After spending one day in Sucre I though it was time to keep venturing south toward Uyuni. It just so happened that I had run into many travelers who had recommended I visit the silver mines in Potosí. Now, I’m not really big on mines but after hearing stories after stories of this place I decide that I better pay it a visit.
So, I take the bright and early 07:00 bus form Sucre to Potosí to get there in the AM with plenty of time to book the tour. Tip: there are tours offered twice everyday- one in the morning (starts at 09:00) and one in the afternoon (starts around lunch). The only tour agency we found was San Andrés Expediciones. the guide was absolutely phenomenal (his name was Jesús). With some time to spare before the start of the tour, me and my friend I had met earlier in Sucre venture off to find pretty much the only vegetarian restaurant in this town: La Manzana Magica.
After bumping into a group of travelers I had met earlier in La Paz and later in Sucre, we get stuck in the midst of some celebratory parade. Bright colors, music and dance everywhere. Unfortunately though, as my hanger was kicking in, there was not much time to appreciate the top hats and talented kids singing and dancing.
I have to say, though the service was ultra speedy at the restaurant, the food wasn’t too interesting. There was the obvious rice (duuh) served in overload and the veggies were not so creatively cooked. Nevertheless, we eat, eat the next course, and the next next course (we both ordered the almuerzo del día of course) and sprint back to the tour agency.
The actual tour
After apologizing to Jesús (our guide, not the Biblical one), for being almost an hour late we head out to the first stop of the tour where we are given our equipment for entering the mines: fabulous wellington boots, water proof jacket and pants, helmet with headlight, a backpack and a bottle of water. Absolutely fabulous.
The driver then takes us to a shop where we purchase some gifts for the miners before heading to Cerro Rico: 96 proof alcohol, tobacco, coca leaves and bicarbonate for chewing as well as some dynamite. A lot of contraband in one go.
Jesús leads the way to the processing area where the mineral is separated and sorted for export before taking us to the actual mines. This is where the real tour starts.
Lucky, lucky us! We just so happened to have been visiting Potosí during the annual town fiesta de espíritu. All the miners were therefore off-duty and instead spent the day eating, drinking, smoking, chewing coca leaves and of course, decorating themselves and their houses with llama blood. I was offered to participate in the face painting but respectfully declined. The miners’ community was saturated with remnants of the sacred animal: blood on walls, stomachs covered in confetti casually resting in carriages. Indeed, very interesting to see.
To get inside the mine we had to wade through a thick concoction of mud mixed with llama blood. Once inside, you understand how big the mine system is. And how small the miners are. At 1.80m, I had to constantly bend over (more or less at a 90 degree angle) when walking through the mine. Jesús points at several iridescent formations on the ceiling and walls as a result of the mineral rich soil.
We learn that the challenging but highly regarded life miners live as he (it’s generally a he) works on a contracting basis. So in that way, it’s a reasonably entrepreneurial path that give you 4 days of full work in the mine and 3 days off.
The miners are also known to drink and smoke a lot. Surprise. On top of this, there are several statutes in the mine used as a veneration to different mine gods where the workers go to pray for prosperity. After about 3 hours of walking around in high-sulphur inducing air in the half dark and wading through water we make it out only to join the miners with some drinking to celebrate the fiesta before taking the late night bus (around 6pm) to go to Uyuni only to get there around midnight.
“Cool story, bro. But how much did it cost?”
Silver mine tour: 80 Bs
Sucre-Potosí Bus: 20 Bs
Taxis to and from bus terminals: 30 Bs
Lunch: 20 Bs
Snacks: 20 Bs
Potosí-Uyuni bus: 25 Bs
Total: 195 Bs