03.16.09

Potosi – Mine Tour

Posted in Bolivia at 8:18 pm by Jackson Lee

In additional to headaches, breathlessness and humbling short walks, Potosi also proides the chance to get amougst the dirt and go mining. For 100 Bolivianoes ($US20) a tour company provides guides (who are ex-miners from mining familes) and transport into Cerro Potosi.

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In little ol, well regulated, New Zealand it is illegal to enter construction sites – I suspect because of the danger construction sites have. So obviously its worth scratching the melon wondering about the safety of entering a mountain which has been over mined for the last 450 years – forever changing the original cone-like shape of the mountain.

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Our English speaking local guides has a smurf like enthusiasm and quickly have the cheesy jokes following. After getting us properly fitted into mining apparel we visit the miners markets for an introduction into items miners need on a daily basis. The most important being bags of coca to chew – a miner will easier chew through 500 grams in a day. Three types of Dynamites – of which we were reminded on numerous occasions that the Chinese quality was the worse- at this point he was lucky to avoid a painful kungfu chop.

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After purchasing gifts for the miners and a quick stop at the mineral processing factorys – which looked more like piles of rubble – we were on our way up the mountain towards the mines entrance. The idea of being inside the mine had been getting to me for a few days. I’ve not had problems with claustrophobia in the past, but people had told me stories of panic attacks and breathing problems. Nerves in hand, my legs shuffled me into the darkness.

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Contrary to logic, the Potosi mines have little heavy equipment and instead rely on blood, sweet and callused hand. After spending 20 minutes in the mines small underground museum (acclimatising), we ventured further into the belly of the earth. Crawling and shuffling another 300 meters we came across a processing area (some miners work in collectives).

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The smell of sulfur and other heavy chemicals clings to the air – we wet bandannas and wrap them over our faces to improve air quality. After only 15 minutes of being underground, I have almost no idea which direction is out. Staying close to the headlights of the rest of the group is fueled with light paranoia. The trill of being underground and in such a dangerous environment adds to the heart rate and the need for oxygen. The guides are experienced, they allow for constant rest stops and chatter about the different parts of the mines to keep our minds off bad thoughts. How the low levels of the mine are more dangerous – how the mines have endless passage’s many of which have collapsed – we come past a father whos two young (under 10) sons work on the level above him helping with the production. We learn about how the unpredictable international mineral prices influence the miners lives – from affording TVs to near starving.

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Emerging to the surface after two hours underground. The guides, and a few Israelis, gather the remaining dynamite – light the long wicks and wonder (I would have run like an Olympian) off to place them in the ground. After that moment of classic anticipation where you think to yourself that maybe the wicks have stopped burning, three large explosions rock the hillside. Being a reckless Bolivian is staying to grow on me.

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