It’s worth a Potosi

On Tuesday June 7, I travelled from Sucre to Potosi with my English friends, Alice, Chris and Ian, who I’d met about a week earlier. The four-hour long bus trip costs 20 Bolivianos per person. Luckily, the road is good, with asphalt all the way up to the Altiplano.

Potosi is the highest city in the world situated at 4,060 m above sea level and at the foot of the famous silver-coloured mountain, Cerro Rico. Around the 17th century, Potosi was the largest and richest city in the world – bigger than London or Paris. The Spaniards started mining there in the 16th century and, since excavation began, miners have been saying that a silver bridge could be built between Potosi and Madrid only with the silver from these mines. Potosi was the biggest earner of the Spanish empire. A visit to the “Casa de la Moneda” provides more information if you’re interested.

To be honest, I apprehended my stay in this city. It’s now one of the poorest regions of Bolivia and I felt nervous about what I would find there. A week earlier, I’d seen a documentary film named The Devil’s Miner about children having to work down the mine to provide extra money for their family. The father had died when the oldest son (14 in the film) was two years old. For sure it was quite a change in comparison to the other cities I’ve visited but, in the end, it was a pleasant surprise. Potosi is not flat at all, it’s either uphill or down and I can tell you that, at 4,000 m, breathing is more difficult. The streets are narrow and the city centre is lovely.

Wednesday morning, Chris and Ian toured the mines. They’d booked the tour via our hostel, the Koala Den. As I’m claustrophobic, I didn’t go and to be honest I’m not sure I would have wanted to, even if i didn’t suffer from being in narrow, dark places. Instead, I went to visit the Foundation Voces Libres (a Swiss foundation based in Geneva) located in the neighbourhood of San Cristobal. A friend had sent me the link to their website a couple of days earlier and I’d already been in contact with them by email. Communication proved to be rather tricky as I wasn’t receiving any answers to the questions I was asking. They did, however, mention a one month volunteering programme. Perhaps if I’d had more time I’d have been up for it, but my trip is on a schedule so I opted for a day trip. I went to an agency in town to get the address of the Foundation and took a taxi as it’s quite a long way, high above the city centre.

Fundación Voces Libres
Calle Delgadillo 120
Zona San Cristobal

When I arrived, I spoke with the ladies at reception and told them I wanted to make a donation of 50$ for the children who work down the mine. The foundation opened a school, La Escuela Robertito por los niños del Cerro Rico, now attended by more than 100 children. Hopefully, after getting at least some kind of education, they’ll be able to apply for better jobs when they’re older. I’m really pleased to have made a donation and I was feeling better when I left Potosi the next day.

Did you know that the Cerro Rico is also known as the man-eating mountain? Since mining began in the 16th century, more than eight million people lost their lives in these tunnels of hell. Every month, 14 people die in the mines. The life expectancy of a man working in the mines is in between 35-40 years old. The most common cause of death is from dynamite explosions when the tunnels collapse or from lung disease, silicosis. To ease their pain, the men drink alcohol at 96% which smells like white spirit (I know this because I had a sniff). Today, there are more than 300 km of tunnels on 17 different levels, 500 entrances and more than 15’000 miners and other employees. The working conditions are terrible: dark and dusty, there’s very little air to breath and in some parts the temperature can reach 50° centigrade. There’s also the danger of a tunnel collapsing, not to mention the little wagons – weighing more than two tonnes each – without brakes and which have to be pulled by human strength alone! The guys never know if they will be back with their families in the evening after work.

To visit the mines, you cannot go on your own, you have to book through an agency. There are several in the city. The cost is about 120 Bolivianos per person for a four-hour tour. They will pick you up from your hostel and on the way you will need to buy presents from the miners : coca leaves, drinks or dynamite (yes! you can buy dynamite in the streets of Potosi). You’ll visit the refinery where they separate silver from the rocks and then go down the mine for about two hours. Before you enter the mines, you will be given a helmet and an overall. Once inside, your guide will take you to where the miners work and you’ll also see the shrine of “El Tio”,  the mine God.

n Wednesday afternoon Alice and I went to visit the Casa de la Moneda. This is where Spanish money (notes and coins) was produced between 1773 and 1825 then, later, for Argentina between 1813 and 1815 and, finally, for Bolivia until 1951. The guided visit is very interesting and I’d recommend it to everyone who visits Potosi. You will get to see all the different machines that have been used over the years. The architecture is also very interesting: the building measures 7,570 m2 and has more than 200 rooms. I’d also recommend you take warm clothes as it’s cold inside.

On Thursday morning, Alice, Chris and Ian left early for Tupiza and I left with three other people for Uyuni, the city from where you can take a tour to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

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