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Mine Tours - Other Activity Potosí - Bolivia

Potosí’s star attraction is the Cerro Rico Mountain, which is the town’s lifeblood and has been mined for more than 500 years. There are about 5,000 mine entrances and tunnels. Each of the mines is run cooperatively, which means that some of the money from tours goes directly to the miners themselves, depending on the quantities of metal they yield. The miners usually work long days and often appear with cheeks that bulge with wads of coca leaves. The leaves are thought to keep hunger at bay, reduce the effects of altitude and ward off drowsiness. Young boys drop out of school to follow their fathers into the mines, often before they reach their teens, to earn a decent wage and support their families. Women are allowed to work in the mines, though some locals still believe that it is bad luck for a female to enter the mines.

Tours to the cooperative mines have become increasingly popular in recent years. They offer visitors to Potosí an in-depth look at the inner workings of the mines and the lives of the miners. Tours cost about $10 for a four-hour trip, which includes a guide, transportation from town and equipment (jackets, helmets, boots and headlamps). Tours leave mornings and afternoons. Many of the guides are former miners and have excellent first-hand knowledge.

A typical tour usually begins with a stop at Mercado Calvario (the Miner’s Market), where it is customary to purchase small gifts for the miners such as coca leaves, bottled drinks, fuel, cigarettes and dynamite. The time spent inside the mines tends to take two hours. Visitors crouch and shuffle through the many tunnels, listening to stories and taking photos. Some tour agencies also include a visit to the mining refineries. Check with your tour operator, if this is an option that interests you.

Miners are both religious and superstitious. They worship the devil, known as Tio (uncle). Every mine has its own Tio, a clay figure with a dedicated shrine built into a nook somewhere deep in the mountain. The logic is that the miners should respect, worship and give him offerings, so that they will be protected and the mine will bring them prosperity. The miners give Tio gifts such as alcohol, which they pour on his mouth and penis, coca leaves, and cigarettes–placed in his gaping mouth. A few times a year, a llama is sacrificed as an offering and the blood is smeared on the entrance to the mine. If the Tio is not fed, it is thought he might feast on the flesh of the miners. Visitors have the chance to blow up a stick of dynamite at the end of the tour, a bizarre and fun experience.

All work is done by hand, with the explosives and the tools that the miners buy themselves. However, the workers are often too poor to buy the proper equipment. Even though improvements have been made throughout the years, the mines are still dangerous and a number of potential hazards pose threats to the safety of the workers. Temperatures can reach hit higher than 45ºC and there are many harmful substances, such as silica dust and arsenic gas. Silicosis (similar to black lung) is a common illness, as is tuberculosis. Other ailments include arthritis and back and neck problems. There is always the danger of gas poisoning from carbon monoxide. Due to these conditions, the average lifespan of a miner is 40 years.

Potosí, Bolivia

Other Activity

Travel Tips:

Those with certain health problems such as asthma or those who dislike being in enclised spaces should think twice before taking a tour to the mines.

Price Description:

From USD 10

Travel Skills: None

You Need to Bring:

Take a some gifts for the miners as well as a camera.


Here are other activities in and around Potosí that may be of interest: Los Ingenios,

By Catherine Ellis
Zesty and spirited, yet calm and extremely tolerant of others. I am an open-minded person who loves listening to and learning from others. I crave...
03 Mar 2010

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