Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bolivia – Potosí, the real deal

Enter at your own risk
Have you heard of Potosí before? If not, you fall into 99.9% of the world's population with the same lack of knowledge; but we will now help enlighten you a bit. If you are familiar with this name you are likely to be Bolivian, Spanish, a tourist to Bolivia, or a miner. This town is famous for its mining of minerals. There is also a Spanish saying: "valer un potosí", "To be worth a potosí" (a fortune).

Potosí is said to be the highest city in the world – at 4,090 meters (13,480 ft). Although, we are not too certain about that: Somehow the entire Tibet region seems higher and many other cities in the Altiplano region.
Potosí was a honey-pot for the Spanish conquerors, the rich silver deposits in the nearby Cerro Rico (rich hill) were a true pot of wealth. The town was in the 1700's one of the biggest and wealthiest in the world. The population was mainly consisting of native Indian and African slaves. It is said that slaves died by the millions from the strenuous labor and mercury poisoning (mercury was used to extract the silver from the ore)

Entrance to one of the many mines
that make Cerro Rico seem like
Swiss Cheese
The silver in Cerro Rico was very pure, some say up to 90% pure. But in the late 1700's, the silver was nearly depleted. The Spanish eventually retired the mine, but locals continue to extract ore from Cerro Rico for its silver, tin and lead deposits; although, only about 15% of what is extracted contains these metals. In fact, mining remains as the only real industry in Potosí. The landscape is rather austere and barren so everything needs to be trucked up to Potosí. So the whole town lives off the mines, and increasingly Mine Voyeurism Tourism now adds profits as well.

Looks like a comic, but
this depicts the proper
safety gear for the miners
The mines are the single reason why Potosí is now on the tourist map. Although the city has been declared as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site (mainly for it's 80+ churches), it is the harsh life of the miners that attracts tourists – and us! It is a rare opportunity to witness this firsthand.

The miners organize themselves in co-op's which are usually composed of family related members. They use only the most primitive tools to extract the ore. Tourists are allowed into the working mines under the same dangerous conditions that the miners face every day – this is the real deal! No secured walkways, no special extra ventilation, and no secured ladders or handrails.

We signed up for a mine tour by a newly formed company called "The Real Deal". The agency is owned and operated by four former miners including Efrain Mamani who is highly recommended by Lonely Planet (for his 11 year's work at his previous company "Koala tours"). All four co-owners used to work for a big tour agency and decided to become independent and offer a more realistic tour of the mines.

The mine tour
Our guide is the famous Efrain who started to join his father and various other family members in the mine at age 13. Many of the miners start that early: "People here believe that school is only for girls, real men work in the mines," he explains. Sadly many of the miners also die young, in their 40's, from lung diseases such as silicosis.

The Comic Act now: Efrain
wearing his favorite mining uniform

We are first bused to a warehouse where we get our gear: rubber boots, miner's helmet with head lamp, nylon pants and coat. Optionally, we can buy a bandana to tie in front of our face to protect our lungs from the dust in the mine. This is pretty much the gear that the miners also use... Nothing more, probably even less.

At the miner's market
Next, we stop at the miner's market to buy gifts for the miners. There is no entrance fee to the mine itself. Instead, tourists are expected to give practical gifts to the miners that they meet inside Cerro Rico. We buy a couple bottles of soft drinks, coca leaves and lots of dynamite. That's right, we buy dynamite at an open market. No need to show a passport, register, or anything like that: Just hand 15 Bolivianos ($2) to the shopkeeper and receive a stick of dynamite including fuse and nitrate beads, and that's all – we're now ready to blow something up!

"Sorry, these coca leaves are
for miners only!"
Efrain urges us not to buy cigarettes and alcohol for the miners: "They already live very unhealthy down there and we don't want to contribute to making it worse for them." We are impressed!
But he does show us what he calls "Whisky Boliviano"... In our country we call it rubbing alcohol, a 97% pure industrial alcohol. The miners actually drink this stuff; we will later learn why (at least one of the more logical reasons, other than getting drunk on the cheap).

The chemical basins used to
separate the metal from
the fine rocks
Before we go to the mine, we stop at a processing plant where they crush the ore and throw it into chemical baths. All is extremely primitive and makeshift. The plant is nothing more than a shack with big pools of very toxic looking stuff. Some of the chemicals are cyanide and copper sulfate. The vapors are stinging in our eyes and safety gear is non existent.
"That doesn't smell good!"
Efrain show us the final product which is a fine pulver containing a mix of the mined metals. This is being exported to Chile as Bolivia does not have any final processing plants or smelters. The government thinks that mining Cerro Rico is soon completely exhausted and doesn't want to invest any money into Potosí.

