Ever interested in dynamite and coca, we took a mine tour in Potosi. While silver was what made Potosi rich at one time, it isn’t so common anymore. But miners do find some, as well as zinc, tin and other minerals. The mountain is riddled with mines, and thousands of miners still work.
The inexplicably named Koala Tours put us into an ancient bus, which heaved up the hill to a building where we "suited up." We donned plastic pants and jackets, rubber boots and hardhats. Looking clever, we walked down the street past giggling kids to buy gifts for the miners.
Gifts being soda pop, "completos" (a stick of dynamite, bag of ammonium nitrate, fuse and detonator), and coca leaves. Our fun guide Pedro demonstrated that Argentinian and Chilean dynamite are inferior to Bolivian. Then some Aussies showed us how to properly chew coca leaves.
With a bulge in our cheeks, and dynamite in our pockets, we were off. We chugged up the mountain and to the entrance to the mines. Pedro, an ex-miner, and his assistant installed our headlamps. I am holding my dynamite.
They lit a few more, and after a minute or so, grabbed the bags, ran, and deposited them some distance away from the group. Resounding bangs, tremors and smoke followed. That was our dynamite (or, rather, fertilizer) demonstration.
Walking into a cave blasted into bare mountainside, we entered the mountain. Stooping through the passage, our first stop was a guy raising rocks from below with a mechanized pulley. A giant basket made of old tires, carrying 400 pounds of rocks jerked out of a shaft and almost landed on my feet. The guy somehow turned it on its side and poured the rocks into another shaft. I haven’t got the whole process figured out really.
The job had aged him; these poor guys don’t live long. He was grateful for the soda, as miners don’t eat in the mine; they only drink sugary soda and chew coca to sustain themselves.
Weird, moldy-looking formations on the ceiling were arsenic, copper, and some other things. We were told not to touch them.
At one point we met a lone miner; a guy working without a group. He had only a pickaxe; most things aren’t mechanized down there. He was happy for the gift of completos, as he dynamites every evening, and comes back in the morning after the fumes are gone.
We descended from the first to the third level of the mine. The tunnel is not engineered in any way; it is essentially a big rabbit hole, and we were sliding and falling through claustrophobically small and irregular spaces, for eighty meters, supposedly. During the descent, as well as other times in the tour, we slid past deep shafts that would have been fatal to fall into. As Jason said, this mine was not OSHA compliant. Apparently, there are fatalities every month.
On the third level, we saw where the rubber tire baskets of rocks were being winched from. Guys were taking dynamited piles of rocks and shoveling the good ones into baskets to go back up. It was pretty dusty down there.
There were also little rail-cars of rocks, like you think of the Seven Dwarves having. They weren’t mechanized; guys were pulling the backbreakingly heavy loads down the tracks. Conditions were essentially medieval.
When it was time to go up, we clambered back up the rabbit hole. It was exhausting work in the stuffy cave, being hot under the suit, with dust in the air.
The mine’s museum was back on level one; it was also stuffy and claustrophobic. Idols, or guardian saints of the mines, took the form of devils and old white Spaniards.
Pedro took us to some crude mineral processing plants, and we saw how silver and zinc are partially extracted from the rocks. It’s interesting to think the zinc supplement you take might originate in a place like this. Or the silver in your jewelry. The plant was not OSHA compliant either. Ironically, Bolivia must ship the crude minerals to other countries to be converted to usable product, and buys the refined product back at a premium.
After taking a night to recover from the mines, we went to the mint museum to see the next step in the process. The mint was a fine old Spanish building. The leering head of Poseidon was apparently added when Bolivia gained independence and the Spanish left — a final goodbye.
Julio, our excellent yet sarcastic guide, explained how the Spaniards created the purest silver coins of their era, the pieces of eight. During the period of Spanish domination, these coins from Potosi were used all over the world. It was interesting to see how mule teams would walk in circles to power machines to flatten silver bars. This life-size silver armadillo was on display as one of the works created with Potosi silver.