The Silver Mines of Potosi

Today I toured the silver mines of Potosi.

Before the spanish arived, the natives knew of silver in the mountains but they didn’t extract it. When the spanish arived, they started mining the ore. Potosi was built around the silver mines. Being in the desert, the spanish imported many of the resources for the town, creating a very expensive place to live. For over two centuries Potosi was the richest town in the americas, and the silver from the mines funded the spanish empire.

However the working conditions in the mines are harsh. It is estimated 2 million indians and slaves died in the mines under the spanish rule. The early miners worked by candle light, with no ventalation, drilling by hand and breaking the rock with black powder.

However the rich silver ore ran out in the early 1900s and the town, so now they mine two things: zinc, which they mine by the ton, and silver, a third the quality of the first ore, which they mine by kilo.

Conditions are still hard in the mines, temperatures can be as high as 110°F silicone and abestus dust coat the inside ot the galleries. Much of the work is done by hand, cave ins are frequent. However if you are working with a team that hits a silver vein, it can be quite lucrative, and even for a beginning worker, the pay is desent by bolivian standerds.  however life expectency goes down  mamy workers die in their 40’s. The opperaters of the pneumatic drills usually only last 10yrs after they start drilling, due to dust. 

However as with most blue collar jobs, there was a real pride among the workers. The tough work in dangerious conditions, finding ore, living by sweat and luck, makes the culture of the miner. And it was this bravado tgat seames to bring them back to the mines.

The tour started in a wearhouse in Potosi, where we recieved our safety briefing (listen to your guide) and some mining pants and jackets. Because of the high temps in the mines many miners wear “less” clothing, as this guide demonstrates.

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The guides reminded me of rafting/high adventure guides- a mix of crazy and machismo, with a dose of devil-may-care.

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Of course only authorised personel are allowed inside a working mine, so we stopped at the miners market and baught “gifts” for the miners, to keep everyone happy. 

Since the miners work 8-10hrs without a lunch break. Some of the popular gifts are sodas or coco leaves- the stuff they make cocain out of. Coco leaves are chewed like tobacoo and help with the altitude, give energy and are a hunger surpresser.

Our guide worked for two years in the mines and was great help at picking out the gifts. Here he is showing us how to put a blasting cap in a stick of dynamite.

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I opted to go extreme, and got the miners some dynomite.

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No I.D. Checks or anything, she didn’t even ask for my passport number. I simply handed over the money, and she handed over the dynamite. The little bag of pink stuff is amonium nitrite. 

After the miners market, we headed up the mountaine to the mine.

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The entrance.

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The inside of the mine veries from place to place. In the old parts the walls and cieling are supported my stacked stone. In the newer sections, they use timbers, other places they have only a loose rock cieling. The passages very from over 6ft to just over 3ft.

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Most of the ore is cut on lower levels the haules by hand up and out the front, usually wifted with a hand winch.

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Along the way we met several miners

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They tranport ore in little trolly carts, pushed by hand on set of tracks, Each trolly holds around a ton of ore.

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We passed by this alter for the mineral god or under groung devil. The miners give gifts to it in exchange for good fortune in mining.

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With the high temperatures amd toxic dust, it made for a slightly closterphobic expirience. So it was nice to finally exit the mines.

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We also visited the ore refinery. The ore first is crushed. Then with the addition arsnic, and copper oxide, the silver is roughly extracted, then exported for $40 a kilo to other cuntries where it is turned into pure silver.

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The final product.

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It is interesting seeing how demand for for a product on one side of the world can effect a persons life on the other side.

Take it easy,

Paul

Ps: No matter how cool it is to buy dynamite, after one has baught some. One must then figuare out what to do next.
Aditional note: nothing makes one feel dumber then walking around with a random stick of dynamite in one’s pocket.

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