Travel Notes

Should you visit the Potosi Silver Mines?

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This post will be a little bit different than others. This is because I am going to talk about one of the “must see” places in South America that I actually haven’t visited: I’m talking about Cerro Rico, better known as the Postosi silver mines. However, my partner, Eoghan, did and he told me everything about this place.

In this post you will find:

The city of Potosi is pretty famous for being one of the highest cities in the world, at 4,000 m above sea level, and for being a UNESCO site since 2014. However, this isn’t the reason why so many backpackers visit this place.

Sumaj Orko, better known as Cerro Rico, used to be the reason why Potosi was once one of the richest and most developed places in South America and in the world. Silver has been extracted from this mine since 1545, causing an extremely high number of deaths, so much that between that date and the 17th century its population had decreased from 160k to 60k people. I will not go too much into details about this, but if you are interested in learning more, I found this article very informative, while I was trying to decide whether to visit the place or not.

In 1825, the silver had largely run out and today the mountain is mainly mined for zinc. In 2011, the upper cone of the mountain also collapsed. And Potosi has become one of the poorest places in South America.

The tour

Eoghan decided to go with Koala Tours to visit the mines. Koala Tours are very famous in the area for owning two popular backpacking hostels. While we had a terrible experience in the hostels, the tour was very good and their guides are experienced miners who are always aware of how many people are in the mines at any moment, where explosions are taking place, or where there are noxious gases.

The tour runs twice everyday from Monday to Friday at 8:45 am and 1:30 pm and it costs 130 BOB per person. There is a maximum limit of 8 people per tour for safety reasons.

After a quick stop at a warehouse, where they give you all the equipment you will need, you will stop at the miners’ market.

This stop is for you to buy gifts for the miners, such as coca leaves, dynamite, cigarette or a special 96% alcohol made with sugar cane, which is a very popular drink inside the mines.

You will then stop at the refinery plant, where minerals extracted in the mines  are purified, using chemical products and crusher machines. After a quick stop at the highest part of the mountain to take some pictures if you wish, you are all ready to enter the mines.

The inside of the mines has been divided into several galleries and levels and it can be accessed through an elevator, which descends all the way to 240 meters below the ground.

Shortly after you enter, you will see “El Tio” (The Uncle), which is considered like the god of the mines that miners pray to for safety. It is represented like a devilish figure and miners offer him cigarettes, coca leaves or alcohol for protection. But this isn’t the only statue dedicated to him and you will see more altars around the mines.

The tour continues through some very dark, dusty and narrow tunnels where you learn about the history of the mines and the working conditions of the miners, both in the past and in the present. You even get to meet and talk to some of the miners.

Eoghan’s experience

While I didn’t do it, as I said above, my partner Eoghan, decided to go on this tour and still today he thinks it has been one of the most eye opening experiences in his life.

He said that, while he knew that his guide was an experienced miners and he looked like he clearly knew what he was doing, going through the mines was really terrifying. So much more than cycling Death Road. The tunnels were very dark and so narrow it was hard to fit in some of them. In some points, he found it almost impossible to breath because of the dust. On top of this, all he could hear in the dark, where dynamite explosions happening very close to him.

Before entering the mines, he bought coca leaves, soda, pure alcohol and some sticks of dynamite for the miners, all for the equivalent of a couple of euros. He said the miners were excited to receive gifts from all the visitors and to take a 2 minute break to stop and talk to them of simply say hello. However, Eoghan said seeing the conditions in which they were forced to work in and learning that some of them go in as children and never get out again or that life expectancy is of 40, made it, obviously, an extremely sad experience.

He was happy to learn that a part of the ticket price goes to miners and their families and so it helps supporting the local community.

He said that overall it was a very informative tour and he got to know a new reality that, like most people, didn’t know it could exist.

Here are his tips:

  • Choose an ethical tour company: make sure the company you pick gives part of the profits to support the miners, their family or the community in general. If your guide is a miner or former miner, it is less likely that they will promote a voyeuristic experience, and the tour will focus more on the learning.
  • Don’t go if you are claustrophobic: as much as this experience was interesting, it was also terrifying and definitely not for everyone. If you feel uncomfortable in narrow spaces, you really should avoid going.
  • Resist the urge to make it about yourself: it is very easy to make this tour all about yourself. After taking this tour, the first feeling you have is of how “blessed” you are in life. This is a normal feeling to have at first. However, the purpose of this tour, if you decide to take it, shouldn’t be to make yourself feel better about your own problems, but to learn first hand about the conditions that the miners have to work in, learn about what could be done to keep them safe and think about the actual price behind some goods that we consume daily.

Why I didn’t do it

During our year long trip, the plan was to say “yes” to all experiences, even the ones that scared me. However, I decided not to visit these mines.

There are mainly two reasons behind this decision. The first one was that I don’t like close or narrow spaces and I got even more scared after I read the information about the tour on its brochure: “Even taking precautions, there is still a chance that an accident can occur in the mines. (…) In the case of a cave-in, you will be in as much danger as the workers in the mine. More miners die from cave-ins than any other cause).” Not very encouraging, right?

However, it wasn’t just about fear. My main concern was that this kind of tour wouldn’t be ethical. I though it would be a voyeuristic experience and a way to entertain tourists through the suffering of other people. So many people live in the mines for their entire life – which isn’t that long, as their life expectancy is of only 40 years – and many die in cave-ins or from silicosis, a disease that damages the lungs because of what they breath inside. Recently, there have also been concerns about the whole mine collapsing.

Of course, after listening to Eoghan’s experience I fund out that by choosing the right company you can indeed learn about these realities, support the local community and even rethink your consumption patterns. This is when I started regretting having missed this unique learning opportunity.

However, let’s just say that if I could go back, I would make the same decision again!

…Not just mines

So you ended up in Potosi for whatever reason, but you are not planning to go on the mine tour. Is there anything else to do here? Not much, but yes!

Starting from the main square, Plaza 10 de Novembre, there are several impressive colonial buildings in Potosi, legacy of the days when this city was one of the most important centres in South America. The most famous and best preserved buildungs include Torre de la Compañía de Jesús, the Catedral de la Ciudad de Potosi, and the Convento Museo Santa Teresa.

You can also visit Casa de la Moneda, the city’s mint from the Spanish Colonial times, where the silver from the mines was turned into coins that were then shipped to Spain. Entry costs 40 BOB (approximately €5).

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4 Replies to “Should you visit the Potosi Silver Mines?”

  1. It is interesting that you voice both opinions, to visit or not to visit. Both are perfectly legitimate. I chose to visit and I would recommend to those who don’t want to go into the mine, to at least try to go to the entrance, if possible, and see the equipment, the atmosphere, and even talk to the miners. At the time of my visit there was a kind of strike and my guide was advocating for it. The miners did not want a strike because for them the mine represents a way to earn money, quickly with luck, their dream is then to buy a car to be a taxi or to start a shop, not to remain a miner. Thank you for the great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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