Exploring the Potosi mines in Bolivia

For all the complaining that goes on in first world nations (which frankly seems more than the third world) it’s easy to forget just how lucky we are.

I was born in Australia – a country free of war – to loving parents who are relatively well-off. I was able to go to school, could afford to study at university, entered into a marriage because of love and am free to roam the world as I please because I have enough finances to do so.

Carmen and Dave mining gear Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave and I dressed and ready to go down inside the Potosi mine

Sometimes I feel so extremely lucky and I do think it’s important to take a moment each day just to reflect on how fortunate I am to lead the life I do.

Nothing made me realise this more when I went into the Potosi mines, Bolivia.

Dave ready to enter the mine Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave ready to set off into the Potosi mine

Mining life in the Potosi mines in Bolivia

We were a tour group of five, lead by a Bolivian woman who had been taking the tours for more than a decade. As we entered the mine through one of the many hundreds of tunnels carved into the mountainside, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was walking into a tomb.

At first I could stand up straight, but as we went deeper and deeper under the ground, the ceiling became lower so that I had to walk in a crouching position.

Dirty water sloshed around our calves and I was thankful for the waterproof gear and gumboots we’d been given to wear.

As our headlights lit up our path, I noticed many of the beams holding the roof up and stopping it from caving in on us were splintered. It didn’t look safe.

Coming to the end of the tunnel, we climbed steeply up a small hole in the side of the wall on our hands and knees, one at a time.

This was not a tour for those who’re claustrophobic.

My hands caked in wet mud, we entered a little earth-packed cave where are guide explained what the miners were searching for, day in and day out.

“Tin and silver are the two main products the miners search for,” she told us. They remove large chunks of the mineral-laden earth from the ground and hope to earn at least 150 bolivianos (around US$21) a day from what they find.

Our guide showing us what they mine Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

Our guide shows us the minerals you can find in the Potosi mine

The lives of the Potosi miners

Boys start mining from a young age. At first, when they’re as young as 15, they have limited responsibilities such as pushing the carts along the tracks to collect the earth the miners give them to take to the sorting facilities. For this work, which can sometimes be as long as 12 hours a day, they are paid about US$12.

After they’ve done this menial job for around two years, they will be allowed to start mining provided they can secure a section of the mine for themselves.

Because all the miners work for themselves, they only earn as much as they can find. Families and friends often work in groups to increase their profits.

A miner at rest Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

A miner at rest inside the Potosi mine

Workers purchase sections of the mines for themselves and seal off the area with wooden gates heavily padlocked to prevent other miners from discovering riches on their turf.

It’s a miserable existence. The miners are only expected to live for about 15 years after they begin their work – to 40 or 45 years old at the most – because of the toxic gases (mainly sulphur) that cause poor health and give them silicosis.

Each day they burrow under the ground and don’t see daylight for hours on end. With dirt under their fingernails, sweat in their eyes and toxic fumes in their lungs they do this day after day for less than what I used to earn in a three hour shift at McDonald’s when I was in high school.

The view from the entrance of the Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

The view overlooking Potosi from the mine

Safety in the Potosi mines in Bolivia

Safety is a large concern in the mines. The government frankly doesn’t give a shit about the workers – as long as they pay their taxes – and there aren’t any government safety standards in place.

Beer cans litter the mine, proving the workers aren’t adverse to drinking on the job, and explosions can happen at any time and any part of the mine – there aren’t any requirements to clear out the area before the dynamite is let off.

Dave holding the dynamite in the Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave holding the dynamite

Demolition in the Potosi mines in Bolivia

We saw dynamite exploding whilst we were on the tour. Everyone on the tour is taken to the local Potosi markets before entering the mine and are asked to purchase some presents for the miners.

We bought dynamite and cocoa leaves.

Other gifts include gloves, juice, beer and 90% proof alcohol which the miners drink at the end of their shifts ‘to clear out their lungs’.

Preparing the dynamite Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

The miner prepares the dynamite

We were led to a small cave-like room where a small group of miners were sitting to take a rest. We were told they were part of a family and they varied in ages from what I guessed to be around 35, all the way down to 16.

We handed them our gifts and to our surprise they began preparing the dynamite, pouring the fertiliser into an empty plastic coke bottle before feeding the fuse inside and packing the top tightly with plastic bags.

They handed it to Dave and before we knew it they had lit the fuse. What?!

Check out what happens in the video below.

Tradition and culture of Potosi mining life

Although the miners have what in my mind is a hard and depressing life, the miners we met were happy.

The room that they lit the dynamite fuse in featured a shrine where every Friday they will leave gifts, such as a lit cigarette in its mouth, or alcohol splashed around its body.

(With 10-15 explosions happening each day in the mines, I’m not sure how safe that is!)

The shrine is said to protect them from the dangerous work they partake in inside the mines.

Every February the miners have a carnival where they celebrate their health and wish themselves luck for the coming year of mining. They slaughter a llama and scatter its blood around the mine which is thought to bring them good luck.

The shrine inside Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

The miners’ shrine

The history of the mines

Potosi has been a mining town since 1545 and the miners haven’t always worked for themselves. Hundreds of years ago, many of the men who worked in the mines were slaves and our guide told us that between 1545 and 1810 more than eight million people died either within the mines or of mining-related diseases.

I just can’t get my head around that figure.

Previously silver was the most common mineral found in the mines, and even though they still search for it, it’s almost all disappeared. Tin is the main mineral they find these days, and this means that the mine isn’t nearly as rich as it was all those years ago.

Group photo with the miners Potosi Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave and I with some of the miners

The effect of the tour

As we saw the light at the end of the tunnel I felt as though I could breathe more easily. We were only underground for around an hour and a half and yet it felt a lot longer.

I couldn’t imagine doing it every day.

And yet for these miners, working 12 hour shifts in these unsafe, unhealthy and cramped conditions is a reality.

I left the tour feeling a little distressed.

Up until then, a life like that was unlike anything I’d ever imagined. And yet if the miners knew about the life I lead, it’d probably be just as foreign to them.

This inequality is upsetting.

Have you been to the mines in Potosi? What did you think?

Carmen and Dave inside Potosi mines Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave and I inside the Potosi mine

What you need to know:

Cost: We booked our tour through The Hostal La Casona. It cost us 80 bolivianos each (US$11.20).

When to go: Any time of the year.

How to get there: Your tour should take you to a local market where you’re expected to buy a gift for the miners. Then you’ll go to the mine. The whole tour lasts around four hours.

Anything else: You pay 10 bolivianos extra for a tour in English. You should be given all your safety equipment to wear, including a hard hat, wellington boots, waterproof pants and jacket and a head torch. We were told we would get an ex-miner as a guide, but we didn’t so I was a little disappointed.

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About the author

Carmen has been nomadic since May 2013 and the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel. She loves experiencing new cultures and learning new languages. She is having the most fun when skiing down a mountain, scuba diving in the Caribbean or curled up with a good book.

2 comments on “Exploring the Potosi mines in Bolivia”

  1. Katie Featherstone Reply

    I’m hopefully going to Bolivia soon and found this post really interesting so thank-you. I know what you mean about moments that make you realise how lucky you are- I had a similar thing in Vietnam when I went on a ‘tour’ of the tunnels that people were forced to live in during the war. Thanks for sharing- I’m new to your blog, but am enjoying exploring.

    • Carmen Allan-Petale Reply

      Thanks, I’m glad you like the blog! Yeah, sometimes I think it’s good to have a reminder of how privileged we are because it’s easy to forget! We’re going to Vietnam next year so I’ll have to check it out!

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