I had heard about Mine Tours prior to visiting Bolivia and had made up my mind about them long before I entered the country.
Absolutely no way would I be doing a Mine Tour.
I had no desire to do a tour that profited off of other people’s suffering. I believed that trips of this nature were completely unethical and that they also encouraged an us and them divide. I had no interest in using those less fortunate than myself to make me feel better about my own problems.
And then, a couple of months later, I was standing outside the entrance a mine, geared up in overalls, boots and helmet, nervously waiting to descend the ladder into the darkness.
What made me change my mind about Mine Tours?
I was planning our route around Bolivia and stumbled across Potosí again. The Lonely Planet had advised me it was a must-see place within the country. I started to flick the pages, looking to see what this colonial city had to offer.
Of course, as I expected, the first thing that the guide listed was silver Mine Tours. I closed the book.
I tried to push Mine Tours to the back of my mind but they kept coming back to haunt me. I decided to do some research to conclusively knock the idea on the head.
I expected to find hundreds of reviews saying what an awful experience being in the mines had been but I found very little of this nature. I also expected a lot of accounts about feeling #blessed and pretty girls posing next to miners. I didn’t see this either.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of what I did find was reviews explaining that these tours were actually hugely beneficial to the miners themselves and that from a traveller point of view, the trips were eye-opening and humbling.
Choosing an ethical Mine Tour
I was intrigued and started to look into the tours more. After reading that a few of the companies based in Potosí were ran solely by ex-miners, my interest piqued again. If tours were being delivered by people who had experienced the mines first hand, I couldn’t imagine them promoting a voyeuristic experience.
After several hours scrolling through web pages and reading reviews, I decided that I couldn’t make up my mind from relying solely on the written word. I needed to experience the mines for myself.
Before I knew it, I had arranged a tour with Potochij Tours, owned by ex-miner Antonio.
Prior to heading into the mine, we needed to get our safety gear. We pulled on overalls, boots and helmets. Antonio came and attached lamps to our hard hats and explained how to use them. The whole outfit felt very cumbersome and I couldn’t help but feel that it was solely for the purpose of making the tourists get in character.
After we were all dressed, Antonio came out with some handmade tools of the trade. There were hammer and dynamite (luckily replicas) for us to pose for photos with. This certainly felt a little voyeuristic. Whilst most of the other travellers laughed and joked about going into the mine, I felt uneasy. Had I made the right decision?
We headed to the Miner’s Market to buy gifts for the miners. These consisted of coca leaves, fizzy drinks, alcohol and cigarettes. Hardly the hamper for a healthy life, however, Antonio explained that owing to the inherent danger of working in the mines and the long-lasting health problems, many of the men we met later today probably wouldn’t make it to their fifties. It was a sobering thought.
Ready to enter
We made it the mine and stood out in the open whilst Antonio explained a few rules to keep us safe. Mostly, they were obvious but it still made me question what I was about to do. This feeling was only exacerbated as he poured 98% alcohol over the threshold as an offering for Pachamama. He informed us that if we offered something to her, she would be more inclined to keep us safe during our time in the mine.
I felt horribly conflicted about going inside but knew I would never get the opportunity again. I really wanted to believe that these kinds of tours were more than the opportunity to gloat at those less fortunate and actually an experience that could be hugely educational and enriching.
I have always criticised meat-eaters who refuse to acknowledge how steak comes to their dinner tables. I am a firm believer that if you are going to consume something, you should know the realities of where it comes from, even if it is unpleasant. I couldn’t back out now.
Antonio waved us over to the door and we slowly began to descend the ladder. As my foot reached the floor, it occurred to me: I was in an active mine.
Exploring the labyrinth
The first thing that I noticed about the mine was just how cramped it was. Although I am not someone who suffers from claustrophobia, I don’t like the darkness and felt very vulnerable moving through the tunnel hunched over.
With every step, a cloud of dust plumed into the air and it quickly reminded me to pull the surgical mask over my face. This made my lungs felt heavy but at least I was limiting the amount of powder that I breathed in.
I was pleased to note that the clothes and accessories hadn’t been solely for the purpose of getting dressed up for tourist photos. The mine was dusty and we often had to move on our knees or on our bums. Our own clothes would have been ruined within minutes.
