Thinking about heading inside Cerro Rico? Otherwise known as the mountain that eats men, close to 8 million to be more precise, taking a Potosi mine tour Rico isn’t for the fainthearted.
We had been debating whether we were going to venture inside the dark and devastating silver mines of Cerro Rico for months, but after much back and forth decided to go for it.
We wanted to learn more about the history of Potosi and see first hand the terrible working conditions and the destruction colonial rule wreaked on this part of Bolivia.
A history that is very much unknown to many outside of South America.
We also thought it was important as consumers of silver and other precious metals to properly understand the human cost of mining such luxuries.
But why were we so unsure?
Potosi Mine Tours
Well first of all the Cerro Rico mine in Potosi is an active third world mine.
My dad is an ex-miner and spent the biggest part of his working career down a coal mine. Some of the things that happened to him and pals of his down there were awful.
And that was in the UK.
So we knew going down a mine in Bolivia, with nowhere near the same safety precautions and regulations was a whole different ball game.
Second of all, there’s lots of different thoughts about the ethics of going in there as a tourist to see the miners at work and what is essentially poverty tourism.
And third of all, although we’re not medically claustrophobic, neither of us are fans of confined spaces. It’s the reason we don’t much like scuba diving, because you can’t just get out.
If these are concerns you have as you decide whether to take a Potosi mine tour, read on.
We’ll be covering all the things you need to consider in terms of safety and moral justification, practical information about the Cerro Rico tour and what to expect afterwards.
Cerro Rico, Potosí
Cerro de Potosí or Cerro Rico or Rich Hill, directly translated, is situated in the southern highlands of Bolivia and is where close to 80% of the world’s silver came from.
The silver reserves of Potosi were once so vast that the mines of Cerro Rico pretty much single handedly bankrolled the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.
For hundreds of years, the Potosi silver mines made this dot on Bolivia’s map one of the richest cities in the world. The concentration of wealth was unparalleled.
It’s now one of the poorest cities in the world, having been almost depleted of silver by the time Bolivia got its independence from Spain. The city’s demise has continued ever since.
As soon as you step foot in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Potosi, its crumbling colonial grandeur is immediately apparent.
Huge, opulent churches sit between extravagant dilapidated buildings, hiding dark and sinister secrets fuelled by power and greed.
Criss-crossed with over 20,000 tunnels, the mines’ government funding has long since stopped.
But around 15,000 men still venture into the bowels of Cerro Rico, working as part of cooperatives to extract less profitable minerals such as lead, tin and zinc.
These are then sent all over the world to make things like elements for electronics.
Who are Potosi’s Miners?
Because they work for themselves, the Potosi miners have to buy all of their own equipment. This includes everything from helmets and boots to shovels and dynamite.
The miners work wholly underground for between 10 to 12 hour shifts usually, but sometimes 24 hours. Yet they don’t take food into the mines.
They believe the combination of dust and food will make them sick, so instead they survive on just coca leaves to give them the energy they need. Every miner you see in Cerro Rico will have a huge bulging lump in one of their cheeks.
Being a miner in Potosi is a rough job and incredibly dangerous, but there’s so few other work options.
The younger, stronger miners are usually the ones doing the most manual jobs, such as pushing the heavy carts. Some miners are as young as 12 or 13.
Potosi’s miners don’t usually live past 40-50 years. By that stage their lungs are usually just too knackered and they’re coughing up blood, succumbing to silicosis and emphysema.
Asbestos, arsenic, and other carcinogenic agents also cause lung and airway cancers.
And so Cerro Rico is just there, looming over the city, casting it’s foreboding shadow.
It’s a strange, contradictory mix of wealth and trauma. Yet a necessary life blood for the families of Potosi.
Every miner has relatives who have died from black lung or in mining accidents, yet they have no choice but to follow in their footsteps in order to support their families.
Husbands, brothers and sons risk their lives everyday to provide for their families. It’s a cruel existence that all want to escape, but simply lack the means.
Potosí Mine History
Described as human greed trapped in soil, Cerro Rico has a long history of human misery and suffering.
From further away, the red hill that devours people has a bizarre, seductive beauty. But as you get closer up, you’ll find a wind-swept and rubbish-strewn barren mountain.
It filled us with dread, yet intrigued us as the same time.
The story goes that in 1545, a shepherd discovered the huge silver ore reserve in Cerro Rico by complete chance when he started a fire to keep warm. Molten silver is said to have literally oozed out of the flames.
The Spanish crown found out about it soon after and Potosi all but sprung up overnight, subsequently changing the course of history. As from the 16th to 18th century, Spanish colonists exploitatively mined Cerro Rico until the silver ran out.
During those colonial times, slaves were sent in to work 6 month shifts, 7 days a week for 20 hours a day. Most just never came out, dying from exhaustion, disease, poisonous gasses, cave-ins, falling rocks and suicide.
