I finally left La Paz for good and went on my way to Potosi. Which is a smaller town in the South of Bolivia. The main reason I wanted to go is because the mines hold an important role in the (quite sad) history of the country.
So I booked a tour where I could get more information and explanation about the mines. Apparently there are about 180 mines around Potosi and they hold silver, zink, tin and led. Silver obviously being the most valuable one.
First we went to a ‘factory’ where the minerals are sorted, grinded and produced.
This was the first experience in how the mineworkers are exposed to toxic gasses and stuff like that. While we were all wearing masks to breath through, no one else was.
We actually went into one of the active mines around. Which was, as the tallest of the group, a bit annoying and claustrophobic. If I got an euro for everytime I hit my helmet I could stay here for another month.
Luckily, everytime we stopped to get an explanation it was in a bigger part of the mine. The entrance was one of the smaller tunnels.
In the mine we got to see a few people working. We gave them some gifts, including dynamite. That was an expierence haha. We had 3 to 4 minutes to get to another part of the mine after the worker lit the fuse.
Besides chatting with the workers, our tour guide told us about the history of the mines. Apparently it started by slavery of the Spanish 500 years ago. Not that much has changed, since they still get little pay for very intens work. Since there aren’t many opportunities around Potosi, a lot of men start to work in the mine around age 11. The general life expectancy is around 45 to 50 years old for these people. Working in the mines is far from safe. The tunnels are barely supported by beams and often people die from ‘mystery gasses’. This gas makes them paralyzed within 3 minutes and dead in 5. There is no ventilation in the mines and imagine if you get lost in there?!
It is pure horror. The mines are owned by international companies so the money doesn’t go to Bolivia or their people. Besides that, the companies cleary do not care about the workers. Otherwise they would have machinery and safer work conditions. But no, everything is done by hand (or dynamite) and men often die. The guide told us that only yesterday 3 of his friends died from the gas. He worked in the mines for 22 years, now being 32. Hooked on coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes he looked a bit older than that. After a few years as a mine worker you are allowed to get your own ‘lot’ in the mine. Whatever you find, you can sell. So you can imagine that a lot of people try to work as much as possible, totally alone in silence and mostly darkness. You’ll need some stimulans to keep going. They love to drink 95% alcohol (my desinfectent is only 70%).
I have some pictures of workers and the guide that I won’t post here. Text me if you want to see it.
Overall a very interesting and educational visit. Also sad, nerve wrecking, hard to breath and claustrophobic. Totally recommend!