Having booked the mine tour yesterday, I was asked to wait at the hostel reception lobby just before 9am. My tour guide picked me up on time and right after we started from the hostel, I was told that because of a Sunday, the miners will not be working in the mine and I was the only one on that tour!
Driving through the small lanes on Potosi needs experience and knowledge of the town because many roads are one-way and cross-traffic can be a nuisance. First stop on the tour was a tin shop next to a market where the miners come to drink and shop for their gear… or coca!
My guide asked for a bottle of alcohol from the lady, which the miners drink and offer to Tio (more on this below) inside the mines. A sip of this drink and unless you are a serious drinker, you will surely feel buzzed considering it is 96% alcohol!
He packed the bottle and some coca leaves for himself and drove me to his home where they keep the gear – helmet, headlight, jacket, jumpsuit, etc – for the tour. This is where you put on the gear and get in the van, to the mines.
After spending about 10 minutes to change, we were off to a nearby factory that processes the raw minerals and rocks into processed silver. The factory gives you an insight on how the raw minerals are brought from the mines, and separated into various metals like silver, emerald, etc.
Driving uphill to the outskirts of Potosi, the mines reside on the hills around the town. Our driver parked the van about 200 meters away from the mines and we headed to that dark entrance leading to the mines.
|Potosi Mines – WARNING!
Important warning to people with claustrophobia, asthma, respiratory conditions and those who are tall (over 5’5″) – Think twice before even considering to enter the mines. Think ten times. The mines are narrow, low-ceiling, dark and there are places which has low oxygen levels. This tour is not for everyone.
Having said that, make sure to carry lots of water, a camera that can take good pictures in the night and some medications that you may require. During the winter months, you need not wear warm jackets or scarfs because most of your tour has temperatures close to about 25C (77F). Carrying a small backpack helps to keep water bottle(s), light warm jackets and other things you may want to store.
The tour inside the mine is for about 2-3 hours with really low and narrow walkways, and tunnels where you may have to slide in rather than walk. The dust is supposed to contain silicon that leads to silicosis (wear a disposable mask!) among the miners. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls. Many of the mine props are snapped and on my tour in 2003 there was a minor ceiling cave-in that forced us to wait a bit before being able to exit the mine. One very interesting aspect of the mine was the little side chamber near the entrance to the mine that contained a statue of “El Tio,” a diabolic figure that the miners make offerings to. They say that God may rule aboveground, but that El Tio is in charge down below.
In a couple tight spots, I had to climb down ladders, or crawl on all fours, or shimmy down small shafts.
After about two hours, it was time for us to head back into the real world. As we approached the tunnel entrance, the air got cooler and fresher. And there it was… that light at the end of the tunnel was a huge relief to have made it out alive!
After being dropped off to the hostel, I ordered some lunch at the hostel itself and stay put for a while bringing my head to ‘normal’ before heading out to explore more of this beautiful town.
Some of the sights worth seeing in Potosi are:
- Museo & Convento de San Francisco (Entrance Bs 15, camera Bs 20) has examples of religious art, including various paintings from the Potosi school such as The Erection of the Cross by Melchor Perez de Holguin, 25 scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, etc. The ticket price includes a mandatory tour that lasts for about 1.5 hours and the highlight is when you’re taken up to the tower for a grand view of Potosi.
- Museo & Convento de Santa Teresa (Entrance fee Bs 21, camera Bs 10) is home to a small community of Carmelite nuns, one of whom is an architect and has created a part of the church into a museum. The excellent tour explains how the girls of 15 wealthy families entered the convent, getting the last glimpse of their families at the door. There are numerous fine pieces, including the Madonna by Castilian sculptor Alonso Cano and some by Bolivia’s most famous painter, Melchor Perez de Holguin. The guided tour lasts for almost 2 hours and the place can be really cold in winter months.
- La Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Jerusalem is a little gem in Potosi. Originally built as a humble chapel in the honor of Virgen de Candelaria, it was rebuilt more lavishly later. It houses the fine gilt baroque retablo (portable boxes with depictions of religious and historical events) – the Virgin has pride of place – and a magnificent series of paintings from Biblical scenes.
La Capilla de Nuestra Señora de Jerusalem
Museo & Convento de Santa Teresa
Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult. The exchange rate at the time of publishing is assumed to be USD 1= BOB 6.90.
|Potosi Mine Tour||Bs 110 or $15.95||Per person|
|Museo de San Francisco||Bs 15 or $2.17||Entrance fee only. No camera (extra)|
|Museo de Santa Teresa||Bs 21 or $3.04||Entrance fee only. No camera (extra)|
|Lunch at Hostel Tuko’s La Casa Real||Bs 56 or $8.11|
|Dinner at Doña Eugenia restaurant||Bs 35 or $5.07||Kala purca, pork, water|
|Snacks & water||Bs 12 or $1.74|
|Toilets||Bs 4 or $0.58|
|Total Costs||$36.66||Per person|
|Overall Costs||$1,652.22||Per person|
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Visiting silver town.
Silver mines and around the town.
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Traveling from Potosi to Sucre & day there.