The day after our Salar de Uyuni tour we were scheduled to hit the road right away, but first we ran a few errands in Tupiza, including heading to the central market to shop for lunch supplies.
As we headed out of town we tried to find a propane filling station with no luck and then had our first experience buying gas in Bolivia. I don’t quite understand the logic or reasoning, but in Bolivia, only certain stations will sell gas to cars with foreign plates. Those stations that will actually agree to sell you gas are also allowed to charge more than double the listed price. It’s a total racket and it is completely annoying. Leaving Tupiza we had no problem buying gas but we would come to realize later that it wouldn’t always be so easy.
Our destination for the day was Potosí, famous for its silver mines. As we drove we started listening to the Marching Powder audiobook about the famous San Pedro prison in La Paz, getting us in the mood for some of the sights we would see later on in Bolivia. The countryside was again beautiful as we climbed up into the hills.
As we came closer to Potosí the weather changed dramatically and all of a sudden the ground was white and it was snowing around us. To top it all off, thunder and lightning seemed to surround us from all sides.
As we drove into Potosí the snow turned into rain. Potosí certainly has lovely cobblestone streets, cute pedestrian avenues, and lots of narrow alleys and tight corners; overall a very charming city. But since we were arriving in the middle of a storm, driving into Potosí was a bit of a challenge. The city center is smack at the bottom of a valley which meant that rivers of water were pouring down every street. Perhaps in an effort to aid in the drainage, most of the manhole covers had been removed, which meant that if you weren’t careful, you’d sacrifice not only a tire, but probably a wheel and an axle too.
With all the streets were chaotic. Wolf and I circled around will Ciaran and Anas scouted out a few hostel options. We sorted out a parking lot as well but by the time we were able to fight our way back to the parking lot our van had gone through too many puddles, or been subjected to too many hours at altitude and suddenly we’d lost our ability to hold idle again. Wolf masterfully maneuvered the car the last few blocks, weaving in and out of traffic and dealing with stalling when shifting gears. Finally we maneuvered into a tiny lot, hoping that our engine just needed a night of rest and a bit of drying out – we weren’t prepared to deal with another stalling issue just yet.
We unloaded in the rain and walked a few blocks where we dropped our bags at the hostel. We spent a few minutes debating next steps, eventually settling on booking a tour of the mines for the following day. Setting off in search of dinner, the city by foot was so much more enjoyable than trying to navigate the tiny streets with a stalling car.
I started to understand the draw of Potosí, and we spent the evening enjoying sitting down to a nice dinner with Ciaran and Anas.
The following morning we were ready for our mine tour bright and early.
I debated for a long time about whether or not to take the tour. Potosí’s silver mines date back to the discovery of silver in the Cerro Rico around 1545. Once the Spanish entered the picture the mines and the miners were heavily exploited. Even now, those miners working to excavate the little silver that remains are working in somewhat shocking and fairly abysmal conditions. Because of this, I had a few ethical hesitations about taking a tour. On the one hand, it feels quite uncomfortable to watch others working in conditions that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. On the other hand, it’s an eye-opening opportunity to see how some of the rest of the world works. Wolf had visited the mines on his last trip through Bolivia and he explained that his experience had been very powerful.
In the end I decided to give it a try. In hindsight, we should have chosen another tour operator because we ended up having a somewhat disappointing experience. The silver mines of Potosí seem to me to offer an outstanding opportunity to educate tourists about the realities of producing a product we take for granted, and also an awesome chance to convey a difficult history framed by ways to make a positive impact now. Our guide unfortunately did none of these things.
Despite our guide, it certainly was eye-opening to see the working mines. We dressed up in protective clothing and boots, even donning paper masks, and each of us bought a few gifts to give the miners – coca leaves, drinks, and snacks.
We stopped for a minute to take in a view of Potosi and regroup before entering the mines.
Watching the miners come in and out was enough to convey how physically demanding the working conditions really are – pairs of miners emerged from the mine pushing a cart overflowing with massive rocks.
The rickety rail beneath the cart sagged in quite a few places and had to be manually redirected a few times before the miners could dump the contents and return to do the same thing over again.
With this scene in mind, we all filed through the entrance and into the mines.
Just a few steps in and we were in pitch black darkness, with our headlamps providing the only light.
As we walked further into the mines it became harder to breathe and the air was filled with dust and particles. I have to admit, I didn’t love being in there. I felt like I was gasping for air and as we twisted and turned down a series of narrow passages, I realized there was no way I would be capable of finding my way out. The whole thing was a bit unnerving and I realized how incredibly hard the miners were really working and how uncomfortable the conditions really were.
We visited the miners’ shrine where I was further shocked to see that part of the offering they would leave was a lit cigarette – I couldn’t believe that anyone thought it was a good idea to leave a smoldering flame amidst dried coca leaves in a mine full of dynamite.
As we walked down the dark passages, our guide would often suddenly warn us to get up against the walls before a heavily laden mining cart pushed by a pair of miners flew by.
She reminded us that the rails weren’t very good so the cars often derailed and if we didn’t hug the walls we would lose a toe. The miners were obviously used to tours but also were there working hard and mostly kept their heads down, expecting we’d all get out of their way.Down a few more dark passages we stopped to talk to a few miners who were busy loading up a cart. They told us about working long hours in the mines and we started doling out our little gifts to any of the miners we saw.
Quite a few of the passages were crumbling at the side, and I couldn’t help but wonder when they would all collapse. As far as I could tell there was very little rhyme or reason to how things worked inside the mines.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the experience was the dynamite. We heard explosions several times over the course of our tour. Most of the time it sounded distant and muffled, but at one point as we walked there was suddenly a series of explosions that seemed to be just on the other side of the wall, so loud and deep and powerful that I felt it all through my body. It was a bit terrifying for me, but again, incredibly eye-opening to realize that there was no warning sign or notice beforehand – it was every man for himself inside the mines.
Before our tour ended I had decided I was done. One of the other girls on our tour was feeling ill and I had had enough anyway so together we made our way out of the mines while the Wolf and Ciaran finished the tour. They ended up getting the chance to use some of the actual mining equipment and talked to quite a few more miners deeper down inside the mines.
I tagged along with another tour to get back in the city and after a confusing bus ride through town ended up back at the hotel just a few minutes before the boys. We met Anas who had opted out of the tour completely and all went to grab lunch at a fun little vegetarian restaurant to compare notes about our experiences and the day’s events.
We wandered back through town and checked out the crazy market options on display, including dried llama fetus:
It had been a long day but we were ready to get on the road again.
Back at the car again we were happy that our stalling issue was mostly solved. On our way out of town we tried to get gas but were denied. The station attendant told us he wasn’t allowed to sell to foreigners but told us about another town down the road we might be able to try. Without much choice, we headed out of town with plenty to contemplate.