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Travel Story by Nathalie Koenig

  A tour of the famous Potosi silver mines
Potosi, Bolivia

Miners at work

Potosi used to be a wealthy silver mining town and has a Royal Mint museum where they used to control the minting of the colonial coins.

The city of Potosi sits at an altitude of 4,090 meters above sea level, and is the highest city in the world. I was told to drink water all the time when I arrived there.

Before visiting the silver mines, I was given plastic overalls, boots and a helmet with a headlamp to wear. We were informed that that the local miners had to buy coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite.

Our guide said the miners would appreciate it if we donated some of the things mentioned above. So I went to a local shop and bought some things to donate as well as food, as it is cheap for us but very expensive for them.

We entered the silver mine through low, narrow, dirty shafts with wobbly ladders. It was quite claustrophobic walking so low in the cave and seeing the miners, including children as young as 11, working so hard by hand with very basic tools. It was quite cold and unventilated down in the mine. The children had to work long hours to support their families, which was heartbreaking.

The guide showed me how people lived in the town and I was given some coca leaves to taste, which was very bitter. Apparently it is useful for the miners as it helps them avoid headaches and feeling sick due to the altitude! They chew them all day long and go without lunch so their wives make them a good big meal when they get home.

If they find good quality silver or tin they will receive money for it. But if they don't, they will just keep on digging, digging and digging and will not earn any money for their efforts!

It was shocking to see that the health and safety rules have not changed in four decades! Lots of miners including children, get killed and they only live until their 50s due to respiratory problems from breathing in all the dust and minerals.

If you visit the mine the guide must be licensed, so this is something you need to check out.

Visiting the silver mines of Potosi was a shocking and memorable experience but worthwhile.

Click on photo to enlarge

There dwelt a miner  Kids outside the mine entrance

Date Submitted: 16 Jan 2007

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