Bolivia would surprise you. For such a tiny country it has an incredible amount of things to see; the salt flats, the Potosi mines, the San Pedro Prison, and this is just the stuff on the beaten track. After travelling through for a week I decided to stop over in Potosi and take a guided tour through the mines, but only after a fair bit of thought…
A lot of people face an ethical conundrum when it comes to taking the mines tour in Potosi and some decry it as middle-class voyeurism on coke (Route 36…) There are many organised tours to the mines run by different companies. I went with Real Deal Tours because of this glowing review and a plethora of other positive ones online.
Real Deal Tours is run by ex-miners, who were sick of other Big Name Companies keeping all tour profits for themselves, giving little back to the mines and miners. Having had to work the mines for years, the tour guides were incredibly knowledgeable and sympathetic to the plight of the miners and the experience felt more authentic because of it. They also knew many of the miners we passed by name, greeted them and ensured that we all brought presents for them. They spoke fantastic English and kept us laughing throughout the tour.
We started the day off in the market, paying 15 Bolivianos for cocoa leaves and orange juice and went down to get changed into our protective gear. We donned rubber boots, hard helmets, mouth covers and blue overalls for the trip. In the mines the walls were low and cramped and everywhere was wet and dark. We were provided with head torches to light the way, greeted many miners and offered them cocoa leaves and juice. The reason we bought them orange juice was because many of the miners, who aren’t that partial to drinking water, were used to drinking super-strength alcohol. There were some drunk miners outside when we were beginning the tour and our guide told us that it is because of their circumstances and prospects that they drink. The lifespan of a miner is short and many of the miners begin work at a very young age, from around 10-14 years old, with little reward.
After travelling down some way and being informed of the history and the stories surrounding the miners we went (further) down see El Tio, the underground devil statue. Though Bolivia is a Catholic country, the miners give offerings and pray to the devil within the mines, as they say, while God rules above ground, El Tio is in charge down below. We made a toast to El Tio, with 90% pure alcohol whilst relaying whether we were single or not, and if we were our guide prayed for us to find nice Bolivian men or women here!
Our guide relayed the history of Potosi and its reliance on the mining industry. He also recounted how he originally got into mining and why he started up the mines tour company. It was really interesting to hear a firsthand account and we got talking to some of the other miners working there and asked about their conditions.
Then came the scary bit! Before going on the mines tour I’d read a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor and was alarmed at the safety aspect of going down into the mines. I felt better when someone reasoned that, it must be safe, as the tour guides themselves don’t want to die, but there are still a lot of scary anecdotes recounted! For the entire tour I felt safe, the only scary part was ascending 3 levels BY LADDER. The ladder was fine, but you have to climb on one (and they weren’t short either) move to a patch of ground on the right and then climb up the next one and do this a few times. It wasn’t that bad, it was just unexpected and a loooong way down. For most of the time down the tunnels, you’re cramped and usually need to crouch, but for the most part, I can assure you that it was safe!
This was the exit! Huzzah! I’d overcome my fear and was so glad that I did. It was one of the best things I’d experienced in south America and I would heavily recommend it!
Media: Documentary, The Devil’s Miner, on conditions in Bolivian mines, focusing on one young boy.
NB: Don’t bring anything cumbersome to carry, only a bandana to protect your mouth from dust, water and some money for the gifts. The boots they give you are waterproof so don’t worry about footwear.
As of May 2013, the tour cost 100 Bolivianos (£10), but it can be done cheaper with other companies and most people at my hostel booked the tour for 70 Bolivianos through them.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I was not sponsored to write this post! If I had though, it would still be the same!