Tag Archives: Potosi

Our experience in the Potosi Mine

What brought us to Potosi were the recommendations we got from friends who had been to this city, and especially from those who had entered the mines. Those interested can take a tour of the mine* in the company and under the guidance of a former miner. So we embraced the opportunity of such a special experience, and probably strong perspective change as well.

We started towards the mine at 1, all six of us (of which were left only 5 at the entrance in the mine, as one of us was claustrophobic) and we soon met Daniel, the guy who was to be our companion and guide. Our first stop was at the equipment store, where we put on a uniform and some rubber boots that would have made even uncle Vuitton blush. Also there we got our helmets and the light that was to go on top of our head. Next stop was the miners’ market, where we bought water and coca leaves for us, and some soft drinks, coca and dynamite as gifts for the miners. Throughout that whole time Daniel was giving us all sorts of information about the mines and miners, and we continuously bombarded him with even more queries. He responded perfectly to everything we asked, and we definitely recommend him as a guide if you do the tour of the mine.


Coca – the miners’ magical plant. And alcohol potable – another magic

Coca leaves are one of the most important things you can give to a miner, and something they never enter the mine without. With a huge ball of coca leaves between their teeth and cheek, they often look at you with a distorted face and sometimes you can hardly understand what they’re trying to communicate. Miners spend about 10-12 hours in the mine every day, and all this time they don’t eat anything, they just keep the coca leaves between their teeth and continuously maneuver their pickaxes. Coca keeps their hunger under control and also gives them the energy they need for the intense physical work they do, especially at that altitude – 4000 meters. For us even a simple walk proved quite difficult at that altitude, not to mention hitting the walls with hammers and pulling wagons. Miners give so much credit to the coca leaves for their strength that they spends about 15% of their monthly salary on the magical plant.

Another very traditional element for the Potosi miners is the “alcohol potable”, so to speak drinkable alcohol. What I did not think possible when I found out its actual alcohol concentration: 96%. These guys surely did not seem to be joking. The preferred time for consuming this drink is Friday afternoon, because most miners work a “normal” Monday to Friday program (by their own choice). So Friday afternoon is “group drinking” program, and people don’t play around – they don’t drink to make room for lofty conversation; the objective is “dead drunk” and nothing less! At least that way they can forgive for a moment about the toughness of the their conditions, of their work, of their life.


The silver refinery plant

From the miners’ market we moved on to the silver refinery plant. Small and large containers full of substances and mixtures, connected by belts and pipes that seemed ready to break any moment. I was afraid the whole time I was in there that a belt was going to snap somewhere and start a domino effect that would send us all over to the other side like in Final Destination.

Fortunately that was not the case, and the first breath I took when I got out was full of hope and joy that life and I were still best buddies. I hadn’t seen anyone in the room at all, so I asked Daniel: “So how does this mechanism work, there’s no one there to supervise?”. “No need, it’s all automatic. Someone passes from time to time to check that everything is okay, but there is no need for someone there all the time.” “Automatic” was the last word I had in mind upon seeing that entire system, which seemed to have been put in place a few centuries before.

Outside the plant Daniel showed us a stretch of dark gray pasty mass which was resting under the scorching sun. “Silver,” he clarified. Then he stuck his finger in the pasty matter, grabbed my hand, drew a ring on my finger and proudly proclaimed, “There, you’re my wife now.” So that’s how it’s done in Bolivia, huh?


At the entrance in the mine

Next destination was the mine entrance. The moment we got there we met with a lovely view: about 15 beer bearing miners, passionately talking about something I could not identify using my lip reading skills (especially since they’re truly inexistent). But they did not seem to be celebrating the birth of a newly born son (which would have indeed been reason for joy, as apparently miners love a big family – of those we spoke to, the one with the fewest children had only.. seven!). We later learned that two groups of miners were angry with each other because one of them had discovered a vein with a lot of potential, and now the other group wanted to exploit it as well. So the first group was much upset, and they were discussing over alcohol how to solve the situation – maybe not the best idea, but that just seems to be the way things are sorted out around there.

When they saw us though they truly rejoiced, and invited us to have beer with them, wanted to take pictures with us and really enjoyed welcoming us. Daniel had told us before that the miners are always happy to receive visitors (especially girls, as he made sure he mentioned) and now we had proof the man was right.


Inside the mine

We didn’t linger too long outside, and soon came the moment we were all expecting: entering the womb of the mountain. Further and further into the tunnel, Daniel had a big step and went so quickly that he seemed to be racing, and we were staggering after him, fighting to keep up. The landscape kept changing: different colors on the walls, puddles that sometimes seemed to become rivers (thank God for those rubber boots), the narrower and narrower tunnels … and then there were the level crossings, where we had to crawl on all four or slide on our butt through narrow holes. Definitely not a trail I’d see my grandma completing with flying colors.

