Monday, January 05, 2009

Mines of Potosi

Potosi was once a huge city, home to much of the silver that was taken away by the Spanish Empire. The silver comes from a mountain that overlooks the town, supposedly discovered by a man chasing a runaway llama. Silver is still mined there today, by workers using their hands, a few crude tools, and some dynamite.

The air can be toxic, the hours are long, and many of the miners don't live past their forties.

But we were in Potosi and checking out the mines is a highlight of Bolivia. So off we went.

First stop was to rent gear. About 9 tourists, including me, were decked out in rubber boots, rain pants, plastic coats, and hard hats.

The next stop was to buy presents for the miners. It's traditional to give them cookies, soda, and dynamite in exchange for them showing us how to mine.

Yes, I bought dynamite.

And then we went to the mines.

After being fitted with headlamp, we walked into an opening in the side of the mountain.

And sloshed through mud, ducked under rocks, and scrambled along sloping rocky pathways.

The tour guide would yell out names of some miners. They'd answer from a distance, then we'd go and find them. Then miners were hammering away at rocks, which they'd hand to a small kid, who would examine them and put them into a sack.

These guys have it rough. They pound away at rocks for a living, while breathing asbestos, acetylene gas, or silica. They drag these rocks out of the mountain and sometimes get hurt and have to drag themselves. It's a living, I guess, but it didn't look like much fun.

Here are some photos of the mines at Potosi.

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