From the busting La Paz we decided to take a break day in Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, before moving onto Potosi. The old town in the center of Sucre is like nowhere else that I’ve found in South America. Built in colonial Spanish architecture the entire center is painted bright white and resembles a city that you would find in the Spanish countryside or a Greek Island. It’s a lot quieter than other cities and is great place to stop over on the way to the East or the Southern Bolivia. We didn’t really do much in the way of tourist attractions there but just had a great day relaxing in the parks and bars.
Our next big adventure moving South was stopping over in Potosi, one of the oldest cities in South America, to visit its famous silver mines. Not long after the Spanish colonised South America silver was discovered in Cerro Rico an extinct volcano behind what’s now the city of Potosi. It’s still the biggest silver deposit in the world today even after 500 years of mining. Within months it became the second biggest city in South America with over 200 000 people moving into the valley trying to become rich overnight. So much silver was extracted from the mountain it’s actually credited with funding the Spanish empire and to this day around 60 000t of pure silver have been dug out.
Today it’s possible to take a tour inside the working mines and experience what the 14 000 miners have to go through on a daily basis. The catch is that the mines aren’t ultra-modern like we’re used to in the West but the mining is still done by hand almost exactly the same as it was 500 years ago. This makes it extremely dangerous. Cave in’s happen, the air is full of dust, there is asbestos everywhere and its ridiculously hot. On top of all that the miners have to haul the rocks of ore by hand in carts weighing over a tonne back to the surface (keeping in mind that the base of the mountain is at 4000m). Everything combined means that most miners don’t live past 45 and none of them enjoy what they are doing.
So with all of the above in mind we decide to take the tour, seems pretty cool right? Halfway up the mountain our van pulls over at a roadside stall and the tour guide explains that this is where we can buy dynamite, coca leaves and drinks for the miners as a gift. Yes, that’s right we can buy dynamite on the side of the road! All of us buy a bag of stuff and jump back into the van which drives us up to the base of the mountain that looks more like a human sized ant hill. We get out of the van and pose for obligatory photos, but not before me and Conor shit ourselves when we realise that one of the group has put the detonator into the dynamite stick for the photo. FFS.
We put on all of our safety gear and start walking into the pitch black tunnel. It’s exactly as horrible as you’d expect, but so horrible it’s so goddam cool. There is no lighting apart from our headlights, the tunnel is only around one meter high in places and most of the timbers holding up the roof are breaking under the pressure from above. Every couple of minutes we have to dive up against the side of the tunnel as a cart full of ore rumbles by. Despite all of this the inside of the tunnels are incredible. There is so much copper, tin and silver in the ground that the tunnel walls change between blue, green, yellow and veins of pure silver. In some places there are blue and yellow stalactites across the roof.
We stop a couple of times to meet the miners in the middle of their shifts and it’s absolutely backbreaking work. Using picks they hollow out holes in the ore big enough to fit in the dynamite, detonate, haul out the ore and repeat. After a couple of hours inside the mine I’m sweating so much my face mask is completely useless and I’m left to just breathe in whatever is in the air. A few hours after entering we are all exhausted, I can’t breathe from the sulphur fumes and we couldn’t be happier to get out. We finally get out of there with a healthy respect for everyone who has to be in there 12 hours a day, every day.