One of the highest cities in the world at an elevation of 13,420 ft, Potosi is a true mining community, but felt a little like San Jose, Costa Rica to me. Very poor, dirty streets, trash everywhere, terrible traffic, and the worst pollution I’ve ever encountered. It was physically difficult to take a deep breath. The city is packed with Bolivians living their lives, and not many tourists exploring the town.
Potosi is not a big tourist destination. In fact, the only “attraction” in this city is the mine — We decided to book a tour and test our courage.
Cerro Rico (Spanish for “Rich Mountain”), also known as the Mountain that eats men, was first mined for silver back in 1546. There are currently over 180 active mine tunnels, 400 in total. The mountain used to reach a peak of 5,200 meters (17,000 ft), but due to over-mining, tunnels have collapsed, leaving the summit at only 15,800 ft. The lifestyle itself is something I can barely comprehend. We saw a 16 year old boy working, carrying 100 kilograms of rock through the mine shaft to deliver to his boss on the outside. Our guide informed us that the youngest miner today is 11 years old. These children don’t even have a chance to enjoy a childhood; they must work to support their families from a very early age. And most miners only live to be 48-58 years old because of the air quality — breathing the chemicals destroys their lungs, and they suffer a painful death. I can’t fathom going into a career where you know you’ll die young. It was an extremely humbling experience to hear their stories and how they’ll do anything for their families.
The tour began with a quick stop at the Miners Market where we were encouraged to buy the miners gifts of paper and pencils for their children in school, juice or soda (for energy since they don’t eat while inside the mine and sometimes work 24 hours at a time), and coca leaves (which suppresses their appetite and gives them more energy). Our guide offered us some of this traditional leaf so naturally we had to try (Tip: It’s rude in Bolivian culture to decline when a local offers you coca. Same goes for Mate in Argentina). Coca tastes like a mix between green tea and dirt, then the “lejia” activates the coca and creates a sweet/salty taste.
Another popular gift is dynamite. Yep, that’s right. You can buy dynamite on the street in Potosi. The miners have to purchase their own tools and without dynamite, their only option is to chisel through the rock, which takes an excruciatingly long time.
Naturally slightly hesitant, I found some comfort in the fact that the tour itself was led by actual miners who have been working in the mine for many years. Big Deal Tour company knows everything about the mine and took great pride in their work and sharing it with the tourists. We changed into mining clothes to protect our own and were given a headlamp and face mask. Before entering the mine, we heard warnings that it’s very tight quarters in some places, and not for people who are prone to claustrophobia. Upon entering, everything was fine and we could walk easily through the shafts. However, very quickly, we had to begin ducking and dodging beams and rocks protruding from the ceiling. Michael and some of the other taller guys even had to crawl on their hands and knees at some places. We then came to another section where we had to climb down a sketchy dirt hole 45 meters into the abyss. That was the most terrifying part to me. If you are a larger person it’s basically impossible to fit. But thankfully, everyone made it down and continued to walk around and see actual miners at work, breaking apart the rock, hoisting large barrels up shoots, pushing 40-100 kilos of mineral in a barrel, etc. HARD WORK!
Half way through the tour, we had to climb up three sets of ladders to get to the next level of the mine, and our guide said to me, “You must be the daughter of Indiana Jones cause you’re so fast.” Haha!
Once on the upper level, we found a statue of Tio, the Andean Devil. Tio is the god of the underworld and the miners believe once they enter the mines, Tio is the only one that can protect them. Therefore, they pay respect to Tio by offering coca leaves, cigarettes and 96% alcohol (he also had a giant Johnson). Most bizarre statue I’ve ever seen. Apparently, there are dozens of these statues throughout the entire mine so no matter what level you’re working on, you can always find a Tio to pay tribute to.
The first Friday of every month, the miners visit Tio to ask him for protection in the mines and to provide them with minerals. The last Friday of every month, they return to Tio and thank him for his blessings. An interesting ritual. Our guide, Wilson, was a natural comedian paying his respects to Tio for our group, slightly inappropriate but made for an entertaining experience.
Another ritual for the miners, once a year they have a big offering celebration for the entire mine where they sacrifice a llama (or a dozen) and smear it’s blood on the entrance to the mine to protect the miners.
