Potosí & Entering the Mines at Cerro Rico

Country Bolivia | Dates June 6-7 | Accommodation Hostal Eucalyptus

We didn’t know a ton about things to do in Potosí going in; just that it was a Unesco site and that it was famous for its mining past (and present) as the town below Cerro Rico, the silver-producing mountain initially exploited during the Spanish colonial era. A mountain which is still in operation under similarly awful conditions today (more about this in second half of post).

I can say we were pleasantly surprised at how nice Potosí is. I was expecting a sketchy run-down industry town, and this Potosí is not. The centro boasted many colorful historical buildings, churches, a beautiful plaza, and a national mint and museum. Narrow alleyways of shops, hostels and street vendors stretched on for block after block, painted brightly with colonial fixtures and friendly people.

Things to do in Potosí

Eat Street Food & Learn About Money

After dropping our bags we set out to explore, and by explore I mean eat excessive amounts of street food. For 1 USD total we got empanadas, marshmallows in chocolate, a bag of slightly sweet bread sticks and a gelatin milk cake. We then headed to Casa Nacional de la Moneda. Lonely Planet boasted this museum as “one of the best museums in South America.” It is not one of the best museums in South America. The highlight was learning about the origin of the $ symbol, a combination of the letters of Potosí stacked, and seeing original silver coins and the only set of machinery that made them left in the world. The guide was also amazing, with a long coat, slicked back hair, heeled boots, formal demeanor, aggressive imitation/reenactment of money-making processes, and constant formality in each room for 1.5 hours: “This way please and thank you very much please.” Overall, not worth the 40Bs (over 5 USD).

After we had a few [more] snacks, then later an excellent dinner with our friends from the tour at  Cafe Potocchi. We ate llama (on purpose this time), lamb, beef, quinoa, potatoes and spinach and sipped hot wine and pisco sours. It was all quite cheap, and we enjoyed the dim atmosphere, local tablecloths and nice hospitality. Only downside was the place was full of foreigners (lonely planet strikes again!).

The next day we ate more street food, including the local salteñas (sweet pastry filled with meat, vegetables and a liquid-y sauce) which were the best thing ever…until I got food poisoning from them and was ill for days. Sarah spilled them on her shoes, and I on my jacket.

Take the Potosí (Cerro Rico) Mine Tour

The main attraction to Potosí for travelers is the mine tour – in fact, 85% of people who visit come for this reason. We read about it online and debated about going or not, unsure if it was wrong to go observe people in horrific working conditions (by some measures the worst mining conditions in the world) or if it was important to understand the history of the area, as well as to provide benefit via the money we paid (portions of the tour go towards miners). We also had some less-moral and more selfish concerns about our safety; was it really worth the risk to go into an active and dangerous mine?  In the end we signed up, thinking we’d regret it if we didn’t, but the night prior to the tour I was plagued with nightmares.

We signed up with Big Deal Tours (we did some research – they were safest, run by ex-miners, and portions go to the miners directly), as it’s an active mine and is still dangerous. The guy who sold us the tickets was funny and charismatic, showing us photos of a 2-year-old tourist in the mines and a review left by an 86-year-old, assuring us it was safe. We met in the office, loaded into a red rugged off-road vehicle, and were off. Up the mountain we started to climb, with a stop at the miner’s market – the place miners visit each morning to buy dynamite, juice, and the cocoa leaves they chew daily and religiously while they work. Here we were advised to buy “gifts” for the miners (one bag each), of either leaves and juice or dynamite. So now we’ve purchased dynamite.

We then stopped to get on our gear – dusty blue pants, jackets, hard hats, and rubber boots. We chewed coca leaves nervously (help with altitude) as our vehicle began ascending Cerro Rico to the mine entrance. 

Our guide Wilson was animated and great, talking the whole time, sharing interesting and disturbing details about the mining operation and past and present day conditions. By the time we entered I was totally at ease, walking through the small dark rectangle into the mountain that claimed 8 million lives and has been referred to as “the mountain that eats men” without second thought.

Statue of Tio

Once inside, we saw the devil statue, Tio, which the miners worship to bring them luck and protection in the mines. Our guide whipped out a small bottle of alcohol, 96%, and we each took 2 sips as a customary offering. It was then we climbed deep into the mine, often ducking and crawling through holes and climbing up ladders. Dust was in the air as we went through the narrow tunnels and sidestepped chutes for the rocks. We saw some miners at work chipping away at rocks with metal rods, filling wheelbarrows, and in some cases preparing dynamite (we heard an explosion, too). All of this with little or no equipment except basic explosives and tools; and no safety protection aside from the cocoa leaves that stave off hunger and exhaustion.

On the way back, Wilson told us the average miner’s life expectancy is about 40 years due to the conditions. He also told us about children working in the mine, and more about the mountain’s fraught past. Additional research revealed natives were made to work as slaves in the mountains starting in the 1600s, dying in huge numbers as they mined the silver that fed the Spanish empire. Today, small cooperatives operate in the mines, and miners profit by selling whatever they find. The conditions are unsafe and grueling, and there are children working in these mines, too, sometimes alongside their parents and sometimes to support their families when said parents pass away from the mines.

Exiting the Mines

Definitely worth researching more, and I would recommend Big Deal Mine Tour as one of the things to do in Potosí. Going into the mine itself was an experience, as was learning about the shocking realities for people working there past and present, which I will admit to say I had never heard a word about before.

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