Tuesday, 2 June 2015


Potosi is only a tourist destination because of its silver mining history and present day culture; the city itself is easily forgettable and is rather run down. For over 400 years the mines here have been in working order and supporting the local community. However dangerous the conditions of the mine are, it is common to take part in a tour of the mine which I was equally nervous and excited for. In a running theme of our bad luck in Bolivia, we arrived to find out that the tours were not operating as the miners were celebrating Fiesta del Espíritu, an annual celebration for Pachamama or Mother Earth. Still desperate to witness the mines, we cadged a lift with a bunch of musicians, bought some beers as a present for the miners and hot-footed it out of town. When we arrived, at an elevation of 4400m, the sight we were greeted with was so bizarre. As countless llamas are sacrificed during Fiesta del Espíritu, wheelbarrows filled to the brim with llama offal with delicately scattered confetti resting on top, were scattered around the camp. 

The blood of the deceased animals is splashed all over the entrance to the mine which had turned the dusty brick a crusty deep red colour and the floor into a bright red swimming pool. Holes are dug all around with which the offal is buried in, along with alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves to appease Mother Earth; llama skulls from last years celebrations are amongst the dug up earth.

Whilst the women prepare the unappealing looking meat on open fires, the men make it their sole achievement to drink as much alcohol and chew as much coca as possible. The cheeks of the miners protrude with coca leaves so much they appear to have deformities. 97% proof homemade spirit is the liquor of choice capable of inducing them into a drunken stupor; before drinking anything, a dash must be poured on the ground which is again homepage to Pachamama - the earth eventually becomes boggy and strewn with empty beer bottles adding to the dirtiness of the dusty area. 

Children run around avoiding the open fires and staggering men, and play on the pipes that provide the mine with oxygen with total innocence. Most are filthy and the hair on some of them is turning into dreadlocks from lack of washing which was quite difficult for us to see - the child raising culture here is a far cry from what we are used to in the UK.
As the day wears on the men get more drunk, the women more sullen and the musicians more raucous - by this point one miner in particular had taken a great shine to us gringos. Alfredo has been working in the mine for 22 years and wouldn't dream of another job despite the dangers - most miners have a life expectancy of only 42 due to silica poisoning; only once they have lost 50% lung capacity is it acceptable for them to retire. However as it is a cooperative, the men run the mine themselves meaning if they stop working then they lose their income. He couldn't tell us an exact amount of friends he had seen die but it is in the hundreds. 

The whole spectacle definitely gave us a flavour of real Bolvian life; at first it felt like we were intruding on a sacred ritual but by the time we left on a collectivo packed full of drunken, cheering, singing miners it really felt like they'd welcomed us to join in appeasing Pachamama - not because they were being paid or forced to entertain the gringos but because the Fiesta del Espíritu is so important to their beliefs that they are happy to celebrate with similar likeminded people.