April 21-22, 2017
Our bus ride to Potosí was uneventful. Potosí is a small town that calls itself the highest city in the world. It’s located 4,090 meters (13,420 feet) above sea level. We don’t sleep well at that altitude, but our stay would be brief.
Potosí used to be home to the most prolific silver mine in the world, and the Spanish milked it for all they could. On the day we arrived, we visited the oldest mint in the Americas, which included an interesting tour of various machines that were used to make coins over the years, as well as some less interesting paintings.
The next day we toured the mines, which is the real reason that tourists stop here. Our tour guide used to be a miner and is a political activist minus the activism. He gave us a good understanding of the miner’s lives (working the only job around, hard, short) and background on how things got the way they were. We spent about 45 minutes outside the mine sharing beer with the miners, while our guide translated. (My Spanish is getting better, but it doesn’t work if the person I’m trying to understand doesn’t slow down.) There was one little plastic cup which would be filled up, passed to a person, who would spill a little as an offering to Pachamama, and then drain it. The man with the bottle would fill the cup up again, and it would go to the next person. It was Saturday, pay day, so most miners had worked an early shift starting around 2am to make a little bit more money which is why they were outside drinking beer.
Inside the mine it was dark (duh) and the ceilings were low. Tunnels with high ceilings are weaker, so they’re not made except by cave-ins. We walked quickly, bent over, for a few hundred meters at a time. I was breathing hard every time we stopped. I’m too tall to be a miner. (Also, altitude.) We moved quickly to avoid meeting a full cart going the other way on the rails that we were walking in. At the devil statue (every mine has one) we got a good explanation of miner religion and motivations.
We took another breather at the first real fork in the mine. While we were standing there a few buckets worth of big rocks fell from the ceiling just a meter behind us. Our guide quickly took us to a more structurally sound place. After waiting a few minutes we decided it was time to go home. We walked past the cave-in one at a time, and exited in amazingly bright daylight. To celebrate our safe return we shared another beer. This time the offering to Pachamama had a bit more meaning.
We wandered a little in the afternoon, but were happy to get on the bus the next day, off to (a little) lower altitudes.