And then there was the heat that accentuated as we got deeper into the mine, and the dusty air that made it so hard for us to breathe. We had bought some scarves to wear as face masks and we used them almost the whole time, but a scarf over your mouth is the last thing you want in an unbearable heat. That’s one reason why so many miners contract silicosis – is it possible to wear face masks at 40 degrees while doing back breaking work? Every single moment?

At one point we came across an older man who was working independently and had three bags of ore to carry out of the mine. When we met, he put the bag down and we had a bit of a chat for a while, about his 10 children and other things. When we said goodbye we offered to help him carry his bag. I grabbed it, put all my strength in lifting it off the ground… and I managed to budge it 1 millimeter. And our man was carrying it on his back from the bottom of the mine to the entrance. Unbelievable. I mean, seriously, unbelievable.

We had another couple of attempts to help, especially when it came to the wagons – we all pushed with all our strength, pulled with all our strength, the things didn’t even budge. But when the men put their hands back on the wagon, it began to move again more or less elegantly on the rail. Strong guys they are, no doubt about that!


Tio, the underground deity

Our last stop in the mine was a visit to Tio’s shrine. Tio is the deity that rules the underground world, and in the context of the miners he’s the one who decides their fate. So miners make sure they pay him a visit or two every single day and bring him various offerings (mainly coca, tobacco, alcohol … pretty much whatever they consume, and assume that the “uncle” likes them all the same). Tio is the one who has the power to keep the miners alive or not, to help them find rich veins or not, to bless them with joy or curse them with misery. Daniel told us stories about individuals who are said to have “sold his soul” to Tio … and have found veins that have made them millionaires, but then when they stopped bringing the promised offerings, they lost more than they had.

Many young miners don’t believe in Tio anymore, but of the old ones you won’t meet anyone who’s not afraid of the deity of the mine, and does not pray for his safety every day. At each level in each mine there is a small quiet corner where a shrine has been built for him. I asked Daniel where the name comes from, and he gave me two explanations: practically Tio is the “invention” of the Spanish, who saw in it a way of controlling and scaring the indigenous they were forcing to work in the mine. They were instructed to treat him always with great respect, because then he will protect them. So the Indians have always treated him with the respect they would pay an uncle (“tio”means uncle in Spanish). The second explanation is that “Tio” is how the indigenous people managed to pronounce “Dios”, and “Dios” means God in Spanish.


Finally …

Before exiting the mine we found ourselves near an unattended wagon and took advantage of that to listen to Daniel explaining about the metals in the mine. We all searched for a little silver stone, but unfortunately those were the minority. Well, life.

Today around 8,000 miners enter the mine every day, out of which 1000 are children. The reality is painful … but up at the mountaintop nobody invited you to sit in an office behind a computer. Life really beats the movies! And speaking of the movies, “The Devil’s miner” is one you really want to add to your “to watch” list.

And if you visit Bolivia, you may want to add the Potosi mine to your itinerary. It’s a different kind of experience for sure.


* We chose Koala Den, and a tour costs 100 Bolivianos.


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Potosi and Cerro Rico (The Rich Mountain)

“We eat the mountain, and the mountain eats us”, say the people of Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world: 4090 meters high. The city has a great historical significance, as Mont Potosi was the main source of silver for Spain in the colonial times, and the main way in which it financed its empire for several centuries. It is said the mountain hosted so much wealth they could have built a silver bridge all the way from Potosi to Madrid, and still have enough to transport to Spain across the bridge. In Spanish they still use to this day the phrase “worth a Potosi” to mean “worth a fortune”.


A little history

Cerro de Potosi, also known as Cerro Rico (The Rich Mountain), sits with all its impessive 4824 meters above the city of Potosi and watches. Legend says the rich potential of the mountain was first discovered by the Incas around 1462, but they did not take a single piece from it because they were instructed by a voice from inside the mountain to “not take any silver from this mountain, because it is meant for other masters.” The Incas complied with the voice’s request, and the new masters (the Spanish) found it as soon as they arrived on those lands and started exploiting it around 1546. This led to the appearence of the city of Potosi, and soon the town was so rich and sought after that it became one of the largest cities in the world at the time, its population exceeding that of London and Paris.

