Bolivia has a turbulent, often tragic history. Rich in natural resources, the country was plundered by the Spaniards for silver and gold in the 15th century, exploiting the indigenous Quechua and Aymara peoples in the process. Yet, Bolivia has managed to retain a strong indigenous cultural presence; something that can be seen and felt throughout the country.
Despite its abundance of precious metals and other minerals, however, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The remote, southwestern department of Potosi is among Bolivia’s most poverty-stricken. The high-altitude city of the same name (elevation 13,420 feet) was founded by the Spanish in 1545, and ironically remains a rich source of silver, lead, copper and zinc. Recently, large reserves of lithium have also been discovered in the region.
Although poor, Potosi has remained a stunning colonial jewel, and intrepid tourists come to admire its lovely buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.The ornate colonial buildings are painted in faded pastels. There’s a bustling mercado, and a handful of restaurants and shops showcasing local handicrafts (silver jewelry, mostly) form the basis of the centro. It’s an exceedingly pleasant place to while away a day or two.
Potosi is also a magnet for adventure travelers, who come to tour the working silver mines of Cerro Rico (“rich hill”). A massive, barren red hump of a mountain looming over the town, Cerro Rico is the main mining center, containing roughly 650 entrances to the various cooperative mines. The co-ops provide little benefit to the miners, even in the case of accidental death or work-related disease. The average lifespan for a miner is 10-15 years; most die from silicosis pneumonia. Cerro Rico is also in a slow state of collapse, due to overmining. Despite the risks, it’s believed that half of Potosi’s population of over 2,600 (mostly Quechua) work in the mining industry. The miners may not be getting rich, but let’s just say I saw a lot of spanking new Hummers rolling around those cobbled streets.
Working mine tours are one of the most controversial forms of tourism. Some might consider them exploitative. Others might be tempted to call them educational. While conducting research prior to my trip, I remained conflicted as to how I felt about them. Is descending two miles below the earth in order to see firsthand the abysmal conditions workers – many of them as young as 13 – must endure for up to 10 hours a day voyeurism of the worst kind? I believe so.
Yet, I also see the value in showing visitors (who, let’s face it, are usually from industrialized nations) the dirt behind their pretty silver baubles. We all use products containing the precious metals mined from places like Cerro Rico, but I find that irrelevant. Rather, I feel it’s important for travelers to see how others live, even if that exposure makes us uncomfortable, guilty or depressed.
The deciding factor for me came when I read about the better tour companies in town. It wasn’t just about finding one with a good safety record. I also wanted it to employ former miners, ban the use of explosives for show (some companies let tourists detonate dynamite, which is potentially deadly for visitors and miners alike), and to donate part of their proceeds to mining families. The latter is used for fresh food, which, I later learned, is the most critical need, above even medical care.
If you look in guidebooks or online forums, you’ll see that mine tours are no joke. They’re inherently dangerous, and among the risks are cave-ins, toxic gases, explosions, falling rocks and runaway carts. If you suffer from claustrophobia, asthma, or other respiratory problems, you’ll likely want to give them a miss.
A reputable company will require you to more or less sign your life away on a waiver. They should also provide good-quality protective gear, including rubber boots, coveralls, a helmet, and a headlamp. Mine tours are not, to quote Koala’s website, “FOR WIMPS OR WOOSIES.” You should also bring a bandanna or surgical mask to protect your lungs from silica, arsenic and asbestos dust. Don’t worry about carbon monoxide poisoning– acetylene lamps are now used to detect deadly pockets of the gas. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.
I ended up choosing Koala Tours, a small company based in Potosi. They also run an excellent hostel, the Koala Den, which is where the tours depart. I arrived at 5 a.m., not-so-fresh off an overnight bus ride from La Paz. The hostel allowed me to check my backpack for free during the tour, and afterward, I paid roughly $1.25 for a shower. They also booked, free of charge, my afternoon bus to Tupiza (due to time constraints, I literally had to do the tour and hit the road).
Our group of four met with our guide, a sweet, 30-year-old ex-miner named Melvin, who took us to Koala’s warehouse, where we were outfitted with gear. Then we headed by van up the road to a neighborhood mercado, where we bought coca leaf for the miners (all of whom are men; it’s considered bad luck for women to work inside the mines, although some do work in the industry).
