The Silver Mines of Potosi

Looks safe, right?

Also Known As: Buying dynamite and refusing to go on the tour

What it is: a 5 hour tour that includes 2 hours through the mine
Cost: $13.04 plus $2.90 for dynamite to give to the miners

I came to Potosi to see the silver mine. I paid my Bolivianos but would not enter the mine. Here’s why:

The Potosi Silver Mine is sometimes referred to as “the hill that eats men alive.” Last year 29 men died in cave-ins. It is estimated that two miners die each week of silicosis. I wanted to see the area out of professional interest but what I got was unexpected.

Me, refusing to go into the mine

The day started with a group of interested tourists getting our hard hats, mud boots and other gear to go down into the mine. In order to visit the mines we had to buy gifts for the miners. That meant our first stop was the Miner’s Market. The men in the mines are given the minimum of mechanical equipment to do their jobs and the mine does not supply dynamite or safety equipment. So we were presented with a variety of gifts to give the men. Our options were coca leaves, beer, cigarettes, dynamite or the miner’s preferred drink of 96% alcohol which they mix with juice. I wish I could’ve bought a respirator but that wasn’t an option.

As I looked at what to buy, I tried to choose between the lesser of the evils. If the men were dying of silicosis, a lung disease, there was no way I was going to buy them cigarettes. I was uncomfortable enough entering the mine, let alone entering a mine operated by drunk miners so the alcohol was not an option. I decided to buy them dynamite because at least it would make their job easier and less back-breaking. So, for $2.90 I was able to buy a stick of dynamite, a fuse and a small bag of ammonium nitrate to give to the miners.

Manually hauling cars of ore out of the mine

As we got onto the road to the mine, I noticed our guide had purchased several beers and was shotgunning them before we got to our destination. Once we stopped he explained to us that the miners all go out drinking on Friday nights and since this was Saturday morning, the miners were very likely to be hung over so we needed to be extra nice to them. As we talked, men came out of the mines and urinated in the buildings nearby. Two guys came through pushing a car of ore and dumped it down the hill. We started towards the mine opening.

I seriously started to doubt if a mine in Bolivia was the place I wanted to die with our drunk guide. As we got to the entrance I looked for timbers, rock bolts, shotcrete, anything that would indicate the tunnel was secure. There weren’t any. Were they really bringing tourists into a mine without supports, full of drunk miners, armed with alcohol and dynamite?! I looked at the rest of the group, all excited and keen to see the insides of the mine.  Clearly, this was a bad idea, 29 people died in cave-ins last year!  I’m pretty sure a the mountain doesn’t discriminate between tourists and miners. As we continued to descend, I decided I’d rather watch hungover miners pee on shanties for two hours rather than walk into the mine. This was crazy. I told the group I’d wait outside and gave my dynamite to the more risk tolerant tourists.

I went outside somewhat shocked at the conditions I had seen. I sat down and groups of children approached me to buy sparkling rocks they had collected. They were so cute I couldn’t say no. As a child I had prized my rock collection and I felt a kinship with these entrepreneurs. They insisted I get one of the whole collection and filled my hands with rocks of different colors. How was I supposed to fit them all in my backpack? I watched as men on the hill below filled wheel barrow after wheel barrel with gravel and loaded them into a dump truck. One was wearing a shirt that read “Falcons Cheerleader.” There was a group of men drinking near by. They lifted their glasses and invited me to join. I politely declined. It was only 10:00 AM after all. I figured it would be in poor taste for a lady to drink rubbing alcohol before noon. They continued to drink the two hours I sat waiting. As time went on, a few other people from our tour who had gotten claustrophobic joined me. An older woman waited in a truck for her driver who was in the group of men drinking. Every once in while while she’d get impatient and honk the horn repeatedly, trying to get him to stop drinking and drive her somewhere.

When the tour ended and my group came out of the mine, they excitedly reported that they had gotten to light the dynamite themselves. Are you kidding me?!  The only thing worse than hungover miners with explosives are hungover traveled looking for a good story.  I knew that I had made the right decision to stay outside. They said there were many areas that you had to bend sideways to get into and the few support beams they saw looked like they were buckling under the weight. They got to talk to the miners and apparently the youngest one there was only 15. They said the oldest miners were around 45. After that the men were usually in too poor of health to work anymore. I looked down on the hill below and saw that after two hours the dump truck was nearly half full.

For me, this was a sad and sobering experience. Seeing men work in awful conditions that ultimately may end their lives with little to no safety made me feel terrible. These men do not receive a living wage and often die young. Their children live and play outside the mine. If conditions don’t change, they will also have the fate same as their parents. As a tourist It made me very uncomfortable to treat working men like a zoo exhibit. It helps that we brought gifts but I don’t feel that the tour was really ethical or safe.

I felt extremely grateful to be from the US and know that me and my family don’t have to work in those conditions. I’m not really sure what the right response is to make this situation better and I wish I could help.  As with so many things, the best thing you can do is be conscious of where you spend your money.  I’m not sure I’d suggest this tour, but if you do it, buy a hard hat for a miner, buy something to make their job easier.