There’s a saying: “If you don’t know Cerro Rico, you don’t know Potosi!”. In fact everything in Potosi is related to its famous mountain where the miners extract minerals like silver since the 16th century. What we didn’t know was that in the past it was supposed to be the biggest city in the world, bigger than both London and Paris.
Millions have died due to illnesses related to the working conditions in the mines. Today, there are still over 10.000 workers only in one mountain. People in Potosi like to say you could build a silver bridge to Spain with all the metal extracted from the Cerro. Miners say their job is like playing the lottery, sometimes they spend all the money in items they need to work like coca leaves, soft drinks, dynamite etc. Sometimes they have no success and find nothing (in Cerro Rico the miners work independently and don’t have a fix income), sometimes they make big bucks in days but sometimes nothing in weeks.
Our guide Pedro (an ex-miner) from The Real Deal tours (best) mentioned that his brother got 8000 dollars in only one week. If it’s true or not, I’m sure this is the only motivation of all miners as working conditions are precarious.
All activities are done like in the old days with old tools and equipment making mining work extremely dangerous. Hardly anybody wears a mask eventhough there are many toxic gases and minerals.
The tunnels are uneven, sometimes getting narrower almost until you have to crawl to get to the other side, to get from one level to the other they use very unstable wood latters. Being witness to this conditions one might think the miners would complaint and be sad or mad – au contraire – they see you and receive you with a smile and cracking jokes in Quechua (their mother tongue).
It was lovely to see an amazing attitude in the miners and leaves you with a great feeling; if they can smile in this conditions, you, in the outside have one more reason to smile every day in your job: the sun. We’ve crossed the mountain (about 3 km with bad air, walking, crawling, …) and it was breathtaking, literally. You can definitely feel the altitude of more than 4000 meters above sea level. Anyway, counting a lot of stories and jokes, the tour with Pedro was somehow entertaining. Handing over gifts like coca leaves and soft drinks to the miners every time we got into a smalltalk with them, watching as they had to move almost running with their barrows filled with minerals of approx. 80 kilos weight.
After the tour we went to eat llama; the meat of llama is very soft and tasty and because they are out in the wild the meat is very healthy (almost no cholesterol). Together with a Czech we have met on the tour, we then headed to our next destination: Sucre.