Before we start the mine tour, here are some advise from Julio, our wonderful guide Julio Morales of Greengo Tour (http://www.greengotours.com.bo/ingles/about.html):
1) This is not a show but real life of miners, don't expect the trip to be fun and entertaining. The miners are not doing a show for us, instead we are seeing their real life. Life being underground, with dust and narrow, wet cave, without much fresh air would not be easy. However, it would definitely be an eye opener.
2) It is Bolivia. Accept local culture, don't compare with your local country, accept the differences and respect.
3) Miners lead a hard and dangerous life, they are superstitious, accept their culture.
4) These are guys, sometimes they tell dirty jokes or are curious about female tourist. Be polite and respectful but also keep boundary.
5) Miners are not animals in South African safari - they are human! Ask them for permission first if you want to take pictures.
6) The mine is their real work place. They are working! Keep out of the way.
7) They like drinking on Friday, it's better to drink with them if they offer.
8) Miners will drink from the same glass or bottle, respectfully decline if you don't want to share, (they got dark teeth after chewing the coca leave), never pull a long face in disgust, again they are humans too! This would upset them.
9) Shake hands and say hi to them when you meet.
10) Drink and hold glass with your right hand.
11) Follow guide's instructions at all time, especially inside the cave.
12) In case you feel discomfort, tell the guide directly. A shorter trip inside the mine doesn't affect quality of the tour if the guide is good.
We arrived 9am sharp at Greengo. Julio was waiting and it's like a private tour, it turned out there were only 2 of us.
We walked to the plaza, caught a micro and arrived at the Miner's market.
We are expected to buy gift for the workers, a small amount of around B$20-30 each. Those would be stuffs that miners need or something to keep them happy.
It's funny that the market and stores become our life demonstration classroom, Julio explained everything in detail and probably because we will buy something afterwards, the owners let us do everything, like tasting, touching, making post to take picture with annoyed look (though).
What can we find in the Miner's Market?
1) Coca leaves
It's actually raw material of cocaine (Adley: I thought it was chocolate !). The hawkers need licenses and usually get them from La Paz. The locals see it as herbal medication, especially to keep miners awake and not feeling hungry when they keep a chunk of coca leaves in the cheek. (That's why every miner have a little ball on one side of their face like a goldfish!) You hold the stem, tear the leaves away on the sides with your teeth, don't chew but keep all leaves like a ball and keep on your cheek for 3-4 hours. There are some dried potato kind of vegetables (ilucta) that are sold in the store that helps the process and bring out flavor of the leaves. We tried, Adley felt a little numb in his tongue and I only feel the little bitterness.
Miners love alcohol and because they are not rich, they will drink some 95% alcohol and mix with water. For a little better quality, they drink Singani, a not-as-powerful spirit obtained by distilling grape skins and other by-products. We did not buy that because we were told that we could buy with better discount at other stall, but later still not buying them. (Later Julio told us that he was blamed last time to bring alcohol in and the miners had fun drinking and turned out not working much.
In the lack of air and dusty environment, older miners usually have a bad lung and will avoid smoking. It would be the younger ones, who think "with their balls" that embrace their future with courage instead of wisdom, love to smoke.
Miners avoid soda drinks inside the mine. Some pink, red, yellow, green artificial juice are available in store. They have sugar and thus give energy.
Not for our entertainment, dynamite are for experienced miners to make cave when they found a vein (leading to the treasure). To our surprised, it only cost B$5 each, while they usually explode 6 to 8 at a time to open up caves. The explosion is rather primitive, the dynamites will be connected to a lead of 2m long, it's ignited one by one and miners will hide in some 1m away when the cave is strong and count the numbers of explosion before going back.
Apart from the gifts, Julio told us, with proof of receipt that every money he collected from tourist, he will pay B$5 per visitor to his cooperative for the visit. For the money, it would be spent on logs that were used to build a firmer and safer frame for the mine. Especially in rainy seasons, the woods need to be checked and replaced if they are not strong enough. However, Potosi is in high altitude and no trees are grew in town, logs need to be ordered from elsewhere, which are expensive and miners are paid by what they get. If they need to fix the tunnels instead of money, they won't have salary. So they have no choice but to finish these extra work quickly. (note: If you join other tours, ask for the proof such as receipt which the tour company pay the cooperatives for better life of the miners. Some companies claim part of the tourist money for that but turn out not doing so)
We walked to Greengo's warehouse, changed into work clothes, helmet with torch and battery on the belt, dirty coat and pant to cover everything up and a pair long boot. The cave will be dusty, dark, muddy and wet. I've got a camera and some homemade cookies made last night and Adley took all the gift, so Julio passed us two sacks, like those rice bags with strings that could become a small backpack. We left everything else in the warehouse, which was then locked in custody, where Julio would be responsible.