Now it's time to go into one of the mines. Our tour will actually go through the mountain. – a 3km walk from one side to the other through the dark underground center.
By the entrance we come across a group of miners that are completely drunk, seems that they had a good dose of "Whisky Boliviano" already, it's only 10:30am. Our guide explains that today is the last Friday in the month, a time for miners to celebrate their monthly production.

Julane and Efrain entering
the El Rosario mine
We enter the El Rosario mine through a relatively wide and tall shaft, which was created when the colonial government ran the mining operation, so it is constructed very well versus the shafts later built in a very slipshod manner by the co-ops. We are able stand up straight as we wade through the 20 cm (8") water – thankfully our rubber boots are water-tight, so far!

The daylight disappears after a few meters into the mine and the fresh air is giving way to a stale and dusty smelling mix of stagnant and compressed air that is pushed into the mine with thick pipes that make a hissing (leaking) sound. There is no light other than the small beam of our LED headlamps (we are actually impressed that they use the more expensive LED lights).

We walk on the tracks of the mining trolleys when Efrain suddenly yells to stand aside, back to the left wall. Three miners push a trolley full of ore by us. No engine pulling or pushing the several hundred kilos of rock, just pure muscle power.

"Careful! Ore cart coming!"
We soon hit a junction where we are told that the shaft to the left is the Candelaria mine where most of the tour agencies go...we notice that this tunnel is also relatively wide and tall; well built by the miners/slaves during colonial times.

But we are here with "The Real Deal" agency, so we turn right where much more mining activity is going on and where walkways are narrow and short. We immediately notice that there are no more lines of compressed air in the shaft, the air is very dusty and toxic in "flavor" and breathing becomes harder. The clearly visible beam of our head lights gives the final confirmation that the air is full of small dust particles.

Space is getting more and more cramped
We climb down a narrow set of steps to what Efrain calls the 3rd level (shafts are stacked in various depths under each other), the temperatures increase to about 25°C (77°F)... breathing gets even harder. The combination of dust, heat, the altitude (4,200m /13,780ft), and crawling on all fours through a dark mine is not making it easy to breathe. One girl in our group has claustrophobia – this is not the place you want to be when you are afraid of confined spaces and there were numerous warnings about this in advance.

At one point, the tunnel is so small that we literally have to squeeze through like a crouching, slinky cat. We constantly bump our helmets at the top as our beam of light is aimed at the floor of the shaft. The narrow passage gives way to a bigger space that is filled with loose rocks the size of a pineapple. This is the workplace of three miners that are just getting ready to blow up some explosives. We give them two of our dynamite sticks, some coca leaves and 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola as present. We gather around them to watch how they load the boreholes with the explosives. To be precise, they are not boreholes, but hand chiseled cavities. It takes them about 3 hours of hammering on a long chisel to get a 30cm (1 ft) deep hole. This is mining at its most primitive form, just as they did in the colonial times. We wonder why they don't use pneumatic drills, like they do in most other parts of the world. We assume it's just too expensive.

Getting the dynamite ready
The miner that prepares the dynamite is actually wearing a decent face mask with dust filters; he is the only one we see that day that is well protected. Remember: the miners have to buy all their gear for themselves; they are working in small co-op's for themselves. There is no company that provides gear, health insurance, pensions, paid time off, etc.
They only earn money when they are working in the mine so a day off means no pay.
We spend about 20 minutes with the miners while Efrain explains about the working conditions and the mining process.

Before the dynamite is set off, we leave the site and head to a side tunnel that has a strange looking figure at the end. This is El Tio the lord of the underworld – or in other words: the devil. Although the "D" word is never used by the miners. El Tio (which mean uncle) is highly respected by the miners, who believe that they have to please him as they are taking away something that belongs to him – the ore.

This is "El Tio"
Uncle or Devil or Rasta?
This is why they created this statue that resembles El Tio and come here at least once a week (typically Fridays) to give him offerings. Efrain explains that as a young boy he thought that the offerings to El Tio were silly, but as he worked more time in the mine, he learned from his father how important the rituals are. So he places some coca leaves on El Tio's lap, lights a cigarette and sticks it into the statue's mouth. Then he pulls out a small bottle of "Whisky Boliviano" and starts to explain why the miners drink this 97% pure alcohol: the miners offer this pure alcohol to El Tio in hope that he will in exchange offer them pure silver.
He then pours two drops onto the ground in front of El Tio's feet (two rubber boots in actuality) and then take two (generous) sips of "Whisky Boliviano" himself.
Efrain offers Whiskey Boliviano,
Coca leaves and a smoke to El Tio
Efrain explains that this ritual can be repeated as often as the miners like. Efrain remarks that some miners get so drunk here beside El Tio that they can't walk outside anymore and need to sleep here. He then passes the bottle around for us to try the "Whiskey Boliviano" and pay our respect to El Tio. We are good tourists and follow his request...The stuff tastes awful! One guy in our group can't handle the booze and gives it back to El Tio, along with his breakfast.

