Having been in South America for nearly 6 months now I’ve met many people along the way who’ve been through Bolivia and one of the biggest talking points is often the mine tours in Potosi. A city that was once the biggest in the world and the jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire – Potosi is absolutely dominated by the imposing Cerro Rico (rich mountain in English) that towers over it. The imposing giant looms large over the city and it’s people in every way – everything in Potosi is reliant on the minerals taken out of the increasingly barren mountain – and to visit without learning about Cerro Rico and the miners who work it would be like not visiting at all.

That being the case there are a vast array of companies operating who’ll give tours of the mines. I’d heard differing stories from other backpackers, but the two companies which really seemed to stand out were Koala tours and Real Deal. Researching a little more I was really keen to go with Real Deal as they’re they only operator owned and run by ex-miners.

Due to a impending national transport strike and the imminent ‘Gran Poder’ celebrations happening in La Paz, I’d gone against my original plan and my visit to Potosi would be a two day one night whistle stop tour. This is quite common, but having read the blog of my neighbours in Sucre – Mike & Jurgen – I really wanted to give it a little more time. Circumstances conspired against this plan unfortunately, but having now been I’d have loved a few more days to explore the old city. My short time frame meant I almost missed Real Deal too as their office only has a sign out during opening hours. It was only the fact that I got up early to book with Koala that I noticed it opposite and managed to get on the Real Deal tour instead.

I was immediately impressed just walking in to the Real Deal office – the enthusiasm and friendliness of Reynaldo behind the desk felt genuine and I was confident in them straight away. He talked me through what the tour would involve, the equipment included, our safety, timings etc all in perfect ‘Bolivian English’. All the guides in fact spoke English better than almost any other South American tour operator I’ve met… and all have learned just by giving these tours. It really is all run and owned by ex-miners too with no big company above them taking most of the profit. They’ve been operating for just 8 months but are already one of the most sought after tours. The four guys who started the company all defected from Koala having become disheartened working for a big company and their unfulfilled promises to give back some of the profit to working miners. So it’s certainly the most ethical of the tours on offer and you’re guaranteed some amazing insight with all the guides having spent many years working as miners themselves.

The tour started with a trip to the Real Deal warehouse where we were all given full protective suits for our clothes, hard hats with battery powered headlamps, waterproof boots and a back pack. We were also split into two groups – an English language group of 6 and a Spanish language group of 4. I went with the English speaking group obviously. After we were all suited and booted we moved on to the miners market where we could buy gifts to give them. The suggested options were dynamite, coca leaves and soft drinks. I bought one dynamite set (stick of dynamite, fuse and detonator) for 15 Bolivianos (roughly £1.20), a bag of coca leaves for 5 Bolivianos (about 40p) and a big bottle of orange juice. Another thing to note here about Real Deal is that you pay the correct prices – i.e no gringo tax. This is not the case with many of the other companies.

Having filled up our backpacks with gifts, we moved on to see the processing plant. Again this is something that not all the tour operators can provide and it was a fascinating place to see. Efran, our Real Deal guide, walked us through the whole plant explaining how the miners (who work in independent ‘freelance’ teams) sell their ‘completa’ (rock from the mountain basically) to these private companies who then separate it into a refined mix containing just the minerals – silver, iron and copper. The miners will have a laboratory check the completa before selling and the price will be set depending on it’s quality. We saw the initial flotation process which allows the minerals to be parted from the waste before seeing the giant machines which gather the separated goodness. I wasn’t taking notes, and I can’t remember enough to get any more scientific – but it was really interesting to see and also to learn a bit more about the way in which the miners make their money. The workers at the plant are also considered miners, but trade of some income for a safer job working for these private refineries.

Once we’d finished at the processing plants it was time for the main event – the 2 hour tour of the mine itself. There are in fact hundreds of mines within Cerro Rico and we were taken to one of the biggest, Rosina. It’s very much a working mine and our small group would be touring whilst groups of miners were working around us. A bit like the Fevela tour in Brazil this felt a little odd ethically – rich Western tourists watching the poor at work – but going with Real Deal it felt like we were getting this amazing experience without exploiting anyone.

