logical thing, and concluded that they must be descending down into hell in these mines. They believed that, to give themselves the best chance of survival, they must try to keep the devil satisfied. They fused the new religion with their own traditions and created life-sized idols, which they then gave offerings to in order to ask for protection. Each mine has a devil statue, and he is regularly given coca, cigarettes, alcohol, and chicken blood.
After taking part in the ritual (with no chicken sacrifice thankfully), we ventured into the mine proper. Every now and again we would hear a shout and were told to press ourselves up against the walls. A makeshift track ran along the floor of the tunnel, and every now, and again two men would push a cart full of rocks up towards the entrance. It looked extremely heavy, and once they had got it moving they were unable to stop it if a careless tourist got in the way.
We ventured deeper into the mine, crawling through tight spaces, and climbing down extremely rickety ladders. The deeper into the mountain we got, the hotter it became; as the altitude makes it quite cold outside, you can see why the miners might believe that they were getting close to the fires of hell. Eventually we stopped to chat to some of the miners. We gave them our gifts and together we sampled some of the alcohol. It was difficult to drink and you could actually feel it evaporating off your tongue!
After about an hour and a half we reached the surface. I cannot express how relieved I was to see sunlight again. I am not a claustrophobic person, but it was stifling down there and the ever present risk of a cave in was always in the back of the mind. We had some dynamite left over and so the guide suggested that we blow it up. We walked up the hill a bit, and he lit the fuse before running away as quickly as he could. The explosion was loud and we were glad that we were a good distance away.
Visiting Potosi was one of the most interesting yet challenging things I have done on my travels. The poverty and working conditions are difficult to stomach, and these are truly some of the strongest people I have ever encountered. To make matters worse, there are now so many tunnels that the hill is slowly being undermined. It is literally sinking and one day it will collapse entirely. What will become of the city then is unknown, but if you like an adventure you should visit before it’s too late.