I arrived in this small Bolivian city, high in the Andes, on my way to northern Argentina. This industrial city is located at around 4000m above sea level in a area otherwise dominated by majestic mountain-scapes and agricultural scenery. Not a typical tourist location in its own right, it did however posses an ‘attraction’ which someone had recommended to me and which sounded highly interesting, although a little nerve-wracking. This was the famous Potosi silver mine, possibly the oldest mine in south America, in continuous use from Inca times all the way to the present. According to my contact, this involved a journey deep inside the mine for a guided tour of what was essentially the inside of a hollowed-out mountain.
Being a little claustrophobic, I wasn’t sure if this idea really appealed to me, but my imagination took a hold of me and I decided to give it a go. After all, this was the type of place I was unlikely to visit twice, so I might never get another chance.
So after arriving in the city centre and locating a decent hostel for the night, I went about booking my mine tour. Luckily the hostel itself organised such tours, so I booked one for early the next morning. After grabbing a bite to eat I bedded down for the night, excited about the prospects of what was to come the following morning. So far that day I hadn’t had any problems with the altitude and felt I was breathing with no problems at all. However at night it was another matter and I found breathing and therefore sleeping difficult.
The next morning after a very poor night’s sleep, I got up and prepared for the tour, which soon arrived with a mini-van rounding up other tourists. It all appeared to be well-organised enough and we were soon getting geared up with overalls, helmets and head torches. Back on our way toward the mine itself we stopped off at a fascinating little local shop, where we bought some bottles of soft drinks, coca leaves with an accompanying sweetener and amazingly, dynamite! Well, we didn’t actually buy any dynamite, but it was right there on the shelves alongside packets of biscuits and cans of coke! We were told that these items would make nice treats for some the miners we would be meeting.
Setting of again, we were soon outside the mine itself, which was indeed a vast mountain, towering up over the city and apparently honeycombed with mine shafts and galleries. Following our guide, a small tough-looking Bolivian woman, we were soon completely lost within the maze of tunnels and shafts. Well, we would have been lost if not for our expert guide.
The only lights available were those we carried with us and there were little to no apparent safety regulations that I was aware of. In fact, it turned out that our guide was the owner of that series of tunnels and the men we saw working there, were her guys. We handed over a few bags of coca leaves and bottles of fizzy drink as we went along. Nobody begrudged this as the working conditions were brutal to say the least. Personally I found it hard enough just being down there in the thin air which was also full of dust from the mining activities.
I have to say it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but I was very glad I did it and never before have I been so appreciative of fresh air and sunlight! After several hours down the mine it was quite a relief to finally get out.