We took another micro for a few minutes up the mountain, and there we arrived the Cooperative Mineral 27 del Marzo. Everyone said hello to Julio and he seems rather popular. Perhaps his appearance means presents. We passed the gifts to miners as instructed by Julio, to those who were taking a break outside the mine and to those who were working, but we will pass one kind of gift to a different team as far as possible.
After chatting with a few groups of miners, shaking hands and saying hi with some introduction about the mine. We were in!
As miners are pushing their trolleys in and out of the only entrance, we need to walk quickly for the first part of the tunnel, as we should not block the way, there was no sidewalk and Julio did not want us to turn back and waste time.
My heart was bumping as the two guys in front of me walked really fast and was way ahead. I had to tilt my head to avoid bumping, squatted down while walking, stepped on the mud and water, avoided the rails and kept my head up, so my torch could show the way in front of me. Air was getting thinner but there was air ventilation at the beginning of the tunnel. We should not touch the tube but only the wet wall on the side. There was sound of stone hitting the metal tube announcing the approach of the loaded trolleys. Two at the back and one in the front, these miners have to bend their head really low to manually push or pull the trolley, which takes minerals to our world or bring empty trolley for more.
After some 5-10 minutes, which were felt like half an hour, we finally reached somewhere more narrow but had space to step aside.
We met a solitary miner who took care of more dangerous area. He needed to climb down four levels to make dynamite explosion. We chatted with him for a while, share some dynamite and saw him disappear under the cave.
We met another team of miners, with some drillers hidden under the hole beneath, another moving stones up like getting water from a well, while other younger ones dragging bags of stones into the trolley. The bags were made of bull's skin and Adley tried dragging one bag but almost unable to move it!
Life of a miner
Miners worked in group and each group has a leader and second leader. They have different level, while the young ones are to carry the trolleys and the more experienced ones usually do the drilling. Some more dangerous work, like climbing 4-5 levels horizontally would be done by a solo miner, who worked alone.
Young mines start their job by being introduced to the team, by friends or family. They have to buy their own equipments, like their outfit, helmet, boots, mask and drill for the drillers. The more expensive equipments, not made in China, are usually more long-lasting.
Work is hard and working underground could be terrifying. Experienced miners are also harsh to their new joiners, due to the dangerous nature of the job. If young ones will come back the next day, they would be respected. After half a year or so, if it is the young Miner's birthday, the team leader will buy a whole cartoon of beer to drink with the birthday boy and with the team, to show his live and brotherhood.
The time we arrived, a team was resting outside the mine as they drank too much at the team leader's birthday last night and they decide not to go in. The group will be working together, always.
On the other hand, each team would be allocated a certain area by the cooperative and they will have gate and lock at their working space entrance. So their equipments would be kept safely and other teams would not cross. However, in case of finding a vein of mineral, they are allowed to dig deeper to cut other's vein if they are working hard enough.
There are more than 100 cooperatives in Cerro Rico, occupying different areas of the mountain, digging everywhere like cheese holes. However the top was now closed as there is no more silver. Nowadays, miners were only digging middle to bottom of the mountain. And one day the mountain may collapse but miners don't have much alternatives and have families to feed, so they just keep on digging as long as they can. If different team of a corporate collide in the hole, they will fight. But if they are from different cooperatives, their fight would be more serious.
For each cooperative, the administration would be managed by the president, who is elected by different team leaders and used to be a miner. But when he becomes president, he will have a fixed salary and with in office.
As their work is so dangerous and lifespan is short, due to the dust and possibly toxic air or lack of oxygen deep down, they pray to the underworld god (who rules the hell), Tia, for money and safety. Since they believe everything in the mountain belongs to Tia, they ask for Tia giving them the silver and the minerals, while not taking their life. They have the Tia statue in the cave (made by older miners) and every cooperative have one. They will offer alcohol, juice, every week and have a bigger offering with llama every year.
How to find minerals?
Like veins on your arm, mountain with trace of minerals have veins too. It goes from north to east, up to down, so miner's dig hole horizontally to cut through the veins and get the minerals.
How they are paid?
Miners are paid every week by the corporate, according to the minerals the team get. There are a lot of laboratories around town giving ore purity result in one day
Do they have alternatives?
Julio told us his guides are ex-miners too. And he did invite youngsters to join his travel agency, however, he also have encountered some who think learning English more difficult than working in a mine and quit the chance, and gone back to the mine.
They lead a hard life and may not want their children to join the job, but sometimes life does not have alternatives, when you are stuck.
Thank you, Julio, for bringing us to this eye-opening experience. We wish your coming back could bring more healthy touring atmosphere in the mine-tour environment and your cafe becomes a success.