I had plenty of time to kill in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Potosí while trying to figure out how to break the roadblock to Uyuni. I decided to go on a silver mine tour and found a street with a few tour offices. The only one open this early was called Big Deal Tours. This company is run by former miners and offers guaranteed safe tours of a working silver mine, Mina Santa Elena. I walked in and quickly booked a tour starting at 9am. The tour cost 150bs and they stored my backpack for the day.
I was picked up in a dusty old van with bad brakes and met about 14 others going on the tour, mostly from Australia and England. We were taken to a small warehouse to change into overalls and plastic boots, given a hardhat with a headlamp, and a small bag to carry our things. They recommended we dress lightly because it can get hot inside the mines and stored a few other things we weren’t able to take into the mine, like backpacks and our shoes.
We walked up the hill and were separated into two groups – one with an English speaking guide and one with a Spanish speaking guide. I chose the Spanish speaking guide because there were only three of us! His name was Beto. He was very funny and had some great stories.
Next, we were given a short tour of a refinery where raw silver and zinc were mixed with chemicals. We didn’t stay too long because the chemicals were very strong and irritating.
Everyone hopped into the dusty old van and we were taken to a miner’s market. Here, we were given the option of buying gifts for the miners. We could buy soft drinks, water, coca leaves for them to chew on, books and pencils for their kids, tools, and even dynamite! A special package of coca leaves, soft drinks, water, and books and pencils was suggested by Beto for just 20bs. He said it was the best gift we could give the miners. I bought one and stuffed it into my backpack.
Before going to the mine, we stopped to get a great view of the city.
The dusty old van made its way up a narrow dirt road for about 10 minutes and finally stopped in front of some small shacks. The miners don’t live in the shacks, but they are able to keep their personal belongings and change their clothes in them.
A few children walked by and Beto explained that they are working in the mines. Child labor is technically illegal in Bolivia but still occurs. He also told us about the widespread corruption between government officials and the owners of the mines. It has kept the majority of profits from being passed on to the miners for several generations. Wages are terribly low.
We noticed a dark red splatter on lots of the shacks and the entrance to the mine. Beto told us it was llama’s blood. Miners splatter it onto the buildings for good luck.
It was finally time to enter the mine. We followed Beto in a single file line and were stepping in small puddles of water, over tracks used for the mine carts, and sometimes rocks. A large tube ran along the shaft to provide the mine with oxygen. Beto let us know when the air was dangerous and we had to use our masks.
The mine was not made for tall people. Sometimes the shaft was so low we had to crouch down on our knees to pass through. I hit my head on wooden beams more than a few times! At one point I had to crawl over a pile of bags of silver with barely any room between the bags and the top of the shaft.
Occasionally, we had to move to the side to allow miners to pass us. Some of them were pushing carts to the entrance, others were carrying tools deep into the mine. All of them were moving as fast as they possibly could, drenched in sweat and covered in dirt.
Beto stopped a couple of the men and asked them about life in the mines. They were pushing very heavy bags of silver to the entrance. When Beto asked them how much they are paid, we were all shocked – just 11bs per bag of silver! That’s only about $1.50 per bag. We gave them a few gifts and we went our separate ways.
Next, we had to climb ladders to move up three levels. It wasn’t very difficult but it got a little tight. Beto went first to check if it was safe and helped each of us make the last few rungs up the ladders.
At the top, we were taken to a small room to sit and rest. In this room was a devilish figure called El Tío. Beto explained that outside of the mines, the overwhelming majority of miners are Catholic. Inside the mines, however, indigenous Andean culture prevails. They feel that God doesn’t exist inside the mines. El Tío is there to keep them afraid – afraid of not producing enough silver, afraid of having accidents, and afraid of death. They give him offerings such as coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol in return for his protection. I’m sure you noticed the obscene gesture. Beto said this was for fertility, not for having children, but for being successful in finding silver.
As we sat next to El Tío, Beto gave us a short history of the mines in Potosí. The Spaniards exploited the indigenous population and brought slaves from Africa to work in the mines for nothing. The number of people who have died in the mines is uncountable. He said the locals call the mountain “la montaña que come hombres”, or “the mountain that eats men”.
After paying our respects to El Tío, we met three miners who have been working in the mines for over a combined 110 years. They are all brothers – Sapito (Little Frog), Mono (Monkey), and Rambo. We never got their real names because all the miners know each other by nicknames.
I talked and joked around with Sapito for a bit while he showed me how he mined for silver. The mining is done in almost the same way it was in colonial times. Although it’s dangerous, the miners believe this is much more environmentally friendly than the strip mining and machine mining done by industrialized countries. They are very proud of their work.
After nearly two hours in the mine, we finally reached an opening. I was never happier to see daylight and breathe fresh air. As great as the experience was, I never want to go inside of a mine again! The miners have one of the most difficult jobs in the world and I have a lot of respect for what they do. They risk their lives and are paid very little for it.
Beto explained to us that the miners who run Big Deal Tours started the company to give an opportunity to other miners who had no other chance in life, and especially to keep children from working in the mines. Many miners work their whole lives in the mine and die without doing anything else, but being a guide gives them a chance to learn English and earn enough money for an education and a better life. Beto worked in the mines for 15 years before becoming a guide.
Remember that going inside a working mine is also very dangerous. Anything could happen – a collapse, a dynamite accident, being seriously injured by a cart, or even suffocation. Big Deal Tours guarantees safety but still warns customers of the dangers. Many of the suggested tour companies are not run by miners and some people have reported being put into questionable situations, but Big Deal guides know the mines very well. They know which parts of the mine are safest at any given moment and make sure they only visit these parts. Some people also reported claustrophobia their tour. I don’t like being in closed spaces, but I never felt uncomfortable or in a panicky situation.