Up early, hungover, and ready for a silver mine tour. First we meet the guide…seems like nut job to me. An ex-miner who learned enough English to give tours. First we go over safety, rules, and expectations. None of which are very demanding.
Then we get our gear and dress up. Rubber boots, plastic pants & jacket, hardhat equipped with headlight. Then off we go on the bus to the “Miners Market”.
Basically the guide goes through the items that the miners want and we are expected to purchase “gifts” for them before going to the mine. The top things that they desire are Alcohol (96% pure gasoline rubbing alcohol basically), Coca Leaves for chewing, and Juice (more like carbonated Fanta but they call it juice). You also have the options to purchase dynamite. I have been blowing shit up since I was a small lad (and have gotten better with age) and this is as close to heaven as I can get. The Cost: $3 gets you a pint of rubbing alcohol, 1 liter of “juice”, and a large bag of coca leaves. The next $3 gets you a stick of dynamite, a blasting cap, fuse, and a bag of ammonium nitrate. I’m standing there giggling like a school girl. You are actually going to give me a stick of dynamite and all necessary detonation equipment for $3? Load up the bags!!
The guide filling his face with Coca leaves:
The guide passing around rubbing alcohol for consumption:
The guide attempting to smoke a stick of dynamite:
The shop with all the goodies:
Back in the bus with our booze, dynamite, coca leaves, and juice we head for mine. But first stop for fuel along with all the real miners:
Take some photos overlooking Potosi:
Only about a 10 minute drive up the hill and then we all exit and prepare to enter.
The entrance hole looks sketchy at best:
I have also read that this is one of the most dangerous mines in the world. This mountain made Potosi the largest and richest city in the Americas around 1550 AD. Since then most of the silver has been extracted but the miners continue to works in search of lead, tin, and zinc. The miners do not work for a company. They are on their own and purchase sections of the mountain to dig at will. The mines have never been mapped out and it is believed that it looks like a block of swiss cheese on the inside. It is a well-known fact that it could/will collapse at any time. I’m sure it will hold out one more day for me.
Lubing those bearings:
Inside we hike between the cart tracks on the main passage through a soupy muddy mess for about 10 minutes. Then we pick some awful looking hole to start climbing up. Every other rock you grab hold of on the edge of the cave that is only 3 feet high gives way and pulls free. Half the timbers supporting the roof are cracking and broken. On hands and knees we crawl up the dust filled chute and it gets hotter and hotter the higher we climb. Every now and again we a forced to squeeze through a 2 foot diameter hole to pop out on the other side to see a gravel slide that we must scale. I was last in line on the way up so it was incredibly dusty and rocks would tumble down from our fellow friends above hitting you in the hands and legs. Two of the group have already dropped out saying that this just isn’t for them….only 5 left.
Take a break for the guide to drink some booze:
Finally we arrive where 2 brothers are mining and they inform us that there has been a recent cave in and they are working to clear the passage. We sit down, bullshit, break out the juice, alcohol, and coca leaves. They are all thankful for our gifts. These two have been working in the mine since they were 15 years old. They are now 35. I can’t believe they have survived this long in these conditions.
We sit and poor out liquor for the Diablo (devil), El Dio (God), Amigos, and ourselves…..then drink to good luck. Round and round we go and then we lose another patron. It is hot, humid, very little oxygen. The brothers just broke through a vein of Carbon Monoxide and it is making them sleepy….yeah me too. A few more drinks and we move on.
Finding a new hole to climb up we locate a good place to set off some dynamite. The guide cuts fuses, pulls back the sheaths, fills the detonator with gun powder from the fuse, tears open two sticks of dynamite and wads up the putty into a ball.
Then inserts detonators and drops the wad into a bag of ammonium nitrate. All the while he is drinking sufficient amounts of pure alcohol and asking for cigarettes, dope, anything he can get his hands on.
Then he stands up and lights the fuses to the 2 bombs.
He just stands there asking for more whiskey. We all fight to find a bottle and hand it to him. Two swigs, he hands it back, starts to turn, then ask for just a little bit more. F*ck dude, get away from me with that stuff. You can’t tell how far the fuse has burnt because it is all internal, no sparks or fire on the outside so we have no idea what kind of burn time this 20” of fuse has. Anyway, one more pull and he runs off behind a corner.
He hurry’s back and a few seconds later….KAWAMMY!! The entire mine shakes, the concussion courses through our bodies, and then the dirt/dust starts coming towards us. Epic!! Inside a fricken mine detonating dynamite in the middle of Bolivia. AWESOME!! Now get me outta here.
One of the many Diablo depictions. These one just got a fresh cigarette to keep him appeased:
As you can only imagine Alex has been drinking shot for shot with the guide in some sort of competition. It is clear he is starting to lose. Out of the remaining patrons Alex is the only one who chooses to continue on to a new section of the mine to visit more miners, hand out gifts, and drink more booze. The rest of us, including me, have seen enough and are ready for fresh air.
Outside we suck in the sweet air. It no longer feels like we are at 14,000’ in comparison to the interior of the mine. We wait for about 30 minutes and then the bus loads up. Who knows what Alex and Choco (the guide) are doing but the other guide thinks they can find a ride home. We pull out and get less than an 1/8 mile when we see Choco walking and Alex stumbling down the hillside headed for the bus.
At the hostel we undress and turn in our garmets. I hurry to the room and unload my remaining dynamite. You are not supposed to have this stuff outside of the mine area. Hey, it’s a once in a lifetime thing and I’m going to blow something up. Alex collapses on the bed and passes out. Choco gets ready for the afternoon guiding trip….Wow!
The tour is sketchy to say the least but it is an experience that I will never forget and I do believe that is what counts.