A guide to touring the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia

workers-outside-potosi-mine-bolivia

As someone who usually hates the use of the term ‘must see’ in travel publications, I’ve been using it a lot lately in reference to Bolivia. If it’s not the undeniable natural beauty of this country that gets me started, it’s an enthralling conversation about the current economic situation Bolivians are facing, or a look into the country’s deep (and often dark) history. I just find the place incredibly interesting and this was none more so than during my trip to the mines of Cerro Rico, in the Bolivian city of Potosi.

Initially the idea of visiting a mine was not on my agenda when I first arrived into Bolivia. After hearing some of the depictions from other travellers who had done it previously, in particular as to how (potentially) dangerous a trip into the mines could be, I was further put off. That was until one evening whilst relaxing in my hostel in Sucre, I watched a documentary called The Devil’s Miner. The film depicts the true story of a young 14 year old boy who has been working in the mines of Cerro Rico since he was 10. After his father died his mother could not afford to look after him nor his younger brother or sister, and so they had been forced somewhat to move from the city up into the mines where he took a job to help pay for the family’s upkeep. It was very heart retching stuff and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the boy. This was made even more poignant by the fact that over 800 kids are still believed to be working in these mines today. Then there is the fact the life expectancy of any miner here is just 40 years of age, and an estimated 8 million people have died working in the mines across its long dark history.

I knew as soon as I watched that movie that I had to take a tour down into the mines so that I could gain some perspective on this. I needed to see with my own eyes what was really going on down there. I also thought that if 10 year olds were having to go down these mines 5 to 6 days a week, poorly equipped, and working in extremely dangerous conditions, then I could at do it for at least 3 hours (the average time of a typical mining tour.)

So what were the conditions like?

miner-cerro-rico-potosi-bolivia

The mines of Potosi are at least 50 years behind the rest of the world in terms of safety and equipment. The thick dust that is present within the mines (especially as you go deeper) causes most of the miners to contract silicosis, a disease of the lungs that will usually kill them by the time they reach the age of 35 or 40. The mines are hot and often water logged inside, with the latter being particularly so on the lower levels. Dynamite is used frequently, and can often result in cave ins if not used properly. Anyone can buy dynamite in the shops at the foot of the hill before they head up to the mines.

There is a railway track inside for the crates (which the miners use to transport the silver), however these have to be manually pushed by the miners. Three of our guys tried pushing it on their own and found it almost impossible to move without additional help. On a downward slope these crates come careering round corners at incredibly fast speeds. Miners are often given just a minute’s notice to jump out of the way. If you get hit by one you would almost certainly end up in hospital. There are also many deep holes that you can fall into at the side of the tracks and tunnels so you also have to be careful when stepping out of the way of the crates carrying silver.

On top of this many of the tunnels that miners are expected to ‘walk’ through are extremely small. You’ll often find that you’re crouching, or in some cases crawling through them. Then there is the fact to consider that most miners do not have up to date equipment for mining (as they are expected to buy this themselves.) Instead of drills you’ll find pick axes for example. On the occasion when someone gets trapped in a cave-in, the miners only have these basic tools to try and get them out.

What were the miners like?

me with a miner in cerro rico potosi bolivia

The miners were incredibly friendly and open with us throughout our 3 hour tour. In fact, at times they seemed just as interested in us as we were of them. It’s customary for the tourists to bring gifts for the miners too in way of coca leaves, juice, sweets, or even dynamite for their work. Every time we handed over a bag of coca leaves or juice (the items we decided to bring), they were always especially polite and thankful. I just wish I could have brought more with me.

What do you need to know if you’re going on a tour of the mines in Potosi?

In terms of what to bring, the mines are hot inside so leave all your jumpers, hoodies, jackets etc back at your hostel. You won’t need them. Having a small bottle of water will definitely help with the dry throat you’ll get inside, but any bigger than this and it will be too big to carry. At times you may be crouching or crawling for long periods so having lots of things or a bag to carry that can’t just attach to your belt will be too much.

The tours will give you overalls, a helmet, boots, and a headlamp to wear throughout your tour (or rather I haven’t heard of any tour companies here who don’t). Any gifts you bring for the miners will either need to be pushed inside your overalls or attached in a plastic bag to the belt they give you. Bringing a backpack won’t be an option (you’ll need to leave all bags at the changing facilities before you head up into the mines.)

It’s also worth your while buying a face mask from the shops at the foot of the mines before you enter.

Is it really that scary, and is it safe?

miners-at-work-potosi-bolivia

In all honestly whilst everything I have described here is true, when I was in the mines it didn’t feel as scary as when you read back on these descriptions. Whilst you do hear dynamite going off in places, and you are going fairly deep into the mines, the tours do tend to take you the safest route as far as I could see. The guides are also conscious to make sure you stop every 10 minutes for a quick break and to make sure everyone is ok. The miners also tended to look out for you while you were in there and always gave lots of warning when crates were coming down the rail lines or when an explosion of dynamite was about to happen. Or at least this was the case when I did my tour anyway.

Why should you do it?

First off, if you’re in anyway claustrophobic or have an illness which may affect your lungs in some way then I advice you not to do this tour. However, if you’re a completely fit and healthy adult with no fears of small or dark spaces then I really think a tour of the mines in Cerro Rico, Potosi, is something you should consider. Firstly, I doubt you’d get an experience like this anywhere else in the world (it’s not exactly your typical tourist attraction.) But more importantly, it really gives you an insight into the lives of the local Bolivian people and how some of them really struggle to make a living. Nobody works in the mines unless they really feel they have to, especially not the mines here in Potosi.

Whilst I had an incredibly unique experience touring the mines, I must admit that after 3 hours I was definitely ready to leave. Thinking about how these guys often work 10 hour shifts 5 to 6 days a week was almost hard to comprehend. I genuinely don’t know how they do it, but I have the utmost respect for those who do.

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3 Responses to “A guide to touring the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia”

  1. Katy says:

    Great insight and pictures Jane.

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  1. […] If you liked this post you may also be interested in reading about my experiences going into the Bolivian mines of Potosi. Tweet Be Sociable, […]

  2. […] the pretty architecture and foodie scene of Sucre, the jaw dropping scenery in Salar de Uyuni, and the loveable miners of Potosi. In comparison La Paz to me was just a city. A nice city in parts, and with lots of things to see […]


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