Tornado Tour of South America – Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil
Taking a Potosi Mine Tour and briefly visiting the city center.
To get to Potosi, I took a bus from Uyuni. I went in the morning and found a company with tickets available.
For breakfast I went to a street food cart and pointed at this mystery ball. The lady wrapped it, put salad, spice, vinegar and salt on it. Biting into it I discovered a fried mashed potato ball with an egg on the inside. Quite tasty!
A man sitting at the cart pointed at this dark jerky in front of him. “Alpaca!” and motioned for me to try. I ate a piece and it was so dry it was almost crunchy. I thanked him and went to catch my bus.
On boarding I noticed the Swiss girls on the tour with me yesterday was also on this ride. About 4 hours later and enough beautiful Bolivian scenery to last me for days, we arrived.
One of the highest cities in the world at 13,420 feet (4,090 m), Potosi has had a rich history of growth, development, and then downfall. Previously a Spanish colony, it was an important city for its silver reserves. The Spanish mint was located here and in the 1600s it became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world.
In the 1800s, silver was depleted and tin became the main metal. But this led to the decline of the city.
In 1987 Potosi was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mining continues to this day using methods dating back to colonial times.
The bus dropped us off at the old station which is mostly for the Uyuni bound route. We took a taxi to the new terminal where I purchased my onward ticket for 6:30 pm to go to Sucre and left my bag with the bus company office.
The girls were getting food so I said bye and headed into the city center.
Downtown the driver dropped me off right in the main square. I first went to book a mining tour, but was unsuccessful after trying at three different tour companies. The tours left at 1 p.m. and it was already 3 p.m. I was told that it wasn’t as interesting on a Sunday either as the miners take the day off.
The mining tour was the main purpose of this stop, so I was determined to get into a mine. I found one tour office that was open to providing a private tour (for a slightly higher pricing at only 180 Bolivianos). So he made some calls and arranged a driver.
In the meantime I went to check out the main square of the Potosi which unfortunately it was under construction.
In the square I bumped into this Korean lady who sat next to me on the bus from Uyuni. We started chatting and I found out she was interested in the tour, so I invited her to join.
Potosi Mine Tour
Back in the office, the van came and picked us up. The ticket seller, Genaro Montes Titto, was an ex-miner and would also be our guide for the day.
Our first stop was the market where the miners buy supplies. A small street lined with stores sold everything from dynamite to coca leaves. We bought some soda and coca leaves to give as gifts for 10 Bolivianos.
We drove up a hill to a house where a lady was washing clothes with several dogs sleeping around her.
Inside the building we changed into mining gear with a hard hat, jumpsuit, and rubber boots.
Then we drove to the mine.
He took us up the hill and showed us all the individual mining cooperatives in the area. A lady came over with her two kids. She was a widow of a miner. Apparently due to the poor working conditions, miners all develop silicosis and have a life expectancy at around 40 years old. We gave her some of the gifts.
Peering into the dark hole, we prepared ourselves to go in. I have to say, it wasn’t the greatest feeling knowing I was going to descend deep into a poorly supported rabbit hole.
Genaro turned on our headlamps and led us into the mine.
There really was barely any support structure inside. It was just a tunnel in the rock with more rocks piled up for support. Some passages were blocked off due to a cave in.
I was glad they weren’t working today. Imagining dynamite exploding in this confined area was terrifying.
Our guide took us further into the mine. We climbed, descended, crawled and walked across wooden planks. Some holes we passed were 300 meter drops. Other areas had hoists where minerals were brought up to the surface.
He explained that this was primarily a silver mine but now they mostly mine low purity zinc and some lead. At one point he brushed these crystals off the wall and handed it to us.
This is asbestos.
I tried to hold my breath as the dust and particles in the air was highlighted by the stream of light from my headlamp.
Genaro painted a grim picture of the life of a miner. Some miners that work on the bottom levels of the mine at 700-800 meters deep will work 24 hour days, four days a week without seeing daylight, simply because it takes too long to descend and ascend.
They have four ranks in their mining profession, from the expert miner to the preteen boy, helping mostly for transporting or lighting fuses in hard to reach places. All this for a measly salary.
We passed by several devil statues until we arrived at the largest statue deep in the mine. Above ground they worship god, below ground they worship the devil. Our guide performed a ceremony where he offered coca leaves, a lit cigarette, and splashes of the 98% alcohol, which he also gave us a shot of to taste. It was awful.
In the passage were a bunch of statues completely broken and falling apart. Genaro explained that they had a museum there before but due to cave-ins the displays got ruined.
On our way out we found a mine cart and we got in for some photo-ops. Then he pushed us a short distance down the rails. I felt like Donkey Kong. It was unreal.
Following our guide, we made our way back through the maze of tunnels to the exit. The path was not familiar at all.
Seeing the light of day was really relieving. I’m not claustrophobic, but after that experience I might be.
After the tour we rushed back to the station as it was already 6:09. Running into the office floor, I found my bus company’s office closed with my bag inside.
Going downstairs to the departures I found a lady who looked familiar and explained my bag was in their office. She eventually understood my broken Spanish and after conferring with another man, they called someone and told me to wait in front of the office.
At this point I already missed the bus, so I found another company with an 8:30 departure to Sucre.
The lady from the company eventually showed up and let me retrieve my bag. I thanked her and she grumbled that I was late.
To make sure I didn’t miss the bus, I decided to eat in the restaurant in the center of the terminal. Though the service was slow, the egg and steak hamburguesa was delicious. I sat with a friendly Bolivian guy who chatted about his visit to Potosi for his engineering job.
The terminal was not very well organized and after several platform changes I found my bus and boarded.
Next stop, Sucre!