The slaves were indigenous peoples from the Americas plus tens of thousands of people shipped from Africa.
Dispensable lives, forced into a hell on earth.
They say that with the amount of silver dug out from Potosi, you could build a bridge all the way to Spain. And another bridge could be built all the way back with the bones of those who have died in the mines.
At the peak of its wealth, there was even a phrase in Spanish used for describing immense richness, ‘vale un Potosi’, which means ‘worth a Potosi’.
The Legend of El Tio
While inside Cerro Rico, miners believe that they are at the mercy of a sinister devil-like god of the underworld called El Tio, the Uncle.
The master of the Potosi mine and the dark forces within it, there is a shrine above each mine shaft of the horned figure, usually with a huge penis to symbolise his masculinity and power.
The miners make offerings such as 95% alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves to him and pray that he keeps them safe from accidents and provides quality minerals for them to mine.
Things to Consider
Regardless of how good the Potosi mine tour company is that you choose, the Bolivian silver mines are inherently dangerous. And as much as your guides will do their best to keep you as safe as possible, there are many things beyond their control.
When you book the tour, you’ll have to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that you are aware of the risks you are putting yourself at by going inside the Cerro Rico silver mines.
The tour company we went with was very careful to point out that is isn’t a tour for enjoyment, it’s a social tour.
So think about what your motivations are for going down the Potosi mines. If you’re after a voyeuristic adventure, to gloat that you’ve been in the mines of Potosi, it isn’t for you.
Choosing a Potosí Mine Tour
It’s important that you choose a reputable tour company to take you down the Potosi mines. Both in terms of safety and their ethical responsibility towards miners.
After much research, the Potosi mine tour company we choose to go with was Koala Tours.
Before we go any further I just want to point out that we are in no way affiliated with Koala Tours. We paid full price for our tour and were not asked to write about our experience.
Our main guide worked for 3 years in the specific mining cooperative that we visited and our assistant guide/driver was also an ex-miner.
When considering which Potosi tour company to go with, this is a hugely important ethical factor. Because it not only provides miners with a rare alternative source of income, it also means that the guides are sensitive and respectful to the miners at work.
The whole time we were in the mine our guides spoke about the miners as ‘we’ and you could clearly see that they were good friends with many of them.
The cost of the tour we choose was slightly more expensive than with other companies.
This is because part of it goes directly to the cooperative we visited for exclusive access to those particular mines.
And because the groups are smaller, with a maximum of eight people. You also have two guides, one at the front and one at the back.
These are both important factors, because not only does it mean the mining cooperative are directly benefiting from the tourism, the mine isn’t overrun with tourists.
Safety & Ethical Considerations
Some Potosi mine tours have up to 14 tourists with a single guide. This significantly reduces the chances of your guide being able to keep you safe in the mine. It also means that if one of group freaks out underground and needs to be taken out, there’s a problem.
Our guide was clear with us from the beginning that if any of us started to not feel good, to tell them and the assistant guide would escort us out. None of our group needed to do this, but having it as an option was reassuring.
Another important safety consideration when you are choosing a Potosí Mine Tour is that if you don’t fluently understand Spanish, make sure your guide speaks English.
It’s extremely noisy inside parts of Cerro Rico and when a 3 tonne cart is hurtling towards you along a rusty broken track, it’s not the time to misunderstand a command from your guide.
Some other concerns that people have is that going down the Potosi mines is the equivalent of a human zoo. This wasn’t our experience at all.
All of the miners we met seemed perfectly okay with tourists visiting their place of work. They greeted us warmly, enthusiastically chatting with our guide.
We spoke with 4 or 5 different miners, our guide Ronald translating between Spanish or the local language of Quechua and English.
Were very happy with our experience with Koala Tours. They provided an educational and sobering experience that certainly put our own working conditions into perspective.
However, do not just go with Koala Tours because we did!
You need to do your own research at the time of booking your Potosi mine tour. Read the most recent reviews and speak to people locally in Potosi.
Essential Potosi Mine Tour Info
Most Potosi mine tour companies have morning and afternoon tours.
Koala Tours have tours at 8:45am and 1:30pm which each last around 4-5 hours.
The current cost of the tour (2020) is $130 BOB (£14.50 GBP / $19 USD) per person.
The price includes transport and your protective gear including rubber wellie boots, overalls and a helmet with battery lamp.
After getting geared up, you’ll swing by the miners markets to buy some gifts for the miners you are about to go see.
This isn’t included in the tour price.
And I say this because I’ve read reviews where people have refused to buy gifts for the miners as it was an additional cost they weren’t made aware of. Don’t be that dickhead.
Helpfully, our guide suggested an amount of things to buy between our group, totalled it up and split the cost between us. It was worked out at $30 BOB (£3.50 GBP / $4.50 USD) each.
