Cerro Rico towers over Potosi. The town was built up around the mountain because of the abundance of silver inside that was extracted and sent to Spain. The Mine Tours take tourists to visit the miners who work inside and now extract tin.
The Tours are the only reason most tourists visit Potosi. Although a few people recommended going, I always knew I wouldn’t. Eventually D decided he wouldn’t be going either, so we had a nice time seeing a few other things that the city has to offer.
There are five main reasons I didn’t want to go:
It’s dark, damp and cramped in the mines. Being underground in those conditions wasn’t something I wanted to voluntarily put myself through. I know this is part of the point, to see how the miners spend their work days, but I didn’t think me having a mild freak out in the mines would help anyone.
These guys are just doing their jobs. I’m sure they don’t appreciate tourists, who make a lot more money than them without it being necessary to damage their health, peering at them while they are working – taking photos and asking questions while they are just trying to provide for their family.
All the tour companies will try to reel you in, telling you how they give the miners a proportion of the profits. In truth, everyone pays the same (really low) amount to enter the mines. It feels like the tour companies are profiting off of someone else’s misery – traipsing in with foreigners in all their fancy safety gear and getting in the way of their livelihood.
In reality, the mines now are so extensive it’s only a matter of time before they collapse. There is a genuine possibility that people that are in the mine could be involved in a cave-in with no warning, and be trapped inside.
Also, the way the ore is transported now is the same as it has been for years. Heavy carts are pushed down tracks that thunder along with no brakes or lights. In the tunnels, you need to rely on your guide’s ears or hope that the miners know that you’re coming – because that cart is not going to stop for you.
Thirdly, although it is illegal, it’s pretty common for miners to provide dynamite demonstrations for tour groups, damaging the stability of the mine.
Tour groups visiting the mines do not help the miners. Sure, you stop at a shop on the way to buy ‘gifts’ of food and drink that the miners can’t afford with their measley wage, but there is no sustained change brought by the thousands of visitors that go every year.
In fact, the tourist groups that go in and talk to the miners, asking questions and trying to pose for photographs means that the miners cannot get on with their jobs, which they are paid for on the basis of the amount of ore that they extract.
I understand that a lot of people go so they can appreciate the horrible conditions these people work in on a daily basis and I appreciate that it’s important to connect with the real lives of modern locals rather than simply view some really old building. I would never judge someone for going on a Mine Tour but, for me, the negatives far outstripped the benefits.