We then stopped at a miner’s supply to pick up alcohol (more on that in a moment), water, cigarettes and dynamite. Although supplying miners with cancer sticks, deadly explosives, and 96% ethyl alcohol seems contrary to the idea of supporting them, the reality is that they rely on these items. Their wages don’t allow for much in the way of incidentals, so bringing them work supplies and “refreshments” to help them through their shifts in stifling heat isn’t just thoughtful, but more or less mandatory. No one will force you to purchase these items, but put it this way: it’s the right thing to do.
The alcohol (brand name: Ceibo) is used as part of a daily ritual performed by the miners before they begin each shift. Every mine has a shrine, with effigies of the Virgin Mary and a “Tio,” or uncle. Tio is actually a representation of the devil (one with a very oversized phallus, I might add). The belief is that because the steaming bowels of the earth offer such riches, it must be he who owns them, rather than Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), or a Christian god from the heavens.
Every day, the miners perform a cha’lla, or offering, to the effigies. Tio is blessed by a capful of alcohol poured at his feet, and then a capful is consumed by the miner (since I like to think I’m a team player, I let Melvin convince me to try a shot, which unsurprisingly, damn near ate a hole in my esophagus). Tio is also proffered coca leaves and cigarettes, and then it’s time for work.
Before heading to the mine, we stopped at an ingenio, or smelter, so we could have a better understanding of how the rocks hacked from the mines are turned into semi-precious metals. We watched Melvin work his way through the machinery, and departed with glittering stripes of liquid silver on the backs of our hands.
Arriving at the 500-year-old Candelaria mine was almost anti-climatic. It was hard to believe that this splintered wooden-framed entrance hidden behind a few desolate, decrepit buildings, is one of Bolivia’s most prolific and historic silver mines.
After a safety talk, we walked into the mine. Within minutes, the air turned humid and stuffy, and we were wading through puddles of water, and mud. Not far from the entrance was a small, makeshift shrine beneath a propped-up beam – the site of a fatal cave-in. Soon after, we ran into Carlos, one of many multi-generational miners working in Candelaria. He was awaiting the arrival of his father and brother so they could start excavating. Carlos had a wad of coca leaves the size of a tennis ball stuffed in his cheek, but managed to mumble answers to our questions via Melvin. Now in his early 20s, he’d been working in the mines since he was little more than a boy.
As we ascended deeper into the mine, the temperature soared, and the water grew deeper in places, sometimes reaching our knees. Our coveralls acted as private saunas; sweat dripped into my bandana. Periodically, Melvin would stop to point out some feature – a vein of silver running along a damp wall; 700-pound trolleys filled with rocks that would be pushed out of the mine; bulging shoulder bags full of raw metal and weighing up to 80 pounds, worn by the miners as they got off shift. Discarded plastic water and alcohol bottles littered the floors of the tunnels we explored; Melvin picked them up and tucked them into his shoulder bag for disposal, and we followed suit.
There were many disturbing images I saw in the depths of Candelaria – one of the most memorable was watching three 16-year olds taking a cigarette break in temperatures so hot it seared our lungs. But it was seeing Melvin’s face as he talked about what it’s like to work in the mines that will forever stay with me.
At times, his eyes would almost brim with tears while he explained something. I asked him why he stopped mining, curious about his response. He told me it was because he knew he would have a very short life if he didn’t. He began leading tours because he believes it’s important for visitors to know the working conditions miners labor in. He also wants to give back to the mining community (via the financial proceeds donated by Koala Tours).
This led me to my most burning question: “Do the miners resent us for being here, especially while they’re working?” I’ll never know if Melvin’s response was sincere, but I’d like to take him at his word. “No, they are grateful, because the tourists bring them supplies. It helps them, and they understand that we are trying to educate people.”
Regardless of whether or not Melvin was speaking the truth, all of the miners we encountered were cordial. And I came away with more questions. Should I stop wearing silver? Or was boycotting it only hurting the livelihood of the miners? As a journalist, was it wrong of me to write about the tour, or was I performing a valuable service to the men and boys laboring beneath Cerro Rico’s barren soil?
As with many things related to tourism, there are no good answers. I’m grateful I made the trek to Potosi to tour Candelaria. It allowed me to see that behind the danger and desolation, there’s also a strange sort of pride in being part of Potosi’s mining heritage. It may not make up for the working conditions and other injustices faced by the miners and their families, but it made me understand that for many indigenous Bolivians, this is part of their story.