Potosi, the highest city of the World (4,067m), besides being the main silver source of the Spanish Empire during the colonial era is a very representative city of Bolivia, where you can live the amazing Bolivian culture and contemplate landscapes that look like from another planet.
We arrived at Potosi from La Paz at dawn, so we went to the main square (300m from the hostel that was recommended to us) and waited there. As the time passed we felt how the cold of the night was disappearing at the same time as the sun begun to shine, we also witnessed how the locals went to work and the children to school.
Once past 7 am we entered the hostel “Casablanca”, here we were well received by the staff who let us deposit our backpacks until the check in time.
That same day we went to visit the mines of Potosi, the tour we booked (70 bolivianos, 10 USD) included the transport to the mines, the guided tour and the costume (I recommend wearing dirty or old clothes since even if you are covered you will be filled with the smell of sulphur).
The transfer took us to the first stop where we equipped ourselves with the costumes and where we could buy certain gifts to give to the miners such as drinks, cigarettes, even dynamite, and bicarbonate with sweet or salty taste since if you chew coca for hours, it arrives a time when the coca leaf stops firing its sap, so some are accustomed to adding a little bicarbonate to stimulate the production of sap.
Once we reached the mine we were able to observe the city…
As you enter you begin to see the minerals flying through the air which impressed me every time I breathed…
On the entrance, we could see a lot of wooden boards holding the roof of the Mine, some already cracked under pressure and others in poor condition.
Once 200m ahead we found some miners, some consuming 95% alcohol mixed with juice or soda and others smoking these cigarettes without the filter. Then we started to talk with one of them, he told us his story… He has a lung disease that has consumed 50% of his right lung because of having worked in the mine since age 14., he also told us told us that the miner average salary is 200 Bolivianos (29,94 USD) for 6 to 8 hours of work… Within such a stark truth, he remarked a light of hope; his son was currently studying to become a programmer! he told us that the only thing he did not want was seeing his son working in the mine…
Then advancing we arrived at the statue of “El Tio”, who is the Tio?
The Tio, an Andean deity, and high-grade miner sitting in the most remote places of the mine. His presence inspires respect and maintains a balance of reciprocity between his mining nephews and his person. This reciprocity consists of those who treat it well will be protected from accidents inside the mine and; in addition, with their magical power, will show where to continue the extraction.
If someone treats him badly, he disrespects or does not pay homage to him, the Tio looks at him with his eyes of fire and becomes angry like a volcano in full eruption. He begins to throw sparks through his mouth. As a result of this, enormous rocks are shed from the rocks, suddenly poisonous gases, foul smells, abrupt temperature changes and icy wind currents arise. That is to say, the Uncle puts diabolical barricades until causing the death.
To avoid all these misfortunes, the workers of the Bolivian subsoil venerate the Tio every time they enter and leave the mine making this ritual where they throw coca leaves and alcohol on the Tio’s face, to then light a cigar that is left in the mouth of the statue, if the cigar is consumed is a sign of good luck.
This tour was interesting to me since I learned about the conditions of the miners in such a poor country as Bolivia, but on the other hand I found it unfair that miners are exposed to tourists on a tour for cash so I asked the tour guide if miners had a commission from the profit made by the tour. He told me yes, (I hope it is true although I found it kind of hard to believe in a country like this).