We continued on, this time trekking through mud so thick I thought my boot was going to be suctioned off, almost causing me to fall over. They warned us not to touch the walls because of all the minerals and mineral reactions (sulfur, etc), which made the tour that much more exciting (?!?!). Towards the end of the tour, we felt the pressure inside the mine shift and a loud banging noise surround us. Wilson very calmly said, “Dynamite”. That was the first time I was actually scared. Never in the U.S. would they allow live dynamite to be detonated when tourists are inside. Then sure enough, we walked past a side tunnel and three miners were coming out covered in dust from the blast. They hurried out in front of us and you better believe I was right behind them. We finally emerged from the mine, so happy to see daylight and take a fresh breath of air. Overall, it was a very eye-opening and truly humbling experience, and one I’m glad we did, in hindsight.
Experts believe the mine is destined to collapse one day because of all the over-mining and tunnels. Thankfully, we lived to see another day.
- Trash everywhere – our cab driver threw his trash out of the car window. I almost had a heart attack.
- No English – Practice Spanish before coming to Bolivia!
- Beer is more expensive than alcohol. That’s why so many Bolivians are sadly alcoholics.
- Crowded everywhere with people and cars
- No traffic laws – felt like Vietnam
- Not many restaurant options
- Terrible pollution – Can’t even breath
- Spicy food is actually spicy.
- Traditional food is very good – chicken and delicious sauce with rice. They even have decent Mexican food! Finally!
- Lunch and dinner are at a normal hour – No more 11pm dinner, hooray!
- Potosi Mine Tour
- Tour of the mines with Big Deal Tours – highly recommend.
- Be sure to watch the moving The Devil’s Mine. It’s a documentary about the Potosi Mine and gives a real life look into the lives of a young boy who was forced to work in the mine after his dad died. A heart-wrenching story, but allows you to be educated about working conditions and issues that still exist in Bolivia.
- The women in Bolivia dress in traditional colonial attire – I think it’s the cutest thing!
For starters, the drive from Potosi to Sucre is absolutely beautiful. You can either take a two hour cab ride or a three hour bus ride; for $9USD we took the cab. We heard a number of warnings about the cab and bus drivers driving drunk and crazy, but we didn’t experience that, thank goodness. Welcome to Bolivia!
The terrain constantly varies from giant rock mountains to flat valleys and rolling hills. It really is stunning. Unfortunately, the fumes from the cab and all the trucks/buses was very overwhelming. I feel like I haven’t taken a deep breath since Pucon a month ago.
Once arriving in Sucre, I immediately felt better than at Potosi. Sucre is the highest capital in the world at 9,214 ft, and wasn’t as poor or dirty as Potosi. We only had one full day in Sucre in which we hiked up the large hill in the middle of town for beautiful views of the city and visited the weaving museum where we learned about traditional fabrics, the history of the Bolivian people, and their cultural heritage. A very interesting civilization and I love that they still honor their relatives in spiritual ways.
The main market in Sucre was an experience in itself. There are different sections for fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, juices, toys, nuts, coca, and everything in between. The fruit and vegetable areas are truly a work of art, with everything stacked perfectly together and smelling delicious. The meat, on the other hand, was a smell I will never forget. Reminded me of my Hong Kong days and walking through the wet markets. (YUCK!) The stench from the meat that has been sitting out all day, pig noses, cow heads, I had to hold my breath and run through. It wasn’t pretty, but you get the picture. Speaking of pictures. I don’t have many here because the locals don’t like you taking pictures of them or their stands. If you do, you should ask for their permission first and then typically buy something from them.
We stopped at a juice stand and enjoyed fresh, made-to-order smoothies and yogurt parfaits. Absolutely delicious! Nice to feel healthy again. Bolivia has a lot of fruit which was a great change from the rest of South America.
Sucre was our final stop with Danny and Liz, and Paul and Evianne, so we sadly had to say goodbye and part ways. Miss you guys already!
- Fresh juices, smoothes, and fruit! – And so cheap!
- Not too much to do there besides see the city
- Dinosaur tour
- Visit the Local’s Market on Sunday outside the city
- If you go to the market, get the juice! After you finish your glass, give it back to the owner and she will refill it for free.
- Ask before taking pictures of any locals