09 March 2017

Should You Visit the Silver Mines of Potosi in Bolivia?

Should you visit the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia?

We’re leaving Sucre with a bus that is taking us to Potosí – one of the highest cities in the world – in just over three hours. This is the city I thought about the longest when we were planning our trip. Whether we should visit or not.

Because of all the silver that was found in the mountains in the 16th century, it was once a very rich and important city. Today it’s extremely poor and the main reason to go here is to visit one of those silver mines that are still in use.

I’m not convinced if I like the thought of going into a narrow, dark mine that I’m sure is not 100% safe. Based on what the Lonely Planet and some online reviews are telling me, I’m actually getting a bit worried.

But in the end it’s a convenient stop between Sucre and Uyuni. And when I share my concerns with the tour company they assure me that you only go into the mine for about thirty minutes, it’s absolutely safe and you can leave the mine at any point. Plus if you arrive at the mines and then decide not to go in that’s absolutely fine too. And so we go…

Buying gifts at the miner’s market

Should you visit the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia? Buying gifts at the miners market.

Our first stop is at the miner’s market to buy gifts for the mine workers. Your basic necessities: soda, coca leaves, cigarettes, pure alcohol…and dynamite.

Should you visit the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia?

This is also where we change into clothes that are more appropriate and leave our bags. I can only bring my compact camera. We’re still wondering when we’re going to sign some form about the security risks or when they’re actually going to tell us what to expect, but we’re getting back in the minibus and drive up the mountain to the mines.

It’s all happening in a flash. We arrive at the mine, they attach a lamp to my helmet and before I know it, I’m walking into the mine. I guess this is happening…

As soon as I enter the mine I know this is not your average tourist attraction. It’s dark, narrow and often so low that I can’t walk up straight. These mines were obviously not built for tall Dutch women and I keep hitting my head (fortunately with a helmet).

We’re following the mine railway that the workers use to get the mine carts in and out. The floors are wet and it’s super dusty. They gave us a mask to cover our mouths, but with an altitude of over 4000m I’m already struggling to catch my breath and the mask is not helping.

We walk further and further into the mine. Some parts are so low and narrow we have to crawl, although that never lasts very long.

El Tío, the devil god of the mountain

Since we were told the visit would only last thirty minutes, I’m wondering how much further we’re going. After an hour we reach El Tío (the uncle), a – let’s say ‘interesting’ – devil like figure where the mine workers bring offerings to ask for protection.

I’m glad we’re taking a little break, but then our guide pours some pure alcohol over the statue and lights a cigarette as an offering. Nothing happens, but if you’re asking for protection I’m not sure whether playing with alcohol and fire in a mine is a good idea.

Should you visit the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia?

By now the altitude, dust and narrow space is getting to me. I’m starting to feel dizzy, am short of breath and can’t wait to get out. I’m hoping that this is as far as we go, but she’s planning to take us another thirty minutes further into the mines. And then you still have to go back the same way.

“But…” she says. “If you want, the mine workers can take you back right now.” The rest of the group seems to be okay with staying, but I really need fresh air and day light. And so after a quick chat with the foreman, the group and our guide stay and we follow the mine workers who are pushing a super heavy mine cart up the railway out of the mine. They’re going so fast that we often have to run to keep up with them, but at this point I can’t wait to literally see the light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time it’s incredible to see these men at work and what they go through every single day.

Should you visit the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia?

Should you visit the mines when you’re in Potosi?

So now that I’ve been in the mine and made it out safely, would I recommend visiting the mines? It was an experience for sure. It’s not touristy and you get a good feel of what it’s like for these mine workers to work here. Plus I’m hoping that the money that they’re making with these tours helps them a bit financially.

But if I had stayed and continued the rest of the mine visit, I would have been in the mine for more than two hours. Maybe the thirty minutes that they promised wouldn’t have been enough to really experience the mine (after we left the group got to help the mine workers). But for me it was too long. Later I heard that it depends on your tour guide how much time you’re spending in the mine.

Let’s just say that I wouldn’t do it again. And if I had known what to expect, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But now that I have, I’m glad I got to learn more about the life of the mine workers and see for myself in what terrible circumstances they have to work every day.

Spending time in Potosi

Even though I didn’t have the best time at the mines, I actually very much enjoyed the little time we spent in the city of Potosí. With its rich history the city center still has some beautiful colonial buildings and there are some nice restaurants and cafés. For coffee / coca tea or lunch you should definitely check out Café la Plata, and restaurant 4060 (named after the altitude of Potosí) is a super popular place for dinner with a great atmosphere.

Have you ever been in a mine? Or would you want to visit one?