After we had made it into a larger open space, we met the first of the working miners. Surprisingly, the guy was very friendly and took the time to greet our group. Antonio asked if any of us would like to give him something and one of my fellow travellers handed over a fizzy drink. He was very grateful and then said goodbye to head back to work.
As we continued to explore the mine, we met more of the workers who all greeted us with similar enthusiasm. I had worried that the miners wouldn’t like seeing tourists in the mines but in reality, the opposite seemed to be the case.
Antonio explained that whilst there weren’t many unskilled factory jobs located in Potosí, the mines pay very well which is one reason it is an industry that still attracts many young men. Miners will earn around three times what a waiter does in a day so you can see why there is the temptation to do such a dangerous job.
Making offerings to Tio
Whilst it is safer than centuries ago, mining is still one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. As we had already learnt, miners will appeal for their safety and protection from Pachamama (Mother Earth) but also from a devil figure known as Tio.
In Bolivian culture, it is believed that with frequent offerings, Tio will ensure the safety of the miners. Alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes are commonly left with the model of Tio.
Whilst I initially found these figures to be quite sinister, it made sense to me that the miners would take comfort from the idea that some bigger power was watching over them during their work. As I pondered this, dynamite boomed in the distance and I was once again reminded of how dangerous these underground tunnels are.
Although in the lead up to entering the mine, I had felt like I was the only member of the group with real concerns, this thought was quickly eradicated once we were inside. No more than five minutes had passed when somebody asked, “How long will be staying in here?”
Although our time inside the mine would not exceed an hour, it certainly felt long. Somebody else then asked Antonio about how often accidents happened in the mine. He refused to answer while we were inside, saying it could provoke Pachamama as it was bad luck.
This ominous answer hung in the dusty air as we made our way through the labyrinth and toward the exit.
Reflections on one of the Earth’s darkest places
Even though I had only been in the mine for an hour, I was hugely relieved to get out. The bright colours of the outside blinded me and I felt overwhelmed by the clarity of the air. Despite being at over 4000 m, I finally felt as if I could breathe again.
After thanking Pachamama for keeping the group safe during our tour of the mine, Antonio went on to explain about the health risks and accidents that plague the lives of the miners. As well as tunnels collapsing, explosions from dynamite can also be very dangerous for those who enter and work inside the mines.
A year prior to our visit, there had been an explosion which had resulted in the death of a miner. The dynamite had blown him to pieces and they had to recover his body in bits. I was shocked and immediately thanked my lucky stars that nothing had happened whilst we had been inside the mine. Immediately after this thought, I felt very selfish for thinking something so self-absorbed.
Ongoing health problems are also huge issues for the workers, even if they leave the mines permanently. After years of exposure to the dust, the lungs will be hugely affected and many miners will suffer from breathing conditions which can eventually lead to their death.
In one month, an average of three miners die from either accidents inside the Potosí mines or ongoing health conditions that stem from working there. It is a scary statistic but one that really drives home the sacrifice that is made for our luxury goods.
Although I was very torn about a visit to the mines, I do not regret my decision to venture inside. Both before entering and during the tour I was scared and also hugely apprehensive about what I would see inside. However, all the workers that I met were hugely friendly and genuinely seemed to appreciate the interest of tourists.
The entrance fee paid by travellers to enter the mines goes directly to medical care for miners when there are accidents and also helps to support their families. It is sad that this is an inevitability of the job but also positive that there is a financial safety net in place.
Potochij Tours donate a large percent of the profits made from their Mine Tours directly to the Cooperative mines. Therefore, it is really important to choose a tour company who do not run these tours solely for personal gain but to also make the mining conditions a little bit better.
Despite my concerns, my visit to the mines never felt exploitative or voyeuristic. As a former employee, Antonio engaged all of the miners in conversation and greeted them like old friends. I never once felt like I was intruding and learnt a lot about both Potosí’s history and the mining industry.
Do not tar the purpose of these tours by making them all about you. They do not exist to make privileged white people feel better about themselves. The important thing about these trips is to see first hand the conditions that the miners have to work in and learn about the risks they are exposed to on a daily basis. This is the human price of our luxury items and something each of us must learn to reconcile if we are to continue consuming such goods.
Would you go on an ethical mine tour? Do you even think such a thing exists?