Looming over what is said to be the world’s highest city, the towering cone of Cerro Rico is an imposing presence. The old colonial city of Potosi, Bolivia, once rich from its mines, is itself situated at a lung-bursting altitude of over 4,000 meters in the Bolivian highlands.
One of the great Bolivia attractions, taking a tour into the heart of the Cerro Rico mines is an unforgettable experience, one which requires both mental and physical preparation and a good tour guide.
Choose a Good Tour Operator in Potosi, Bolivia, for Visiting the Cerro Rico Mines
A wealth of tour operators in Potosi, Bolivia, offer trips to the mines; choosing a reputable one is vital.
Don’t be coerced by people in the street offering tours, especially if they can’t lead a client to their offices nearby.
Get recommendations from other tourists and backpackers who have already visited the Cerro Rico mines.
Go to the tour operators offices to get an idea of their level of professionalism. Check what languages their guides speak: some will offer tours in languages other than Spanish if desired.
Many guides were once Cerro Rico miners themselves; these guides offer a greater level of knowledge and experience.
Ask what equipment they provide: most importantly overalls and a hard-hat with torch attached.
Check how many people go in each Cerro Rico tour group. A smaller group is always preferable.
Bolivia Travel Tourist Attractions: Taking the Tour into the Potosi Mines of Cerro Rico
The Cerro Rico tour will normally consist of a few distinct stages:
Once the group have been fitted for and changed into the overalls, hard-hats etc the group will first go to the miners market. Here soft-drinks, coca leaves, tobacco and dynamite can be bought as gifts for the miners who will be encountered later. Dynamite and fuses are also bought here for a display after exiting the mine.
Arriving at the Potosi mine the tour group will first be taken through the surface processes where the collected minerals are refined after extraction.
Next the group will enter the mine itself, firstly visiting the shrine to ‘El Tio’, a representation of the god of the underworld and the deity of the miners, offerings placed at the foot of the shrine in exchange for protection and good fortune. In this same hollowed out chamber is a small museum detailing some of the rich history of the Cerro Rico mine and those who work within it.
After the shrine the group continues further into the mine where the physical and mental exertions begin (see below). Three to four levels of the mine will be explored, where the out-dated mining techniques of the miners themselves can be seen, and the gifts bought at the market can be distributed. Many of the Cerro Rico miners are native Quechua-speaking Indians.
Travel Bolivia and Experience The Demanding Physical Nature of the Cerro Rico Tour
Many tourists who visit the Cerro Rico mines are surprised at the physical aspect of the tour. Being at a height of over 4,000 meters makes walking one block uphill difficult in Potosi, Bolivia; negotiating the mine, with its twists and turns, small crawl spaces, and generally cramped conditions is a challenge. Add to this the heat below ground, the dark, and the thin air loaded with mineral dust and the overall effect can be overwhelming.
Entering the mines is not for the claustrophobic. Here are a few tips to make the experience more pleasurable:
Wear light-weight, cool clothing. Overalls will be supplied by the tour operator: for more comfort wear shorts and a t-shirt underneath.
Mineral dust fills the already thin air in the Potosi mines – miners here have a shorter life expectancy than most, many dying from the lung disease silicosis. Visiting the mines once is not damaging, though the dust is very unpleasant especially when breathing heavily. Take a bandana or light scarf to cover your mouth. These can often be bought from the tour guides and provide nice souvenirs.
Take bottled water if the guides are not carrying some for the group.
Take the tour slowly; there is no need to rush. If a tour guide is moving too quickly and leaving members of the group behind, let them know.
Chewing coca leaves is also an option. The miners chew the leaves as a stimulant and appetite suppressant to help them work longer days. Chewing the leaves can help with respiration in the oxygen deficient air.
Take time to adjust to the high altitude of the region before taking the tour. Too much physical exertion after little time at high altitude can lead to altitude sickness: acclimatize!
Mentally Demanding Bolivia Tourist Attraction – Poor Working Conditions & Child Labor in Cerro Rico
Finally, it is important to be aware of the working conditions in the Cerro Rico mines and the nature of the workers themselves. The mining techniques have not changed greatly since the colonial days: the life of a miner is incredibly difficult and life expectancy is not high, an average of 40 years. More shockingly, and something which can taint the whole experience if not mentally prepared, is the fact that children as young as 10 years old work in the Potosi mine.
When the tour finishes and the group exit the mines covered in sweat and dust, it is often with mixed feelings. Feelings of exhilaration and accomplishment can be dampened by the new insight into the plight of the miners, especially the young. This, however, is the nature of the unforgettable Cerro Rico tour, one of many great tourist attractions Bolivia travel has to offer.