America,  Bolivia,  TDM,  Travel Journal

Visit of the Potosí mine (Bolivia): An atmosphere worthy of Germinal

Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world: 4070 meters above sea level! It was founded in 1545 by the Spanish colonists to exploit the silver mine of the “Cerro Rico” mountain (rich mountain) that dominates the city. The miners were Indian and African slaves. Between 1545 and 1825 (date of Bolivia’s independence), an estimated 8 million miners died in this mountain due to lack of oxygen or because of the landslides. 8 million! Nearly 80 deaths per day for 280 years!

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

This mine filled the coffers of the Spanish crown during this period known as the “Spanish Golden Century”. Legend has it that the amount of silver extracted was enough to build a bridge across the Atlantic to Spain

Since the mine is the main “tourist attraction” of the city. Silver is almost exhausted but thousands of miners continue to exploit other minerals such as zinc. The miners work for their own account, they are organized in a cooperative

I hesitated a little bit before deciding to make this visit: human zoo? Unhealthy voyeurism? Misery tourism ? I fully understand the reservations one can have before such a visit. Then curiosity took over. On the other hand, I took very few pictures, if tourists came to take pictures of me at my place of work, I would send them quickly

Just arrived at our hotel, I book a tour for the next day for 100 bolivianos with an english speaking guide (80 bolivianos for a hispanic guide). Little apprehension before leaving, it’s still something else than visiting the Uyuni desert or snorkelling in the Philippines

At 2pm, a person comes to pick me up at the hotel, we take a small local bus for a few minutes and we stop in front of “the agency”, a tiny room where I meet the guide and the 6 Argentinian tourists that I will accompany. We equip ourselves: boots, pants, jacket, helmet and lamp, in 5 minutes we look like perfect miners

We then go next door to a store that sells material for minors. It’s the only one in the whole street, it must be said that the minors have to buy their material themselves. The guide explains us that if we wish, we can buy gifts for the minors we will meet

But what can we offer to minors?

  • Coca leaves that they chew constantly to cut hunger
  • Cigarettes, without filter of course…
  • Alcohol at 95°: not to disinfect the mine but to drink, cut with a little water.
  • Sodas
  • Dynamite to dig the rock

Yes, dynamite! It is on sale quite legally in Potosi. A 10 year old child can come and buy some without anyone being surprised

A stick of dynamite
and its wick

I ask the guide what the “best” gift is. She advises me to buy 6 small bottles of soft drinks. That hardly comes back to me to 20 bolivianos

Once our purchases are done, we take again a small local bus to go to the entrance of the mine. We enter immediately in the heart of the matter, I have to move away quickly because two miners are going out pushing a cart full of minerals. At their mine, we understand immediately that we are in the real life, not in a staging for tourists in search of strong sensations

We enter the labyrinth. With my height of 85 meters, I have to bend down right away. We are in the “main alley” but it is already very narrow. The guide asks us to be particularly vigilant because we have to quickly lean against the wall if miners arrive with carts. No question of slowing them down in their work

Long pipes are used to bring oxygen, an “innovation” compared to the colonial era when the miners died mostly for lack of air. I don’t have any particular problem to breathe but I quickly get a headache, a sign that the air quality must not be at its best

A little further on, we find three drunken miners in front of the statue of El Tio, the god of the underworld, to whom the miners make offerings in order to obtain his benevolence. I didn’t take any pictures, I let you search on Google, it’s quite peculiar. There follows an exchange between the miners and the Argentinean tourists, I regret not understanding anything because they seem to have a good laugh

We resume our visit in this maze, our guide who is as high as three apples is like a fish in water. I would be absolutely unable to find my way back if I got lost! In the distance we hear detonations of dynamite. From time to time we meet miners to whom we offer drinks, coca leaves, cigarettes, ..

It must have been an hour since we entered the mine and I’m already feeling tired: I have a backache, a headache. The road we are taking must however seem like a highway for the miners who spend their day in this hell. The guide shows us a tiny hole with a ladder that goes down 200 meters lower. A little further it is this time a ladder which goes up 150 meters higher. In these areas, no more rails to push the carts, the minerals are extracted on men’s backs. No more big pipes to carry air, you have to take one with you. I am worried when I realize that the tons of stone above our heads are maintained by simple wooden beams. The security conditions are deplorable

As we walk down the corridors, we hear miners working in a hole above us. The guide calls out to them and they send us a rope to which we attach a bag with some provisions. The guide asks me if I want to go up to join them. Since the beginning of the visit, she has asked me several times if I want to come and work here tomorrow morning, so I think it’s a joke. When she asks me again, I understand that it isn’t really the case. I wonder how I can climb that wall. That’s when the miners send the rope back and I understand… It’s only a few meters to climb but I still have to work: there are hardly any holds on the wall, the boots are slippery and breathing is difficult. Obviously no harness to make sure, if I let go of the rope I break my leg

I finally arrive in a tiny cavity where I find myself in front of 3 miners to whom I shake hands. Only one of the tourists joins me, there is no room for the others anyway. The tourist opens his bag and “offers” them a stick of dynamite. At that moment I really wonder what I am doing there. I was so good two days earlier in the paradise of the Uyuni desert. I hope he doesn’t get the right idea to use dynamite right away. I relax when I see him put the stick next to it. To thank us, they offer us a glass of alcohol to be tasted bottoms up obviously. Fortunately, it wasn’t the 95° alcohol, or very diluted. After a few minutes, we go back down, even more annoying than the ascent

After a little less than 3 hours, it’s the end of the visit and I’m very happy to be back in the open air. My headache won’t leave me until bedtime… How do his men manage to stay there 10 hours a day, every day, in conditions much more trying than what I could see? A group of 2 or 3 miners has to extract about twenty carts of minerals per day. Depending on the quality, a cart brings back about 10 bolivianos (1,4 € …). They have to pay part of this amount to the cooperative, buy the material necessary for their work and try to survive?

What can we take away from this visit? I don’t know. I don’t regret having done it, even though we know that “it exists”, it’s not the same as seeing it with your own eyes. My few derisory “gifts” have the merit of having improved their day a little bit

I will especially remember the immense gratitude for having been lucky enough to have been born in France, to have been educated, to have a good job and to never have to set foot in a place like this again

Part 2: Practical Tips


  • Visits

    • 100$B/person for the visit of the mines (the price varies greatly from one agency to another), we went through our hotel (Hostal San Pedro Velmont) so cheaper. 80$B if it is in spanish
    • 25$B of gifts for minors approximately

Practical advice

  • Two departures per day: 8am and 2pm. Visits last 3h-3h30.
  • If you are coming from Uyuni, you will still miss the 2pm visit, it will be worth staying overnight in Potosí, visiting the mines in the morning, and taking the afternoon bus to Sucre or the evening bus to La Paz.
  • It is customary for tourists to buy gifts for minors. If you buy sticks of dynamite, ask them not to use them in front of you. It’s not uncommon for them to use it in front of the tourists as a thank you to show what it looks like, and it’s not good for your lungs at all
  • Come with a minimum of stuff because you risk dirtying them in the mine
  • Those with respiratory problems should think twice before visiting the mines


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