12. March 2008 11:54
by Rene Pallesen

Potosi, The Mines - Bolivia

12. March 2008 11:54 by Rene Pallesen | 0 Comments

potosi the mines bolivia

Today was a really positive day compared to yesterday after I'd written my last post. We found an excellent restaurant (much better than most restaurants in Sydney) called El Meson...and the food was cheap as. For around USD 13 we got a three course dinner that was absolutely fantastic including drinks. It was so good that we decided to go back there tonight.

This morning we had to move hotel. We did try to extend one night at Hotel Eldorado...but everything in this town is fully booked. Late last night we had managed to put through a couple of bookings at other places, but the only one that came through was a local hostel...so this morning we moved there. It is a nice enough place...but the personnel is totally disinterested in providing a service (and no smiling please)...there is no heat in the room so it could be a cold night...but everything else is ok once you chase them for towels, blankets etc.
The told us that we couldn't have the room until 11.30am...so in the mean time we decided to go to the mint museum.

The Mint museum was really good. They had a lot of interesting items there and they provided an english speaking guide for free to explain how the silver was mined in Potosi, the historical significance as well as went through the whole process of producing silver coins which were produced in the same building (All the original equipment is still there). They also have a fantastic art collection there.
We joined the guided tour a bit late, but the guide was kind enough to repeat the first part of the collection so that we didn't miss out.

The highlight for Kim was when I made her a copper coin using an original minting stamp using a large hammer...she got to keep the coin as a souvernir.

After a lunch at La Plata (With the thickest hit chocolate we've ever seen...the spoon could stand upright) we went down to join a tour of the mines in Potosi. It turned out that Kim and I were the only ones on the tour and the guide spoke perfect English.

First we were fitted with overalls and helmets and afterwards the tour went to the miners market. I bought a stick of dynamite for around 5 Bolivianos (75 cents) and our guide gave Kim a fright when he threw the stick at her.

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After this we went to the processing plant where they do the first extraction of the metals from the rock. We saw how they crush the rock into a fine powder and then using various chemicals extract the metals from the rock as well as using gravity. All the chemicals and side products are then flushed into the Rio Negra where it then is washed into Paraguay and Argentina. Both BHP and Rio Tinto buy minerals from here processed in this way (It it great to see my shares at work). There are 42 such processing plans here in Potosi...because everything is working as coorporatives there is no investing in processing plants and machinery and the various plants refuse to work together although this would benefit everyone...but more about that later.

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Afterwards we drove up to the mine itself. We expected to be visiting a part of the mine that was no longer being used but this is not the case...the mine was fully functioning so once in a while we had to run for our lives to a location where the tunnel was wide enough for us to jump to the side when one of the small trains came zooming past.

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As we went further and further into the tunnels the gasses became thicker and thicker. I have never seen so many visible minerals in one location before...you could actually see the zinc, lead, copper, iron and bronce in the walls all over the place. The yellow sulphur was sitting in 2cm thick layers on the wall (but they don't mine this) and there was Albestos hanging in long threads off the ceiling all over the place and the air was think of asbestos dust.

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We were covering our mouthes with bandannas but running through the tunnels, the cramped places, the dust and the gasses in the air made it really hard to breathe through the bandanna (Remember that this is all happening at 4500 meters altitude where there is only 25% of the oxygen as at sea level...so there is not much air in the first place!). The miners themselves were chewing coca leaves to tolerate the gasses.

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Normally I would be fine, but at one point I thought I'd die and decided to not use the bandanna (I'd rather die young than die instantly)...and at this point we were still only on the first level (3 additional levels and appx 80 meters below us).

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We got to a 20 meter almost vertical tunnel and halfway down we took a break where we got the chance to ask a lot of questions about the mine. We also asked if the gasses became worse than here and the reply was yes. We were also told that the tunnels were very similar so Kim and I decided that we'd had enough and would like to breathe clean air...also because the mines are still working and a lot of the supporting structures are from the colonial spanish times 350 years ago the mines are really dangerous places.

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On the way out we say how the used an old electric motor to pull up the rocks from 80 meters below to our level and then dump it onto the trains. They actually have a champer above the level and then use a big hole in the floor to fill the trains...unsuspecting I walked across the pile 2 minutes prior to them opening up the while whereafter a 1 meter whole appeared in the floor.

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The whole mountain has got more than 700 mines most existing several hundred years where more than 400 of them are in use today. There is no backfilling taking place and there are no geologists or engineers working on stabilising the mines so the whole place is like a swiss cheese that can collapse any time.

Each individual mine is working as a small collective of maybe 50 miners. There is no coordination between the different mines and most regard eachother as enemies. Because of this they still use old inefficient and very dangerous mining methods and equipment. If they instead coordinated their efforts they would be able to mine the whole mountain in a very modern way which would benefit the whole town and actually earn the individual miners 50-100 more money than they do today. The same goes for the processing plants as they currently don't extract the minerals efficiently and have too high production costs. They haven't even bothered exploring the area for other mining sites, but instead mine the same mountain they have done for several hundred years.

The average age in the mine is 25 years old. The youngest is 10 years old and the estimated lifespan is about 10 years before dying from lung cancer from inhaling gasses and asbestos. The miners are chewing coca leaves and their eyes are blood red. On the weekend they drink 96% pure alcohol (50 cents a bottle).

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For both Kim and I it was real eye openers...we now love our 9-5 jobs. I think everyone should at least once in their life try and enter such a mine...but for me...never again.

Was it a positive experience? Yes absolutely...I have always wanted to see these mines with my own eyes how dangerous they are. Are they dangerous...yes undescribable...I cannot describe with words what a horrible feeling it was just being on the first level of these mines. I have been in other mines and enjoyed it immensely...but this was truly scary and awful. It took several hours before I could breathe normally again from inhaling all the dust and sulpher gasses.

One more night in Potosi and then we continue to Sucre. Click here to see more photos from Bolivia
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