Being in the world’s highest city is nuts enough, without deciding to do a “mining tour” but I’m not one to pass up these opportunities that may only come once in a lifetime. These mining tours are dangerous and a lot worse than what you could believe. They are a real eye opener and I am very glad I decided to do this tour.
Potosi was once the silver capital of South America. Mines line the endless mountains in this city that is so high you struggle to breathe. You’re on top of the world. No, seriously, you are. In terms of civilisation at least. It’s not Everest or Kilimanjiro, but Potosi’s height is colossal.
At Koala Tours near the main square in Potosi (Plaza 10 de Noviembre), I booked my tour. The lovely worker there, Zelinda posed with my flag and showed me round the city later on that day!
The whole experience was a crazy one. You get picked up by minibus in the city centre of Potosi. The minibus rattles and rolls and always feels like it’s going to break down as it struggles up hills. There we had a guide and a driver. Our guide, Daniel wore a Boca Juniors top and reminded me of Diego Maradona.
First stop is to get changed. Blue helmets, lamps, trousers, belts, grey overalls , boots and scarves over your mouth and nose. Bolivia is a very dusty country in general. You breathe in dust and dirt as you go, at least that’s the way it felt for me. The place where we got changed gets you in the mood for the day. I loved the mural there of the 6-1 win over Argentina in 2009! Got the flag out, got my gear on and met the other guys on the tour – four New Zealanders and two Australians. The driver and right hand man of Daniel “Diego” is called Milton. I was reminded of the 1994 World Cup immediately, as a player called Milton Melgar played for Bolivia at the time.
Me and 3 of the New Zealanders, their names were KJ (Keiran), Andrew and Graham, though I cannot remember the order!
I loved Potosi for it’s extreme views. I took these photos just after we got changed and before we headed back on the bus.
Our rickety bus ride took us higher and the Bolivian pumping music was beating all the way. We are offered Coca leaves all the way up, basically it’s godsend to chew on them living this high up. If you’ve been to high cities in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, you’ll understand the need for Coca leaves. We made our first stop at the Miner’s Market, which was an eye opener.
Cocaine, pure alcohol and dynamite on sale freely here, this is a different world.The miners rely on tourist to buy dynamite for them, so we bunched our cash together a bought a few bits.
Holding my dynamite, which we would later light in the mountains.
I bought myself a pair of gloves to avoid cuts inside the mines. The funny thing about doing this tour is everything in unsafe. It’s very dangerous and very misleading. They recommend you to buy all this stuff like gloves, coca leaves, dynamite, water etc. Yet when you get inside the mines you basically feel the need to give them all to the miners for free. You feel sorry for them. I struggled to breathe in there, which I’ll come to later.
The Miner’s Market in all it’s glory. A poky wee place to get high and get drunk. One of the New Zealand boys and Daniel downed a shot of pure 96% alcohol.
Other highlights from the miner’s market included Daniel showing us how to make dynamite and how to make cocaine. So to get the dynamite to work, you get a stick of dynamite, attach a fuse, add the bicarbonate of soda to aid the explosion and light it. You have the time the fuse runs down to run!! Making cocaine, we’re told you just mix the coca leaves with a sugary plasticine type material, using a stick and bravo it’s cocaine! It’s all very UDA/UVF for a Northern Irishman, except this all happens in the open air street. Nothing behind closed doors here. The local people snort cocaine, make dynamite and drink alcohol. That’s the culture here – mining. And to be a miner you need all three. You also need to be a bit mad…
Next up our tour takes us to a silver mineral refinery, where the silver that has been found is separated from the other materials in a flow of watery substance. The photos below show some of the process.
There was a lot to take in, and the refinery was complicated and detailed.
The silver separation process and a bearded me in my mining gear struggling to keep up with the amount of information given.
A digger and an unusual creature looking like a mixture between a pig and a dog! We were given some coca leaves at this point as the journey in the minibus took us up even higher towards Cerro Rico and the mines.
Next up, the minibus stopped by the road side for us to take some photos of the amazing view. To look down on the world’s highest city was quite breathtaking. I was humming the song “Hundred Mile High City” by Ocean Colour Scene to myself as we stared down at it. Dust gets in your eyes in the strong wind, sadly this has spolied the photo of me in the highest ever position on planet earth with the Northern Ireland flag. Actually I got one inside the mines, they might be higher…which was the next stop…
Arrival at the mines we got to see the raw lifestyle of these miners. The conditions they live in are shocking – they are allowed out of the mines to sleep and eat – but it’s a long way in, hard to breathe inside and a long way back. I have a lot of sympathy for them. They knew we were all tourists and we started bearing gifts of juice and water.
Two photos – me on my own and then with the New Zealand lads, just before going in. It was tough enough for me to crouch down, but these guys were much taller. As I breathed my last breath of fresh air, I had no idea of the struggle to breath inside the dusty, smoky, dirty, poky, tiny mine.
