Located on the side of a mountain, Potosi, Bolivia is a mining town with an interesting history. Once one of the largest, wealthiest, and highest cities in the world, Potosi now only holds the last of those titles as well as the honor of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. The success of the city was all because of the abundance of minerals that were in the appropriately named Cerro Rico (translated: Rich Hill) that shadows the city of Potosi.
Many years ago, Spaniards came to the area to extract the chunks of pure silver from the mountain. Over time, obviously, the quality, size, and amount of the silver began to decrease. Today, miners work long hard days, in grueling and treacherous conditions to earn just barely enough to get by. Their secret: coca leaves. According to the locals, coca leaves help with the altitude (over 4,060 meters), strengthen the body, and relieve hunger. They chew the leaves throughout the day while working in the mines and many do not even bring a lunch to work, only coca leaves.
However, the coca leaves can not save the miners from all the dangers of working in the mines. Cerro Rico also has another name that translates to: “the mountain that eats men alive.” The mountain received this name because of all the lives it has taken over the years. Though no official records have been kept, it it said that about 8 million people have died from the accidents in the mines or from a disease where dust fills your lungs called silicosis.
Despite the dangers of the mines, tourists now pay to experience a few hours in the mines.
Anna and I also chose to tour the mines. Since we were staying in a hostel called the Koala Den, we booked our tour through the highly rated Koala Tours. After giving us appropriate mining clothes, a headlamp, and taking us to buy gifts for the workers, the ex-miner tour guides took us on a two-hour tour inside one of the mines. As we walked, crawled, ducked, and climbed our way through the mines, our guide told us some of the history of the mine and introduced us to some of the miners. One of the miners that we met was 22 years old and had been working in the mines since he was nine years old. This reminded me of the Devil’s Miner documentary we watched in Sucre. At one point, we also got to experience a dynamite explosion as our guide stopped us so we could back up to a safe area. As we explored the different levels of the mine, each one hotter than the last, it also became dustier and harder to breathe.
Overall, it was a very eye-opening experience about how easy my life actually is. Here I am, touring about South America after working at a desk for only one year, and one of the tourist attractions is the difficulty of another human being’s job. I so blessed and thankful for the life I have been given.
After giving our mining clothes back, we went back and showered. The dust in my hair allowed it to stick straight up. Needless to say, the shower felt really good, but I still smelled like the mines for several days after. But I am not complaining. My life is easy.
Besides the mines, another thing we found interesting in Potosi is the Casa de Moneda. The huge building takes up a full block and used to be a Spanish royal mint where the Bolivian government made money to use or send to other countries. Potosi was the perfect place to make silver coins during its golden, or should I say silver, age. If this sort of thing interests, this museum is highly recommended.