The Spaniards did not play around with the mining, and exploited the mountain so intensely that it is said to have decreased several hundred meters in two centuries. The workers were primarily native Indians used as slaves in the mines, and the working conditions were so severe that they dropped like flies in very short time. The extremely hard work, virtually non-existent labor protection, as well as the poisoning from the mercury used in the processing of the silver, have made the Spanish require new workforce at the beginning of the 17th century. So they resorted to importing 1500-2000 Africans Slaves per year, who of course had the same fate as the Indians. The estimated figure of how many slaves died in the mine of Potosi in the colonial times is a few hundred thousand or 8 million, depending on the source. It is also said that, on average, a slave survived in the mine for no longer than 6 months.

The city continued its spectacular growth, however, and in the 17th century it housed nearly 100 churches, it was said that its streets were paved with silver, and the luxury and opulence overshadowed that of any other city in the world.

After 1800 the silver mines were pretty much depleted though, so the next metal to be exploited was tin. As the quantity of silver coming out of the mountain decreased, so did the city’s economic success. Zinc took over after tin, and that is the most profitable metal exploited in Potosi today. The mountain continues to be exploited for silver to this day, but the quality is clearly inferior to that in the good times, the “silver times”.


Working conditions and health issues

Life has changed a lot since the colonial era, but the working conditions of the Cerro Rico miners seem not to have advanced much. The average life span of the miners is 40 years, and after about 15 years in the mine most of them contract silicosis, a lung disease caused by continuous inhalation of dust. Of those with silicosis, 80% also have tuberculosis. Most work as part of small cooperatives, and some of them work independently. That means no insurance, no protection, no nothing. And they can’t stop working either because if they do, they have nothing to put on the table the next day. The government provides a miners pension for those with silicosis, but only if the disease has already taken over 80-90% of their lungs (in which case they have only a few months to live anyway). So if they have silicosis in a proportion less than 80%, they continue to work, and when they reach the “necessary” level and stop, they know they only have a few months left to “enjoy” life. So “The mountain that eats men”, as another one of its names goes, seems to be a cruel yet true illustration of the reality of Mount Potosi.


And what were we doing there?

You can find out all about our meeting with the deity of the underground and the upset miners in the next post. Also there about the magical plant and magical drink. Aaaand about the marriage proposal.


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Potosi – sajnos nem csak a törpék dologznak a bányában

“Látod a fényt az alagút végén?”

“Látom” – mondtam hangosan, bár sosemgondoltam volna, hogy valaki majd ezt kérdezi tőlem. Ezzel kiléptünk a bányából, ahol végre újra nagyokat lélegezhettünk.

Potosi egy bányváros, a legfontosabb bányaváros Bolíviában, s régen egész Dál-Amerikában az volt. A bányászat, ami főleg ezüst, on és cink bányászásából áll mind a mai napig folyik. A bánya 1546ban nyitott, s azóta is ezrek dolgoznak benne nap, mint nap. Sokan a közeli városokból jönnek ide dolgozni. Jelenleg 8000 bányász bányássza a nemesfémeket, akik közül 1000 kiskorú. Többségük egydül dolgozik, ami azt jelenti, hogy se biztosításuk, se védettségük nincs semilyen szervezzettől. A dolgozók töbsége szilikózist és tuberkolózist is kap, 15 év munka után, így aki teheti előb elhagyja a bányát, ami persze nem sok, hisz legtöbbjüknek ez az egyetlen lehetőségük, hogy betevő falatra valót szerezzenek.


A bánya története

A bányát az inkák 1462ban fedezték fel, de mikor beléptek, hallották, ahogy a hegy ezt mondja nekik: „Más mestereknek van fenntartva a hegy, nem bányászhattok benne.” Ezt az inkák komolyan vették, s nem nyúltak a hegyhez egészen a spanyolok megjelenéséig. A hegynek olyan dörgős hangja volt, amit Aymara nyelven potosinak mondanak, hogy elnevezték a hegyet Potosinak.

A spanyolok megérkezésük után fel is fedezték a hegyet, s elkezdték bányászni 1546ban, természetesen inkákat munkára kényszerítve. A hegy olyan sok ezüstöt tartalmazott, hogy egyre több dolgozója lett a báányának, s lakója a városnak. Azt mondják olyan nagyra nőtt Potosi akkoriban, hogy mág Londont és Párizst is felül múlta. Akkoriban 100 temeplom állt a városban, s a hegy gazdagsága akkora volt, hogy spanyol országban még mindig meg van az a mondás, hogy „Megér egy Potosit”.

 A nővekedés miatt egyre több bányászra volt szükség, akik sajnos amúgy is hamar hullotak tüdőbajtól, vagy a nehéz munkától. Így a 17. században évente 1500-2000 új munkaerőt hozattak a spanyoloknak afrikából. Ám sajnos ők sem élték tovább a 8 hónapot a bányában.

