Silver Mines and Dynamite
Trip Start May 01, 2010
85Trip End May 01, 2011
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
The main attraction to Potosi is the famous silver mine which served as the main source of silver to the Spanish Empire during the colonial times. One of the reasons it is so fascinating is that the working conditions of the mine have not changed a lot since the early days, meaning it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of local Indians have died under the harsh working environment.
We had booked to go with Marco Polo Tours (at a recommendation) which is run by a Bolivian gent called Wily who had worked in the mine from the age of 14. His father died in the mine of silicosis – which claims the lives of most miners in their forties – and his grandfather died when a mine tunnel collapsed. As a result of this, at the age of 18, his mother begged him to stop working in the mine and persuaded him to go to university. Upon his return he was fully qualified to set up his own tourism agency with him serving as the guide.
We set off and quickly stopped at the miners’ market which sells the three products most valuable to the workers; coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol. Miners chew an obscene amount of coca leaves due to the nature of their work. Firstly, it helps with working at altitude, secondly because it absorbs some of the airborne toxins, and lastly, it reduces their appetite which is beneficial because miners do not eat for the entire 12 hour shift that they work (no toilets in the mines). We each bought a goody bag from the market to hand out to the miners when we arrived, I bought a small bottle of 96% alcohol, it was basically methylated spirits, but as it is a cheap way to get drunk, that’s what the miners favour.
After another quick stop to get our safety equipment on we arrived at the mine and went inside
Wily told us a little about the current political view on the mines and the troubled history of the workers, I won’t go into too much detail about this, but leave you with the grim detail that in the 1950s when the workers went on strike, many of them were taken, by the army, to the town square, binded to their fellow workers and blown up with dynamite for all to see. We travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, with its narrowing tunnels and difficult rock walls. It was an amazing experience, just to be able to see the workers first hand and their conditions, the next time I see a silver necklace or cutlery set I will probably be reminded of the effort that goes into creating such an object
Next came the part I had secretly been waiting for, blowing up dynamite! We had been told that Wily always detonates a stick of dynamite at the end for everyone to see but that for 15 Bolivianos (£1.50) you can buy your own stick and set it off yourself. Unfortunately, the guy who you can buy it off didn’t have any that day, but Rachael – being wonderful as she is – had a word with Wily who let me light the fuse of one of his. After making a run, that could more aptly be described as a rushed waddle, I rejoined the group and felt the shockwaves in our feet as the dynamite exploded. It was great fun and the perfect end to a great tour.