Today is the day of the mining tour which is one of the main reasons for visiting Potosi. The day started at Koala Den hostel with around 20 other people all getting up for breakfast. It’s a cracking breakfast including to order eggs! We all trooped off to the town centre but we would all split one of two ways with some people going with Koala Tours, the main rival of ours, The Real Deal!
The tour started with a quick trip to a store house to get kitted up in a helmet, overalls and wellies.
The store room was covered in messages from all the pervious travellers who had been on the tour, some very funny comments. We left the store house for the local miners market to buy dynamite, as you do!
The trip to the market isn’t really a show and tell of the market, anyone can walk around the market you don’t need to go on a tour to see it. It’s really a chance to grab some supplies for the trip and buy some gifts for the miners. As part of the deal for the tourists to see the mine. the local minors get a split of the cash we paid (so they told us) and some presents from the tourists. These include orange juice, cigarettes (advised not to get them), coca leaves, alcohol (more on that later) and dynamite. Yes we bought some dynamite with glycerin and a fuse for only a £1 – just an average day in Bolivia!
From the market it’s another short trip to the processing plant where our guides explained the process of extracting the zinc, copper and other minerals from the ore. It was also really informative about how the miners work in teams of 4-10 and they get paid for the amount of ore they retrieve; pay is calculated by the quality of the ore and then split between the members of the team.
We headed up the mountain which reaches 4,824 metres. As we climbed we started to chew on the coca leaves from the market which aids against the effects of altitude sickness.
Before we headed into the mountain we had the chance to see the pure power of the dynamite and blow up a stick. The guides who had all been former miners prepared the dynamite, lit the fuse and then passed it around for photos! Before the dynamite was blown up around 100 yards away the guide did some press ups over the dynamite. When the explosion went off there was a huge rush of air and you could feel the explosion surge through your body. I had my hands over my ears the whole time I was waiting for it to explode. You could feel the vibrations from the ground go through your body! Wow!
We headed into the mountain crouching at first but we were on our hands and knees at certain points. The conditions were claustrophobic and damp however surprisingly not too hot. Parts of the mountain can rise in temperature making for horrible working conditions.
Our aim was to enter the mountain from one side and navigate to the other side. To do so we took two vertical lift shafts both with unsteady wooden ladders. The drops to the ladders were huge and not great for the smaller members of the group. At only 5ft 3, I did struggle to reach down to the ladders on one occasion. We reached in the middle of the mountain where a statue and a shrine to a god is located. The miners pray here and offer presents to the god. We had the chance to sample some of the alcohol which someone bought at the market. Made from sugar cane it’s a special drink to “keep the miners going” during the long shifts. Its alcohol content is estimated at 98% and taking a sip it literally disolved in your mouth. A second swig and it gave a rather warm feeling down your throat. Amazing, the miners can drink 10 litres between a group each day! Thats half a litre each!!! Mental!!
On the way out we were able to crawl into a tiny cavern and see a miner prepare a hole ready for a dynamite stick. The dynamite is lit in the afternoon as the shifts end and give the miners around 20 minutes to get out of the mine. There is no modern technology to survey the geological makeup of the area they are blowing, it’s just down to the knowledge of the miner.
We emerged from the other side of the mountain after a couple of hours on our hands and knees. We headed back down for a 4 course meal in a restaurant owned by wives of the tour guides.
It was truly a great tour, very informative and a chance to learn a little about the hard job the minors face all for a not much money.