The mine tour is the main reason travellers head to Potosi. Let me tell you now. It is definitely worth the bus ride there. After several recommendations from others we decided to go with The Real Deal tours. We chose them as the company is made up entirely of ex-miners, they know the mines better than anyone else would and they money goes directly towards helping out not just the guides, but other miners and their families. Our guide had been working in the mines for 21 years. First as a miner - starting when he was 13 - then as a guide for the last 11 years. He really knew his stuff.
The tour starts off with everyone getting into their miner gear. (Protective clothes. Hard hat with torch. Battery pack. Gum boots). Then it´s off to the miners market to buy gifts for the miners who you meet inside the mines. Appropriate gifts include coca leaves, ceibo (93% alcohol - surprisingly tasty), soft drinks and dynamite (with all the appropriate devices to make it active - all for just $2). To make us less nervous around the explosives we were holding our guide, Llama Face, decided to demonstrate to us how safe it was.....by holding a flame underneath them. Needless to say, I don´t care how many times he´s done it... it still made me nervous! Next stop was at the processing plant where we learned all about how silver is separated from the rubble.
I have to say, when it was time to enter the mine, I did become a little nervous. I reminded myself that in Brisbane I used to do this sort of thing for fun - without a guide. Things will be ok. Take a deep breath. Turn on your head lamp and walk on in that mine.
Our guide explained to us that the mines are co-operatives, with no support from the government - hence the bringing of gifts. He also explained that the different groups working were all family groups. Brothers, uncles, fathers and cousins all working together in the mines. The miners were by far the happiest Bolivians we met. Due to being in family groups, they are constantly laughing and joking - with the motto in life ´anything is possible!´ Amazing people. Possibly also the only Bolivians we met that didn´t seem to openly dislike tourists - but were in fact happy to see us. We even had one group of miners who were on a brake share their ceibo with us.
The miners worship Tio, the devil and lord of the underground, as well as Pachamama (mother earth). The reason that they need to be friends with Tio, as he rules life under the ground. Due to this, there are many statues/shrines to Tio within the mines. When someone is hurt or dies within the mines, the miners say this is because Tio and Pachamama are thirsty for blood. To please Tio, and satisfy his need for blood, they leave offerings of llama foetus´ at his feet. Other offerings they leave include coca leaves and ceibo. Although it is common to give a small offering of these items every time you consume them - in or out of the mines.
Emerging safe and sound out the other side I felt like i´d really had my eyes opened. These men who work up to 15 hours a day underground, in what is considered appalling conditions had a better outlook on life than so many people who are much more fortunate. Amazing people indeed.