that time: down into the potosí mines

Once one of the richest in the world the fabled Bolivian city of Potosí has experienced a history of remarkable highs and extreme lows. Famous for it’s silver, the city once sat at the heart of the Spanish Empire, supplying the monarchy with enough of the precious metal to fuel Spain for centuries. Today, much of Potosí’s silver is gone and the city remains a fragile relic of a great city that once was.

For visitors to Potosí one of the more popular and interesting activities to participate in is a tour of one of the notorious silver mines that serve as the workplace for most of the local men. A few operators  offer tours to the underground quarries, but the best and most sustainable ones are the tours run by the miners or ex-miners themselves. My hotel in Potosí was able to arrange an ex-miner run tour for me and any hotel catering to tourists in the city should be able to do the same.

mines5

All geared up and ready for our trip down into the Potosí mines.

Bringing gifts to the miners is an appreciated sign of respect for the hard work they do.

Bringing gifts to the miners is an appreciated sign of respect for the hard work they do.

Whether run by one of the miners or not, a tour to the mines includes all safety equipment you would need from helmets and flashlights to coveralls and boots. Once changed and ready to go, the tour makes a quick pit stop at the local mines market to pick up gifts such as dynamite and coca leaves for the working miners. From the market is was a five minute bus ride until we arrived at the entrance to the mine where the unforgettable experience would officially begin.

Into the mines we go....

Into the mines we go…. little did we know what a contemplative experience would await.

Many of the cooperative mines in Potosí are still in use and the dark narrow paths we climbed through are still traversed by miners today. Whereas other mine tours may have taken us on a well charted path, in Potosí mine tours wind through dark slapstick collection of narrow and muddy tunnels that often required us to crawl on our hands and knees in order to pass. Throughout it all,  sounds of dynamite blasts echoed through the mountain and interactions with miners on their way to and from work added an element of reality that was both authentic and terrifying.

Working hard in the mines.

Working hard in the mines.

Because of the realness of a trip down into the Potosí mines, visiting them is not for everyone. The trip is both physically and mentally challenging and once you begin down the tunnels there is no way out except to continue on through to the other side. It was hard to be in the mines for an hour, let alone to fathom the experience being just a slice of the typical and grueling workday miners experience daily. Miners in Potosí spend up to eight hours each day in the harsh conditions, putting themselves through excruciating work in the hopes to make less than what we paid for an hour tour of the same space.

Makeshift idols are part of an important mining ritual meant to protect the lives of the silver miners and hopefully reward them with wealth.

Makeshift idols are part of an important mining ritual meant to protect the lives of the workers and reward them with wealth.

After an hour in the mines.

After an hour in the mines.

The experience of going down into the craggy passageways that comprise the silver mines was at once a voyeuristic and eye-opening one. As a visitor it was amazing to explore a world so different than my own and in such an unfiltered way. A trip to the Potosí mines is very much a trip into the lives of the local population and an experience unlike any other in Bolivia and perhaps the world.  Though far from glamorous, a tour to the Potosí mines is a part of my Bolivian experience I will never forget.

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