|Potosi is not only the highest city in the world (3977m) but also one of the most beautiful, saddest and fascinating places in the world. Towering over the city is the giant pink heaadstone of the Cerro Rico. Silver from the mountain made Potosi the biggest city in the Americas and one of the richest in the world. However Potosi`s wealth is only a distant memory now as the silver has all but gone. The mines have killed thousands of people and are still killing people today (about 25 a year).
The spanish still have a saying `Vale un Potosi`(is it worth a Potosi) for anything incredibly valuable.
The day we arrived we went to the Casa Nacional de Moneda (the money mint). It explains the process of the silver extraction and the proces of making the silver coins in 1572. It is housed in a lovely building with fortress thick walls. We also had a look around town at some of the churches and colonial buildings.
The following day we were up early on the silver mine tour. We first got dressed up in our overalls, wellington boots and helmet with electric torch. We then visited the refinery to see how the rocks mined are purified into a concentrate to then be sent to Europe, USA or China for smelting into Silver/ Zinc/ Tin/ Atonomy. After this and a quick viewpoint of the city we visited the miners market. This is where the miners pick up their dynamite, get their battery packs recharged and any other tools that are needed in the mine. It was funny to see that anyone could buy the dynamite, even little kids who were sometimes sent by the miners to get more !! It is common for tourists to buy some dynamite and soft drinks, as well as coca leaves, to give to the miners while touring the mine. We picked up two sets of dynamite (one for us and one for the miners !!!!) and a big bottle of pop.
We arrived at the mine, one of over 120 in the Cerro Rico mountain, where over 8000 miners make their living every day ! The mine we were visiting was called La Candelaria and has been in operation for over 400 years. When the mine was first run by the Spanish the concentration of the silver was 97%, however nowadays it is only 3% and a ton of rock is only worth about 200Bs ($25) to the miners !
We entered the mine and walked/ crawled down mineshafts between different levels. There are four levels but we only got down to level 3. Conditions are, if anything, more dangerous than colonial times. The lowest level has no ventilation, at least the Spaniards had a ventilation / drainage system in place ! We saw several miners, making the hole (50cm) where the dynamite is inserted. Depending on the hardness of the rock this can take between two to ten hours. We also saw a miner preparing the dynamite and we left to the next level as soon as it was inserted into the hole. We heard the boom ! from the next level, as the ground shaked. The fuse on the dynamite is only about 1 minute and the miners scatter about 25m away to chew more coca leaves while the explotion happens. They all have a huge ball of coca leaves in their mouth and leave them in for about 4 or 5 hours as this helps the throat through all the dust that they inhale.
The conditions were truely appauling and it is not surprising that after 15 yrs of working in the mines the miners get untreatable silicosis. It was a relief to emerge from the mine into the fresh air !
We then took the extra dynamite that we had bought and made a bomb. Our guide lit the fuses to the various bombs and Nick was standing with a bomb, fuse lit ! The guides then told us to dump the bombs on an open field and we all stood back. Four bombs went off and they made a tremendous amount of noise. As we drove back we saw the big holes that had been left by the bombs !
Koala Tours - A good guide (bit mad !) and a good trip.
Sumaj Orcko - Big portions, ok food.