A visit to the mines is the main attraction of Potosí. The word “attraction” rather repellent in itself. When in Potosí, there are a few things that make you think before registering for a tour. The first one being that it feels rather like voyeurism and misplaced to hang out the tourist to see how minors work their asses off to be able to survive. Rich people from other countries who pay a lot of money for plane tickets to come here and spend their holidays watching how poor people are having a hell of a time trying to make a living to feed their families. On the other hand, the people organizing the tours are from the cooperatives who are actually exploiting the mine. They make sure it is done with respect for the workers, they know the mines because they have been working there themselves and they also strongly encourage the visitors to buy water and dynamite for the mine workers. So it’s also a way to raise awareness and make sure the tourist exploitation of the place can also benefit the minors themselves, in a way. The cooperatives exist because there are no foreign companies making excavations anymore. Which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, if any of them manages to discover a good vein, then what he gets out of his labour is for himself. On the downside, if they don’t find a thing, they don’t get any revenue at all. Without a company employing the minors, not only don’t they have any guarantee of a revenue but the security is also jeopardized, as no one makes the investment to enhance the stability of the galleries and so on.
Which leads to the second reason why you may not be keen to take a tour inside the Cerro Rico. As with the Death Road, they make you sign a paper in which you declare being aware of the dangers linked with the visit of a mine. In case of death, you won’t be able to sue the tour organisator. In spite of this all, I decided to take the tour. Regarding the security, as far as I knew, no recent accident had taken place and you always have to assume a part of risk in life. As for the bad feeling I had about my place as a tourist and rich person in front of the harsh conditions of the mine workers, the discomfort you feel about being from the part of the world that has actually brought a lot of that misery to South America, I decided it was perhaps even worse not wanting to see it at all. Closing your eyes can also be the choice of ignorance and making sure your conscience doesn’t disturb you too much at night.
The tour started off with a visit to a mineral transformation factory, where you can see how the silver, tin and other minerals are being separated from the stone and soil. The process requires the use of chemicals… which is why the opening of a mine often goes together, not only with the exploitation of the local population as well as the physical and visual destruction of the surrounding, but also with pollution.
After a visit to the miners’ market to buy water and dynamite, off we went to get changed before the visit to the mine. Our group got divided in two, according to the language: English and Spanish. I ended up with a group of very friendly Brazilians. The first character we paid a visit to was “El Tío” – “The Uncle” -, a divinity which has several representations within the Cerro Rico. The statues are made by the miners themselves who offer alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves to El Tío in order to get his protection.
We went through the dark galleries, received further information about the working conditions in the mine which, as you can guess, are really tough. We were encouraged to ask questions to the miners we met too. Which is rather normal. If you’re interested in the Cerro Rico, who better than they can tell you about it? However, I found this difficult, still not at ease with my position as a tourist. Before getting back in the open air, we were offered the possibility to go down a gallery that was a lot narrower, where the miners where actually extracting the minerals. I didn’t think about it too much and decided to go on with it. We first had to go down a few meters, using the wooden beams that were preventing the hole we were getting through from collapsing, as a ladder. Then we had to go through a mouse hole, about 5 meters long, where you could barely walk on all fours. On the other side was another gallery, slightly bigger. You could sit but not stand up. There was a miner working. He used to be a farmer. But poverty led him to this mountain, inside which he worked 8 to 9 hours a day. Without getting any glance at the sunlight. Alone, most of the time. There he was digging a hole to put his dynamite stick. The rock being so hard, this tedious task was taking him 2 or 3 hours per hole. No wonder many of them, on top of health problems due to the dust they inhale and the height – reason why they chew so many coca leaves – , eventually struggle with psychological disorders. 5 minutes in there was about the maximum that I could bear.
In the minivan that was taking us down again, a boy was selling stones. One for every kind of mineral you could find inside the mountain. I took one of each, promising myself I would put them on my desk once I was back at work, to remind me whenever I had a bad day that I should actually feel grateful for what I have.
Once back in the center, I still had time to give a quick look at the town and have dinner. I only had one night in Potosí. On the following day, I was leaving for Tupiza, which would be the starting point of the tour to the salt flats of Uyuni.