Az 1800as években az ezüst mennyisége és minősége csökkenni kezdett, így ellkezdték a ont majd a cinket bányászni, ami mind a mai napig a fő bányászott nemesfém. Még mindig lehet ezüstöt találni a bányában, de már nem olyan jó minőségben miint egykoriban.

A bánya mellett pénz verde is múködött a városban, ahol eleinte több dél amerikai országba és spanyol országba is vertek érméket. Viszint mára már olyan drága lett a nyomtatás, hogy jobban megéri Chilében nyomni az érméket.

A Casa de la Moneda, azaz a Pénz Házban lehet megtekinteni a régi pénz verési módszereket egy 1,5 órás idegenvezetés alatt.

A bányába is el lehet látogatni egy pár órás túra alkalmával. Az egyik leghíresebb uazási iroda és egyben hostel is, ahol mi megszélltunk és ahol a bánya túrát foglaltuk Koala Névre hallgat.* (Több infó a hotelről a poszt alján található.) Aki Potosiban szeretne megszállni eme hostelt mindenkinek csak ajánlani tudjuk.


A bányában

Szóval a bánya túra reggel 8kor és délután 1kor indul. Első állomásként munkaruhát kaptunk, ahol magunkra kellett venni nadrágot, inget, csizmát és sisakot majd indulhattunk is a bányász piacra. Ezen a piacon vesz a legtöbb bányász üdítőt, coca levelet, cigarettát és dinamitot munka előtt. Szokás persze az, hogy a turisták vesznek egy kis ajándékot a bányászoknak, ígyhát mi is beszereztünk egy kis üditőt, cocát és dinammitot. Igen dinamitot, merthogy itt még mindig használják a dinamitot robbantáshoz. Mikor a bányában voltunk hallottunk is néhány robbantást.

Miután felszerelkeztünk ellátogattunk a feldolgozó üzembe, ahola  bányászott ezüstöt tartalmazó köveket dolgozzák föl míg porszerű ezüst nem lesz belőle.

Utolsó állomás termszetesen a bánya, ahol a bejárat előtt sikerült megismerkednünk egy jó pár bányásszal, akik 15 és 60 év között mozogtak. Igen sajnálatos módon még mindig rengeteg gyerek dolgozik a bányákban, hogy legyen a családnak betevő falatja. Rengeteg ember itt dolgozza le egész életét, vagyis ameddig tüdő bajt nem kap a hatalmas por miatt ami a bányában található. Idegen vezetőnk is dolgozott itt egy pár évet, így pontos képet tudott bemutatni nekünk látogatásunk alatt.

Egy kis ismerkedés és pertu ivás után be is léphettünk a bányába. Szűk kis utakon mentünk keresztül, a fejünkön lévő elemlámpával világítottuk utunkat, s próbáltuk a poros levegőt a kendőn kívül tartani, ami a szánk előtt volt. Bent találkoztunk több bányásszal, akik még dolgoztak aznap, s vagy egy jó zsák (20kg) nemesfémet cipeltek a hátukon, vagy kocsit toltak, amibe mi is besegítettünk egy kicsit.


Az rögtön nyilvánvaló volt, hogy kemény fizikai munkáról van szó a bányában, amiben  persze sosem kételkedtünk, de most sajátszemünkkel vagy inkább a saját bőrünkön is megtapasztalhatuk. A munkát nehezítik a fizikai körülmények, a levegő, a sötét, a meleg, ami a bánya beldejében olyan 40 fok. A bányászok nem mennek ki a bányából egész nap,mert olyan fél óra ki majd be sétállni, így ha van egy 1 órás ebédszünet, akkor mire kiérnek már jöhetnek is be, így bent tartózkodnak napi 10-12 órát. A legtöbbjük még enni és inni valót sem visz magával, ki nem derített okok miatt. Amit minden nap fogyasztanak az persze a coca level, amiből egyszerre olyan 300at pakolnak be szájukba, s azt rágcsálják órákik, s napi 1x-2x cserélik. A coca ugye már az inkák egyik energia forrása volt, ami mind a mai napig fent maradt legfőképpen Peruban és Bolíviában. A coca rengeteg energiát, proteint és vitamint tartalmaz, így sokáig el lehet élni eme fogyasztásán.

Anakonda üldözés, piranha halászat, fürdőszoba megosztás egy békával, s egy 1m-es rágcsáló megismerése, mindez a dzsungelben…

* A Koala hostelben különböző ágyas szobák vannak 25 Boliviánóért fejenként. A szobák tiszták, szépek, s még meleg víz is van. A reggeli meg egyszerűen csak jammi. Kis finom bagettek vannak az asztalra kirakva, ammiből annyit eszel, amennyt akarsz, van lekvár, tojás, frissen főzött kávé tejjel, tea és gyümölcs tál is.