Efrain has named our group "The Llama killers" (we are now a mining family). He explains that the miners every so often sacrifice a Llama at the entrance to the mine and offer the blood to El Tio and Pachamama (mother earth) to satisfy their thirst for blood. The local people of Potosí believe that Pachamama and El Tio (the Gods) need blood to survive. This belief is wide spread among the Inca, Maya, and Aztec people. The miners sacrifice Llamas to keep El Tio from taking human lives when he needs his dose of blood. Many Llamas are sacrificed after an accident in the mines. Efrain explains, "El Tio is hungry and will hopefully be satisfied with the Llama blood and not need any more miners' blood!"

We also honor El Tio with
a double flash of our camera
Next, we are led into a wide and tall tunnel which at the end has a large hall with an elevator in the middle. This elevator shaft goes 400 meters (1300ft) down. The elevator was built when the Bolivian Government was operating this mine. He also explains that miners during this time had much better working conditions: with power drill, motorized trolleys, full safety gear. They also were on fixed monthly salary, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, 40 hour work week, etc. But the government shut down the mining operations in the mid 90's as it was a money losing business. Part of the reason was that there was a large overhead of management outside the actual mine work (such as geologists and secretaries, etc). The main reason that the mine was not profitable was the fact that miners had no incentive to actually mine ore. Efrain remarks that is was not uncommon for miners to nap or play cards in the darkness of the tunnels. Only when a supervisor or geologist came close did they pick up their tools to extract some ore.

Interesting how the tables have turned. Due to their own laziness they now have to work in much tougher conditions at probably much lower earnings. And the government is actually making money now too – the miners need to pay taxes on their production earnings.

Gifts of Coke and Coca leaves
for the hard working miners

While we are in the big hall next to the remains of the elevator shaft, we suddenly hear a cracking sound followed by a muffled "boom" and we can feel a shockwave – dynamite at work. We hear a total of 5 explosions. Normally the miners only set off the dynamite between 5-6pm and then leave for the day, allowing the dust to settle. But since it is Friday, they don't follow that rule. "They want to make more money before the weekend," Efrain explains.

On our way out of the mine, we walk by a group of four miners, the youngest being no more than 14 years old. They were the ones that set off the second set of explosions and now wait until the dust settles a bit – none are wearing any dust mask or other protective covering!

The way out is through the Santa Elena mine shaft. It is a challenging walk, or better said: crawl. We have to walk with our torso bent forward, legs bent and simultaneously wade through slippery mud. The tunnel is less than a meter (3ft) tall – thankfully Julane and I are not very tall.

It feels good to be out
in the fresh air again.
It's a big relief to get out of the mine and breathe fresh air again (or should we say: average Bolivian air enriched with Diesel exhaust fumes). We are all glad to be out and turn down Efrain's offer to come back the next day for a free second tour. Once is enough – we feel sorry for the miners that need to spend 10+ hours a day in this toxic environment.

This was truly a "real deal" experience, we are humbled by the experience and feel sympathy for the hard life that these miners endure. But they all seemed very upbeat, and as strange as it sounds, happy. Efrain frequently highlighted that the miners love to joke around and are very proud of what they are doing. They are proud to show their mine to the tourists. He also says that they can earn around 2000-3000B ($300-$430) a month versus 500B for a simple office job. So this is a well paid job.

After the tour, we are offered a complementary lunch at the "meal deal" restaurant. The 3 course menu features Llama, which we both haven't eaten before... Yummy!

We highly recommend "The Real Deal" mine tour. This was an experience like no other! The half day tour was more like a full day experience; we spent almost 3 hours in the mine and finished our lunch at 4pm... Well worth the 100B fee each (plus 30B spent for gifts).

These guys that started their own company are excellent guides and full of energy and jokes. We were 3 groups of six people. Our group was led in very good English, while the other two groups were in Spanish. We only met the other groups a few times during the tour so the size was very comfortable.

Unfortunately, we didn't really have time to explore much else of Potosí. It gets really cold as soon as the sun sets, so we only have a couple hours to explore the beautiful colonial center. Too bad but we need to move on. Our time in Bolivia is nearing an end – we want to be out of the country by August 4th, before the Bolivian independence day on August 6th tranquilizes transport and doubles costs for hotels, buses, etc.

PS: If you are interested, there is a documentary movie about the mines