If you’re traveling through Bolivia, chances are you’ve noticed a little town south of La Paz called Potosi popping up on a few reviews and pages in your Lonely Planet guide.

But I guess you’ve never heard of it, right?

It’s no Uyuni Salt Flats or Lake Titicaca, and it’s definitely not an intrepid trip down the Amazon River into Madidi National Park.

But would you believe me if I told you it was the largest, richest city in South America just 400 years ago?

That’s right, before Rio and Buenos Aires were established, and standing over the mighty Cusco and Lima, Potosi was the crown jewel of the Spanish Conquest into Inca Land.

 Why?

One reason and one reason only.

A 600m tall lonely mountain that produced so much silver it funded the whole Spanish Empire. Without this mine, the nation of Spain might not exist today!

The History

From the mid 1500s to the 1800s, the Spanish exploited the riches of the mountain along with over 8 million slaves (4 million of which died for the cause), enjoying the spoils that came along with the rich veins (The Hobbit-style) of silver that ran through it.

And for hundreds of years, the Spanish would build an empire on the back of this mountain, establishing a city that swelled to 200,000 people at its peak, bringing more and more slaves and carving out more and more of the mountain.

The average miner only lasted 3 years down in the shafts, with many not seeing daylight for more than 4 months at a time.

The Peril

These days, Silicosis and Asbestosis contraction gives any miner a lifespan of just 12 years from starting in the mine, with the family of the miner receiving a USD$30/month pension thereafter for their troubles.

And with the extraction rate down to less than 1 gram of silver per tonne of rock, neither the Spanish nor any international company for that matter have anything to do with the city, leaving the locals to perilously pick through the scraps of what is left throughout the 2000-odd kilometers of tunnels that remain (can you imagine?).

Like many post-colonial cities, the best days are surely past for Potosi.

The mine, which has never actually seen a professional mining engineer onsite, remains in the hands of some 33 co-operative local owners who each run their own autonomous operations from their own shafts and processing plants dotted around the mountainsides.

To buy into the mine as an owner, you must have at least 4 years experience (on $5USD/day) working in the mine shafts, and then you must stump up between USD$1000-5000 for your share depending on the size of the shaft you buy.

Something isn’t adding up there right?

However, although there are obvious cultural and historical reasons why a young Bolivian would want to start working in the mine, why anyone would choose to do so of their own free will escapes me.

Still, to this day, 3 of the 2000 Bolivians working in the mine die each month from mining accidents.

If that happened in the western world, the business wouldn’t last a day longer!

And as stated before, if you don’t die from a mining accident, statistics say you’ll be dead by your 12th anniversary working there.

So it’s because of these stories that I felt compelled to check it all out for myself.

The Tour

Although there are mixed reviews and opinions on the altruism and sustainability of the tours provided by the locals, I thought it was imperative to take the risk and see for myself what really goes on inside the Potosi Silver Mine.

And contrary to the stories of exploitation, I was lucky enough to be shown around by an extremely articulate, compassionate, and intelligent ex-miner named Johnny, who after 3 years in the mine, and 12 years watching his Dad working down-shaft, knew his only way out was to improve his english, invest in safety equipment, and start showing the rest of the world the plight of his comrades.

Pickup

Johnny will pick you up from your hotel at either 10am or 2pm before taking you to his office where he’ll fit you out with protective clothes and shoes from top to bottom, and surgical masks to keep the dust out.

Miners Markets

As is custom, he’ll then take you for a drive down to the miner’s market where all the miners’ families work and trade goods for a living.

You can buy anything from fresh fruit smoothies for USD$0.80 to sticks of dynamite for USD$3 each.

Needless to say I purchased one of both.

As a token of gratitude for letting you into their workplace, it is custom to purchase a small bag of perishable goods, including coca leaves and lollies, to hand out to the miners and their children (that’s right) as you walk through the mine.

Trust me, for USD$2, you’ll feel like Santa at the end of it.

But it’s only when you get right up to the mine that you start to realize the plight these mining families survive through.

The Mountain

The mountain is dotted with crude, 100-year old processing items interspersed between shanty huts that the miners and their families live in.

There are no safety check-points, no security officers, and certainly no one coordinating the various dynamite blasts that go off between the shafts.

It’s all just one big pile of rubble with holes carved out of the side of it.

Fun Times

So remember how I purchased that stick of dynamite for myself?

Well it wasn’t as a souvenir!

Johnny agreed to let me set it off on the side of the mountain. So that’s exactly what we did!

And soon after feeling the wave of power that emitted from the single stick 40 meters away, we marched off to the safest of the mine shafts (the old state-owned one) to venture in.

But before entering, we were greeted by a miner finishing his shift.

With one eye pointing one way and the other pointing another way, a definite sway, and a stench of kerosene that preceded his direction by at least 5 meters, the man attempted to shake my hand.

More intoxicated than an 18 year old on a bender, this man typified the worker that gets it all done down there.

So aware of their plight, these men start each day drinking and offering to the mine god (Diablo) a 250ml bottle of 96% alcohol over a period of 20 minutes before entering the shaft.

And throughout the day, the same occurs underground.

No wonder the man stunk of petrol.

The Shaft

And after a 10 minute procession of hand shakes and marriage proposals, we finally got the chance to enter the shaft.

If you’ve ever been in a Western mine, you’re picturing a nice large shaft big enough for trucks to drive down, with wall lighting, ventilation, road signs, and safety lines. If this is what you have in your head, you are sorely mistaken.

Resembling more of a cave than a mineshaft, we crawled and stepped from one rock to the next. In one second we would be on our haunches, and the next in a cavern you could swing your arms in.

The walls, dotted with holes for dynamite sticks, were as crudely carved as they would have been 400 years ago when rock was first broken here.

And although my mind was forever aware of the fact I could be breathing in toxic fibres, I was compelled to venture further and deeper into the mountain.

Johnny led us the whole way, bragging that he could find his way out of this labyrinth even without a torch or lamp; an impossible task only realized when the perfect darkness of the underground was revealed upon switching all of our headlamps off.

And once the air started to get thick and the shafts all started to look the same, we turned around and made our way back. We passed over the single piece of timber used as a bridge, a statue of the devil worshipped every morning, and garbage that had been left there for generations.

Finally, upon our ascent into fresh air, we rubbed our eyes at sunset to a view of children returning home from school and greeting their parents somewhere up the mountain.

The Bottom Line

For less than USD$20, you can join one of these tours with a man like Johnny from your hotel in Potosi.

And although the guide books might scare you off, I highly recommend pushing your boundaries to witness a real example of a life much harder than yours.

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