The entrance to the mine was quite daunting; a small hole in the side of the mountain with a wooden frame – it looked old and much like a mine might in an old Western movie. As we crept down the first tunnel, Efran informed us that these were actually the original walls put up 500 years ago which was very reassuring. The ceiling of the tunnel was pretty low and the floor about 2 inches deep with water, it felt a little treacherous with the tracks for the carts on the floor and I had to be careful to watch my step. About 10 minutes into the mountain we had to hurriedly get out of the way of a passing cart full of minerals. We were told as 4 young miners struggled past us that these carts weigh around one tonne. The miner at the front of the cart must have been about 14 which is apparently quite a common age for the boys of Potosi to start working in the mines.

As we got deeper into the mine the floor dried out and the tunnels got a little less easy to pass through. Wires carrying oxygen and electricity snaked above our heads and at points you almost had to crawl as the ceilings became so low. The most intimidating section was the point at which we had to drop down a level (there are 5 or 6 levels in the Rosina mine). This involved slipping through a man sized hole in the ground and climbing down a short ladder. We then had to climb down a much longer ladder with a fairly scary looking abyss below. With Real Deal there are always two guides which gives anyone who finds it a bit too much the option to pull out. It was at this point there were a couple of murmurs in our group (and a lady in the Spanish speaking group actually turned back) – but everyone made it down and a good job too, as it was the precursor to one of the most interesting parts of the tour.

Once we’d dropped down a level we made our way to visit one of the Tio’s of the mine. Tio is a mythical ‘devil’ the Spanish invented to scare the native workers. Not being able to say Dio (devil) it became known as Tio and took on a different legend as ‘uncle – the owner of all the silver in the mine’. Along with Pacha Mamma (mother earth), Tio is worshipped as the master of the mountain and every mine has a Tio shrine for the miners to pay homage and offer gifts. Efran explained a little about the Andean people’s culture – how their traditions survived even under Spanish rule. They still speak Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas and they’re still a polytheistic people who worship several different gods (including the Catholic god and his son Jesus) – so Tio doesn’t compromise their Christian faith as far as their concerned. On the first and last Friday of every month the miners will come and offer gifts to Tio and pray to him asking for him to give them pure silver.

Tio likes to drink, smoke and chew coca leaves (he’s a bit of a devil after all) so that’s what they bring him. Luckily for them Tio likes the 96% proof pure alcohol drink they’re all into – which is cheap and as we found out psychotically strong. Efran demonstrated a traditional prayer and offering to us which involved lighting a cigarette for him, throwing two handfuls of coca leaves at his feet and pouring two drops of the super strength alcohol out onto the ground. Miner superstition dictates that everything has to be done in two’s – we have two eyes, two legs, two arms… two balls – so everything must be consumed in twos. This also, insisted Efra, included our sips of the alcohol. So we all had a couple of sips to Efra’s two huge swigs – it really was like some kind of cleaning fluid, burning your lips, mouth and any other piece of flesh it came into contact with. Makes flaming sambucas, tequila slammers and anything else you thought was strong seem like water.

We spent about an hour down with Tio, learning about Efra’s own history as a miner, the history of the mountain, it’s future and much more. He was an amazing guide and really charismatic speaker – for most of the time he was speaking you could have heard a pin drop as all 6 of us listened to him, spellbound. When we got up and moved on I think we all had a huge respect for this mountain and the men who toiled for over 10 hours every day extracting the minerals from it.

As we moved on we cam across another group of miners who were transporting some of their haul up to the surface. This was obviously a pretty tough job, but they were happy enough to let us stop and watch – even asking me and a couple of other guys to help shovel some of the rocks into the buckets. This was more for our benefit and their amusement than the need for any assistance (or the idea that we’d be any particular use). There were plenty of jokes made about job offers etc, but the two minutes shovelling deep inside the hot mountain did give you a little insight as to how tough their job is.

All in all we spent just over two hours in the mines which is nothing compared to the 10 hours a day, often 7 days a week the miners spend down there. It was an amazing experience and fascinating insight into a completely different world. Potosi exists solely because of the mining of Cerro Rico and having been taken around the mines by Real Deal I now feel I understand a little bit about that life. The day was finished of in a 4 course lunch (included in the 100 Boliviano price) at their restaurant The Meal Deal. It was a fantastic experience and I could not recommend Real Deal Tours enough to anyone visiting Potosi.