We went down rapidly – 25 metres under. We had to keep going until we met a miner, so we could chat to him, bring him some dynamite and see the real life inside the mines. This is an experience that’s for sure.
I took plenty of photos and made a few videos in there, but we were in there for about 2 hours and I couldn’t breathe. It was the hardest 2 hours of my life in there. My mouth had turned black and it was a real eye opener.
We went down a further 25 metres until the second level. It was of course unventilated. I banged my head a lot and felt very odd. Very ill. The New Zealanders were the same, but slightly stronger lads than me.
The experience was insane. Next up we met our miner. He was Martin Mario. He owns this part of the mine, therefore any silver he finds is his. At this point we sat down and asked him questions – such as how often he sees his family. The area he lives in is strewn with dirty cans and rubbish. Mind you if I had to put up with living in there for days, I wouldn’t be bothered to take my rubbish out either. He seemed a nice bloke, but he looked knackered. We gave him water, peach juice and dynamite. He thanked us and off we went.
Next point it got physical, we had to hoist up a well! It was tough work, and I almost blacked out doing it, we didn’t go much further deep than this and you could hear the dynamite going off nearby. It was one point in my life when I really thought “you know what, I’m not getting out of here”. It felt we were lost, deep in a dark mine and could get stuck there. Indeed the same year (2010) Chilean miners had been stuck. At one point a mine cart came along the track and we had to squeeze out of the way of it. It was carrying silver which the miners had worked hard to find.
I got a photo of my Northern Ireland flag at this point, as we were on the way back up and it felt better. Just knowing we were getting out to fresh air. My light on my hard hat was still on – it was a Godsend and these photos were all taken with the flash by the way. I liked the way photos and videos were totally allowed. Even if breathing was a struggle, my water came in handy, but I wished I had brought in a Coca Cola or something fizzy as my energy levels were low. A proud, yet scary photo that.
I seen an empty bottle with “Panny” written on it – the Hong Kong girl I had met in Antarctica and it gave me hope. She had also been here, and recommended me to wear the scarf (that had cost me extra on the tour). She was right.
When we finally reached the surface again it was such a relief – it merited this photo on leaving behind the Potosi mines for a lifetime. Just being able to breathe was enough and I sat down for a few minutes.
Leaving the mines was a relief – you can see it on my face. I could breathe again. If you thought it was hard enough to breathe in the world’s highest city, it was much much worse inside the mines. The miners are exposed to myriad, noxious chemicals and often die of silicosis pnemonia within 10 years of entering the mines. There is work there if you want it, no thanks, I’ll say…
Once out the tour wasn’t quite over! However I took my hat off. It felt like either I had put on weight or lost weight in there. I felt hot, but stronger now I was out. It was a tough experience.
Now it was time to set off the dynamite. We were all given a chance to hold it, light it, throw it…it wasn;t as scary as the mining experience at all. This was more funny.
We were high up in the mountains setting off dynamite in the hot Bolivian sun. Daniel our guide was a nutcase and was smoking and putting dynamite in his mouth and down his pants. He posed for a flag photo while I held the dynamite.
Somewhere in amongst all that rubble on the hills above Potosi, back in December 2010 we set off our dynamite.
Ending with a flourish, that was the Potosi Mining Tour over. We went back to base to hand our stuff in, and we were all dirty, but they wanted to charge us to have a shower there, so we all declined! We had spent enough on the day, probably around 15 pounds sterling. I later got Zelinda from Koala Tours to show me a local shower which was cheap before I had to get a night bus to Uyuni next. Even the shower experience was crazy – with me being the only guy in there, not trusting the others, I brought Zelinda into the shower with me so she could keep an eye on my wallet and camera. I enjoyed the tour overall, but as an Australian girl told me a few weeks earlier in Asuncion, Paraguay “I wouldn’t do it again.” I agree with her. It had been a crazy day but it was all worth it. I had survived the mayhem of the world’s highest city…
What Was It – Potosi Mining Tour, Cerro Rico, Potosi, BOLIVIA
Places Visited – Potosi City, Miner’s Market, Silver Refinery, Cerro Rico, Silver Mines, Mountains for Setting Off Dynamite, Base
Nationalities Met – Bolivian, New Zealanders, Australians
Colour of the day -silver
Things I bought – dynamite, water, gloves, peach juice, coca leaves
Cost of tour – around 15 pounds sterling
Key Song –
OCEAN COLOUR SCENE – HUNDRED MINE HIGH CITY:
GETTING THE GEAR ON FOR THE POTOSI MINING TOUR:
BUYING DYNAMITE AT MINER’S MARKET:
SILVER EXTRACTION – MINERAL REFINERY:
BUS UP TO THE MINES IN POTOSI:
INSIDE THE POTOSI MINES – PART 1:
INSIDE THE POTOSI MINES – PART 2:
INSIDE THE POTOSI MINES – PART 3 – includes interview with the Miner:
BURYING DYNAMITE IN POTOSI MINES: