We were out of bed by 4.30am to catch a flight at 6.40pm to Potosi. We wanted to go on a mining tour, but hadn’t booked anything yet, except the flight into the city. We arrived at Potosi at 7.40am, and took a taxi to the bus station to store our backpacks, and then another taxi to The Koala Den, where mining tours leave from at 8.45am. It was 8.40am as we sat in the taxi, anxious and hoping to still make it on time for the tour, in addition to hoping that it wasn’t fully booked out! Sidenote: Potosi is a lovely little town.
Somehow everything worked in our favor, and we were on a minivan for the tour! Yay. It was an extremely exhausting and stressful morning that paid off beautifully.
Our tour guide Ronaldo, took us to the warehouse to get our mining gear on. The mines were still active with miners working inside time day in and day out. We were about to go inside and see the real deal so we needed to be prepared. After he dressed me up in some oversized attire, we were on our way, first to the miner’s market where they buy their dynamites and other tools, then to the mineral refinery, and finally to the mines.
So I bough some dynamite… Now there’s s sentence I never thought I would say. It wasn’t for me obviously! I wouldn’t know what to do with that stuff. I got it as a gift for the miners when we go inside the mines.
We arrived at the entrance of the mines. It looked dark and somber. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we were about to walk inside. Ronaldo explained that at any point if we wanted to turn back, we just had to let him know and the assistant tour guide would help us get out of the mines. He says about 50% of the people chose to turn back. Now, I was nervous.
We walked inside. The ground was flooded from the rain. Luckily we had the rain boots on, so we trudged through the muddy water. We had to be very careful about knocking our heads. It went from high ceilings to low ceilings, to the point where we were crouching down and crawling on our hands and knees. I knocked my hard hat on the ceiling over 30 times. The deeper we got inside, the more difficult is was to breathe, the dustier and dirties it was, and the darker it got. It was pitch black. If you turned off your headlight, you’d understand the world of a blind person. There is no light that’s coming through into the depths of these tunnels. We walked for over 1 hour until Ronaldo turned around and said to us, “So, are you girls ready for some action?”
We didn’t realize what he meant until we saw it, and my heart dropped. I almost had half a mind to turn back, especially considering I still have a fever, cough, and cold and none of the dust in the mines was helping. The “action” was the vertical shaft that we had to climb that didn’t seem to have an end in sight. It also didn’t seem to have any sort of grip, so we had to relay on our upper body strength and legs to climb that shaft. One slip, and it could have sent us to our deaths. I’m not exaggerating. It was really scary. Since one of the other guys with us already decided to turn back a while ago, we had lost the assistant guide along with him. There wasn’t exactly any turning back for us at this point. I didn’t mind… I was motivated to do this somehow. After about 15-20 minutes of climbing, we walked (which now felt so easy) for a bit and reached another vertical shaft. If Ronaldo didn’t help us up some parts, I’m not sure we would have made it. My cough was getting more severe and the tylenols I had taken earlier ran its course. So now, I was really feeling weak. We had about another 3 minutes of a climb left, but I told him to go ahead with Krista and that I would sit and wait for them (which happened to be right in the middle of one of the vertical shafts).
Do you know what it’s like to sit alone in a mine? Pitch darkness, and the sounds of water dripping, or was it insects? I’m not sure. All the nasty thoughts were running through my mind, and I was glad to see the two of them resurface after some minutes. I wouldn’t know what I would have done if they didn’t come back for me. We were 2000m deep into the mines at this point. It was a giant underground maze that’s not a fun one to be stuck in. We finally made our way out which was much easier than I expected… Probably because I was so excited to breathe some high altitude fresh air. Any little amount of clean oxygen was good enough for me at this point.
I could barely survive 2.5 hours in that mine. How does a miner do it is beyond me. They work anywhere between 12-24 hours without any food or fresh air. They chew on cocoa leaves as a food supplement. I have the utmost respect for people who do this job. Most of the Bolivians do it by choice because it’s the only means they have of supporting their families. It’s astonishing, the lengths we can all go to provide for our loved ones.
This was a one time experience. I’m glad I did it, but I doubt I will ever do it again. It messes with your mind and emotions, tests your limits and fears, and physically takes a toll on you. After this activity, me and Krista needed some major R&R. Luckily we had a 4-hour bus ride from Potosi to Uyuni, where we would call it a night.