Dynamite sticks & fear deep inside the Potosi mines

Potosi, Bolivia the richest mine in all of world history

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Waiting for the bus in Uyuni

We initially through we would stay in Uyuni for a few days to chill out after our 3 day 4×4 adventure across Salar de Uyuni, but quickly changed our mind. Uyuni is not a particular nice place to hang out, just a transit town where the roads from both Argentina and Chile converge before continuing up towards la Paz and all other cities in Bolivia.

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Uyuni playground had a great slide and not much else

We only managed dinner at a really good pizzeria, a visit to the playground in the morning followed by lunch and a 4 hr bus ride up to 4090m, to Potosi, the old silver mining city but that was just about enough. 

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Beautiful colonial buildings and me looking silly in Potosi!

We could definitely feel the lack of oxygen at this altitude and the pollution from heavy traffic made it even worse. We all suffered light headaches, dehydration, general fatigue and grumpiness. Hostel Realeza was in a good spot right in the heart of the colonial city centre, close to the market and the beautiful town square.

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May 1st march in Potosi, a town full of workers and unions

Our first full day here was May 1st, the whole city of Potosi was closed as different unions of miners, farmers, shop keepers, teachers etc marched through the city centre. A great sight to see all the people out marching for their rights, especially the ladies dressed up in the finery and traditional costumes.

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Ingrid showing off on the monkey bars

After spending the day acclimatising and hanging out at an amazing playground we organised our trip to the mines the following day.

Safety gear for us – dynamite sticks for the miners

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Excited miners – before going into the mines

The main thing to do in Potosi is to visit the old silver mines so this is what we decided to do. There are a few travel agencies offering a mine tour, but we chose Koala tours, the only tour that takes you into an actual working mine rather than a closed down mine. Early departure in a minibus a few blocks up from the main square then a quick stop to get kitted our with protective clothes. Ingrid and Scott were both excited as Paul had explained to them that going into the mines would be a bit like playing Minecraft. Little did we know……

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Getting kitted out with safety cloths before heading into the Potosi mines

We all got protective trousers, coats and welly boots. I was surprised that they had wellies just the right size for the kids. Final touch was a protective hat with a head torch and a heavy battery pack clipped into your belt. Just getting dressed and walking in all the gear was hard, especially for Scott. How would he cope walking like this deep inside the mine…..

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Buying dynamite gifts in the miners shop

Next, the minibus took us to the miners market were we bought gifts to take with us to give to the miners we’d meet inside the tunnels. The guide explained that its the part of our tour fee that goes to the miners and the gifts we bring that keep the working miners happy for tourist to come into the mines to see them working. We bought dynamite sticks, ammonium sulphate, detonators, coca leaves and soft drinks that they mix with 96% alcohol while working. Next stop the actual mines!

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Feeling scared deep inside in the dark Potosi mines

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Cerro Rico at 4400m

After a 15 min drive up the hill we were there. Young coca chewing men covered in dust and dirt were having a break outside the mine entrance as we got a safety briefing from our guide. Every now and then a 2ton cart with dirt and stones came hurtling out of the entrance on old rickety train tracks pushed & pulled by 3 young men. These were the carts we would have to avoid at all cost once inside the tunnels.

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Getting ready to head into the mines
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Last minute safety chat before we head into the mines

With our head torches turned on we went into the tunnels covering our mouths with our buffs to limit inhaling the dangerous mining dust. The tunnels were pitch back and very small,  much smaller than I had imagined. Only Scott could walk upright the rest of us were folded over trying not to trip on the tracks and stones along the tunnel floor.

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Inside the dark mining tunnels

In the distance we could hear carts being loaded and pushed down the tracks. “Out of the way” cried the guide and we all had to jump into a niche along the side of the track to avoid being run over. Every 10 min or so another cart came hurtling at us as we stumbled along the dark tunnel, folded in half and sweating profusely in all our heavy gear.

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Miners hard at work

As we got deeper into the tunnels, the oppressing feeling and slight fear was getting to all of us, especially Ingrid who was looking very uncomfortable stumbling along in the little light from her head light. After 40 min of walking, 450 m deep inside the mountain, where more than 10 000 men work everyday, we finally arrived at a resting station. During our 10 min break the guide told us about the hard life of the miners in Potosi and the gods they worship to stay safe.

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The mining god

Each man work for himself in a syndicated group with their earnings depending on the minerals they find. Around 50 miners die every year in accidents and another 50-100 in lung related diseases, their life expectancy is only 40-50, but working the mines earn them more money than any other job they could possibly do here. 

Time to get out of the mines – we end the tour early

After the 10 min break we were supposed to head further into the tunnels for another hour of exploring the tunnels deep inside the mines. At this point Ingrid and Scott were starting to feel a bit unwell and so I told the guide we had to take the kids out. To be honest, at this point I did not want to go in any further either.

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Feeling uncomfortable deep inside the mine

On the way out we had to wait as carts were filled up with rubble from a shaft in the roof…and all I could think of was the terror of being stuck in the mine behind falling rocks. The guide assured us we were safe, but I certainly did not feel very safe.

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Happy to be out in the fresh air
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Well deserved rest in the fresh air

Once outside, we waited an hour in a little safety shack before the rest of the group returned. Ingrid almost fainted as we sat down, totally overcome by the stress of being inside the mine for over an hour. I too felt unwell and relieved to be out in the fresh air again. Scott and Ingrid both promised then and there to study hard in school so that they never ever would have to work in a mine.

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