While we “studied’ in Sucre we kept hearing of travelers visiting a small town called Potosi and decided we would give it a crack. It was going to split up our journey to Uyuni so we thought “why not” – long bus rides suck! Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world in the highlands of Bolivia at 4090m above sea level, it was going to be our first introduction to some serious altitude.
Shortly after arriving we really felt out of breath and struggled with the walk to our hostel. We knew it would take a day to acclimatise but we only had 3 nights so we hit the streets to soak up as much of this city as we could. As we walked down the hilly streets it was a treat with no effort required but with every hill we walked down we had to walk back up and the entire town is built on hills. By the end of our first day we were ready for a beer even though they say it’s the worst thing for altitude sickness (I recon it helped, and what do doctors know anyway?)
If you ever head to Potosi a tour of the Zinc mines is something you should consider. Having worked in the industry I was keen to see the working conditions. Now, this tour is not for the faint hearted as the mine is not owned by a company and is simply mined by locals with pick axes and dynamite with 10% of there profits going to the company that transports the raw mineral from the mine to the plant. On our tour we headed through thin channels carved blown through the mountain with barley enough room to stand up. The mines are completely dark with the only light coming from your head light and the only source of oxygen is pumped in from a compressor.
As you walk through touching the walls you feel loose rock fall to the floor and with your head light you can see the aftermath of other parts that have collapsed. We walked for 20 minutes before we came to a hole with a small wooden ladder heading down a 15m drop, this was our first entry point to the lower levels and a point where escaping was a long way away. We headed down the ladder and carefully gripped each ladder rung as if your life depended on it while contemplating your reasoning for doing such a tour.
We walked for another 5 minutes before we came to an open shaft used for winching up the minerals to the first level which had a rail cart that led to the trucks.The shaft was 70m deep, had no railing or safety signs, and is the reason for alot of the deaths in the mine. Our tour guide (who used to work in the mines) was looking for miners so we could see them work, meet them, and give them gifts of coca leaves and soft drink. Unfortunately on the level we were on there were no miners working so our guide instructed us we must go deeper, another 15m deeper.
Our guide found another ladder heading down a small hole and off we went now 30m from the first level with over 200m of mountain above us. We finally found a miner working and stopped to chat. He was 53 years old and had worked in the mine for 30 years. Our guide explained to us that he had already lived longer than expected as the average life expectancy of the miners is 50 years old. Almost all the miners that survive the collapses of rocks, falling down the deep shafts, or suffocating from deadly fumes, eventually die from silicoses from all the silicon in the rock that they breathe for so many years.
On our way out we were taken to a statue of the Devil, the miners say god rules above ground but the devil rules underground. We poured alcohol on the statue and lit a cigarette and placed it in the mouth of the statue. This is a ritual for the miners to pray for a safe return and rich minerals.
This work is the sad reality for 15,000 miners who have no other source of income except to destroy their health to put food on the table for their families. The mineral Zinc gets sent to all parts of the world and without even knowing it, people like me and you support this horrible violation of human rights. The mining companies that buy the product from the miners take no responsibility as their excuse is that they simply buy the product, but the low price they pay means the miners cannot afford simple safety equipment that could improve their quality of life.
Although I enjoyed my stay in Potosi, the town is stained by the mine that sits 5 minutes from the city. This travel post is not super positive (as you usually see online) but I want to be honest and not paint the picture that the world is perfect. As you travel you see things that affect you in a sad way and you may find yourself asking why in this day and age are people being used like a tool you just throw away when it breaks. Seeing these things is a part of traveling and I believe it is important for people to realise the world has a long way to go.