Cooperative Mine Tour in Potosi, Bolivia
I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to take the cooperative mine tour in Potosi, Bolivia. It’s a working silver mine, meaning that going into the caves involves a voyeuristic view of a painstaking job with tight, claustrophobia-inducing chambers, dirt and dust containing anything from silica to asbestos, and wretched climbs.
On one hand, the Potosi mine tour seemed interesting: a chance to see something in action that I would never see elsewhere. On another, it seemed kind of scary, dark, and dangerous.
Not to mention the fact that you’re going there to watch people work. Do their job. Their dangerous and difficult job.
Is it exploitative? I don’t know. The miner’s supposedly get a percentage of the tour’s profits. And we brought them gifts of dynamite and juice.
And in two hours time we barely scratched the surface of the mine. We just saw a glimpse. Close to the surface. I don’t think I even want to know what goes on further. Deeper. But the better tours certainly don’t go there.
I went with Koala Tours, though mostly because I was able to book through my hostel. But they seemed to be good.
There are probably tours that take you deeper in, and take you to more levels. There are probably tours that have dynamite demonstrations (though, I believe those have been banned).
But the few people I’d met who had went on the Potosi mine tour had they said that it was an interesting experience, that it was worth it. So, I took a 4 hour bus ride from Sucre to Potosi, before heading off to Salar de Uyuni, and I decided to check it out.
15,000 miners are working within Cerro Rico mountain every day. There are huge risks. Not just of cave ins and explosions (which do happen). But many of the workers are likely to die of complications from the polluted air in the caverns. Many of the miners I saw weren’t wearing masks. I could hardly breath without coughing. I was only there for two hours.
The conditions were harsh. I hyperventilated trying to climb up a tiny cavern to watch a man drill holes for dynamite and blew gray out of my nose for a day afterwards.
I couldn’t imagine doing that every day. Doing that for a living.
Many of the men go to work young, early teens, and work for a long time. Some of the men there that day had been working for 15, 20 years and were only as old as I am. Or younger.
How many men die in that mountain? I’m not sure. Someone asked while we were inside and our guide replied, “I’ll tell you when we’re out.” But then I forgot to ask when we were out at the end. I didn’t want to know when we were in there. Because, if something happened, if there was an explosion, a cave in, I’d have been at just as much of a risk as any of the workers.
If you’re looking for things to do in Potosi, Bolivia, or in Bolivia in general, the cooperative mine tour is an interesting tour and is worth checking into (there isn’t much else to do in town). I can’t say whether anyone should go or not. I can’t say. I’m not even sure if I’m happy I went. It felt like a demented bring your daughter to work day horror film in the making.
But it was interesting, I’ll tell you that.
Photos from the Cooperative Mine Tour in Potosi, Bolivia: