“Shhh” Julio whispered, holding his finger to his mouth. Another explosion echoed down the mine shaft. It was a low boom that shuddered the walls and fresh dust started to float through the tunnels. I think we were around a kilometre into the mine, but it was almost impossible to honestly know. The temperature had risen from the thin cool air close to the entryway, and was now warm and damp being deeper into the mountain. Along with Julio, I was with three other English travellers who I had met crossing into Bolivia 5 days before. We waited patiently for each blast to pass, probably all wandering why it was a good idea to have a look inside a working silver mine.
Julio was a proud Bolivian who we had met the day before. If he wasn’t complaining about the Bolivian President, whose conspiracies about him were endless, he was probably talking about his least favourite tourists. The french are the worst. “Very indecisive.”
We had met him after a couple of beers, which at 4100m altitude in the town of Potosí, goes pretty directly to your head. In his cluttered office he spoke firmly at us in good english for a solid five minutes before announcing his price, and then almost immediately bartered it down for us. The beer had put us in no mood to haggle, so we agreed.
“I have an excellent sense of humour today. Many jokes today” he announced on our arrival the following morning. We laughed awkwardly, and followed him to a local bus and towards the mining territory of the town. The mine has 12,000 active workers, which were split into almost 40 cooperatives. Each cooperative group had its own run-down office and huts for the miners. They would each have their own tunnel systems, and it didn’t seem like there was any warmth between one group and another. In exchange for the miners’ time and a few of their stories, we collected some gifts in mining stores on the periphery of the town; this included juice, alcohol, coca leaves and a few sticks of dynamite (each footlong stick came at a bold price of 5 Bolivianos – 60p).
We met a pack of miners outside, who were stuffing their faces with coca leaves. The leaves help reduce hunger throughout the day, where they wouldn’t eat for 10 – 12 hours whilst working. Their cheeks were swollen from a hundred or so leaves, and they were giggling away at dirty jokes which Julio loosely translated.
“This worker is 18 years old,” Julio stated, pointing at a quiet worker on the edge of the group. He didn’t look 18. I would have guessed thirty-something. But then again, I couldn’t really guess any of their ages. Behind their yellow grins were pockmarked faces and exaggerated features. Several had bruises and lines of dry blood from fights a few days before. They could be old or young – the mines clearly take their toll on everyone.
We took our first steps into the mine, which was at a casual jogging pace to not disrupt the workers, and we stooped low with our headlights bobbing just below the low ceiling above. Sometimes a broken beam would force you almost to the ground, and the grunt of someone bumping their head would be heard frequently. The floor was wet, the walls black or lined with yellow salts, and narrow tracks were laid to guide the carts. Tunnels branched every 100m, and many were blocked due to collapsed debris.
We passed various miners who were casually walking out through the network of tunnels. Some had started early and finished their day’s work and others were simply off to get some beers for their group, which would be later enjoyed in the mines. It was a Friday and the last day of the month. It was something to celebrate.
Carts brimming with shiny rock regularly bumped along the tracks being pushed by two workers. At one point, we had the novelty opportunity to help push a cart along the tracks. 200m of pushing the cart left each of us panting wildly, and humbled by the miners’ daily efforts. At the high altitude, the air was already thin enough outside. Undoubtedly even worse deep in the mine.
We sat in a small inlet of the main tunnel, and listened to Julio talk about his times in the mines, and his sights over the past 30 year. We were perched next to a statue of El Tío (The Uncle), who is considered Lord of the Underworld across the Potosí mines. He was draped in colourful paper, and there were cigarettes and bottles of alcohol left next to his feet. This devilish spirit is considered to bring both protection and destruction to the miners, and offerings are brought to him frequently by the miners to ensure their safety. Julio’s eyes dropped when he spoke of the cycle of workers passing through the system. Many would start before 18 and perish young. He reinforced that these were “real men”, tensing and pointing at his bicep. The recurring theme from our conversations with the miners was that they were working extra for their families. The pay was greatly dependent on the global market price of metals as well as their findings. Sometimes their weekly earnings would not surpass the cost of their coca leaves.
When we left the mines, the weather had changed to match our subdued mood. I wasn’t sure how long we had been down there, but heavy rain had suddenly fallen, forcing brown water to flush through the steep streets. We said our goodbyes to Julio, brushed as much dust off as possible and picked up our bags for the next city.
Taxis are quite a spectacle in Bolivia. They are all proudly equipped with modifications and stickers to ensure they caught the eye of everyone in town. We rolled towards the bus station in a silver toyota, which had been lined in bright red cloth over all the seats, dashboard and steering wheel. Even the gearstick had a dashing feathered outfit. A large sticker had been placed over the top half of the windscreen, rendering much of the road and traffic invisible, although fortunately the driver was short enough to peer over the steering wheel with a sufficient view.
During the silver mining boom several centuries ago, Potosí used to one of the richest cities on the continent. It was considered one of the all time great silver strikes, producing half of the world’s silver supply for over a century. There are a few impressive buildings and monuments that echo this impression, but the city has faded from its renowned past. We headed towards the bus station, and onto a knackered bus towards Sucre, just a few hours down the road. Whereas the streets of Potosi were narrow and the local buses ejected the impressive amount of fumes directly into your face, Sucre was modern and spacious. The buses’ fumes were at least two feet further away.
We settled into our hostel, and enjoyed the fruits of our half-German, half-Bolivian drinks menu. Bolivia never fails to surprise.