We mainly took drinks, but also some coca leaves and a couple of sticks of dynamite.
If you can’t afford to buy gifts for the miners, you shouldn’t be doing the tour in my opinion.
Cerro Rico Tour Practicalities
Doing a Potosi silver mine tour is inherently dangerous, there’s no way of getting away from that.
So even though your guides will do everything they can to keep you safe, you need to be aware of that and let it sink in.
You will be, and feel, very vulnerable.
The tour is physically challenging. Not only because it’s difficult to breathe well with all the dust, but also because there are places where you will have to run and dip into nooks and alcoves to dodge the heavy trolleys whizzing along the tracks.
They don’t have brakes and can’t just be stopped.
There will likely be dynamite explosions, where the tunnels can fill with dust. This makes it harder to see and breathe.
It’s a completely alien environment. It’s pitch black, a thick underground darkness and even with your head torch, visibility is still poor.
The tunnels are narrow and you’ll be hunched over the majority of the time. You’ll also need to crawl or climb in places, grabbing onto anything you can while watching out for electrical wiring.
The environment is constantly changing. In places it’s incredibly noisy, then in other parts deafeningly silent. It also goes from swelteringly hot to really chilly in seconds as you move through the tunnels of the Potosi mine.
You’ll smell sulphur and hear dynamite blasts rumbling in the background.
Never leave your guides, listen carefully to what they say and clarify if you don’t fully understand.
Our guides carried and took responsibility for dishing out the gifts we bought from the miners market.
Some tours leave it up to you to choose and carry the gifts. We read reviews about people feeling awful being asked for a drink by thirsty miners after they’d handed everything out already. We didn’t have this.
Things to Take With You
The guides and miners on our tour were completely fine with tourists filming and taking photographs in the mine.
Be sure to take in a cover for your camera. Both so you can keep the dust off it when not using it and also protect it from knocks and scrapes as you’re scrambling around.
I was filming on my phone and also took a portable power bank in with me.
Unless your daypack is really small, 10L or less, you won’t be able to take it into the mine with you. Some of the spaces are just too small.
A bum bag is ideal to keep your phone in, or just wear something with pockets.
You can leave your backpack where you get changed into your protective gear – that’s also where you’ll leave your shoes.
Take some water for yourself, but be aware that there are no toilets in there. If you need to pee you’ll have to just go in a tunnel. So hydrate beforehand, don’t be glugging water in there.
Neither of us wear contact lenses, but if you do, opt for your glasses during your Potosi mine tour. There’s so much dust and debris that gets into your eyes, you don’t want that lodged underneath a contact lens scratching your eye.
Oh and an extra pair of socks are handy too. Either to wear or change into afterwards – your feet get really sweaty in the rubber wellies.
What To Expect After
Be prepared to feel like shit afterwards.
No only physically aching from the crouching and crawling around, but mentally. We both had awful, vivid dreams the night of our Potosi mine tour.
The stuff you see will play on your mind and take a while to process.
It humbles you, but it also made us feel powerless and overwhelmingly guilty.
The Future of Cerro Rico
At an altitude of 4,824 meters above the sea level, the Rich Hill is shrinking by collapsing in on itself a few metres each year.
Pockmarked with dozens of sinkholes, some believe it’s only a matter of time before the whole of Cerro Rico comes crashing down.
In 2011, a huge 700sqm sinkhole opened up atop the mountain.
To stabilise it, a large project involved filling it with a layered mixture of super light cement, polyethylene, sand, metal nets and support arches was undertaken.
Estimates suggest that Cerro Rico only has 10-20 years worth of minerals left to be extracted.
There are regular protests and blockades in this impoverished city, as the residents of Potosi petition the government for investment in the form of factories or other industries.
But another of Potosi’s best hopes for an economically viable future is tourism.
Which is another reason that when the Potosi mine tours are run in an ethical way and not just for personal profit, they are an important part of what lies ahead for Potosi.
If you have any unanswered questions or further worries about doing a Potosi mine tour, hit us up in the comments and we’ll do our best to help.
Films on Cerro Rico Mines
Bolivia’s Child Laborers is a short film made by VICE which, along with other young workers, documents the plight of Potosi’s child miners. You can watch it on YouTube.
The Devil’s Miner is a longer film that examines the lives of a few of Potosi’s miners, in particular a young boy and his brother. You can watch it on YouTube.
The BBC also has an interesting short documentary which takes you inside Potosi mountain. You can watch that on YouTube.
Books Bolivia Mining History
Travel Insurance For Bolivia
We never go anywhere without travel insurance – and neither should you.
This particularly goes if you’re planning to do any of the more adventurous activities above. World Nomads is our preferred choice for great cover and a no bullshit approach.
Plus you can buy a policy even if you’ve already set off on your travels. Grab yourself a quick quote below: