Potosi: Mining, Altitude and the Culture of Coca Leaves

Potosi is a heavy place. Built at 4,060 meters (13,300 feet) between mountains filled with silver, Potosi is one of the world´s highest cities and was once one of the richest. When the Spanish colonized Bolivia and settled Potosi, they forced the Indigenous people to work in the mines, extracting silver, for days or even months at a time. Conditions were (and still are) dangeous, especially because of the miner´s exposure to toxic dusts inside the mines and toxic materials to process the silver outside. After years of fighting to work independently, miners won the right to create cooperatives in 1952 and have since been self employed, more or less. I won´t go more into it, but the idea is that each miner creates his (always a man) own schedule, starts at the bottom and works his way up on his own accord. Our guide emphasized how miners are proud to work in the mines, regardless of the dangers, and that they have the choice to be there. That word is tricky, becuase if you are choosing between poverty and work and there aren´t many (or any) other options, the choice is made for you. 

I was hesitant to take the mining tour because I was afraid of the risk and I also didn´t want to be another gauking, privileged tourist, but ultimately I chose to for the sake of education and for greater empathy for those who work in very difficult jobs- it´s true now that I will appreciate my work (and opportunity) much more now. I won´t even get started on the environmental impact of mining I saw, it´s too complicated mixed with the social/human factor involved to dive into in a blog.

Given Potosi´s altitude, it was difficult for me to do much of anything without feeling exhausted. I felt like I was constantly taking deep breathes, searching for oxygen that wasn´t there. Add in the immense amount of smog and air pollution and it becomes sickening, literally. I guess the locals are used to it, but I´m much more comfortable at sea level.

To deal with the altitude, chewing coca leaves has become part of the Bolivian culture, especially in Potosi. Coca leaves are completely legal and are sold as whole leaves, just as any other herb or tea would be. To chew them, you de-stem each one by one and shove in as many of them as you can fit into your cheek then chew/mush them up. You add a little of sodium bicarbonate to activate the coca, which creates a little tingling. The coca leaves help with fatigue, curbs hunger and lessen the effects of altitude (headache, nasuea). Most working people you see (bus/taxi drivers, miners, shop owners, even police) have cheeks bulging with coca leaves. It´s like the Argentinians with their yerba mate or Italians with their espresso, it´s very much a natural part of life and should not be criminalized or stigmatized.

I was able to explore a thermal bath about 10 miles outside of Potosi called Ojo de Inca. A giant hole left by a crater fills up with a warm spring water and makes for a relaxing swim among colorful mountains. It was a beautiful and relaxing way to spend an afternoon. 

Overall, I was glad to experience the weight of Potosi but was so grateful to be able to breathe again once I left. 





Thermal Bath near Potosi

Offering coca leaves to miners in Potosi

Offering coca leaves to miners in Potosi

Walking in the mines in Potosi

Walking in the mines in Potosi


About rainbowpaw

This blog is meant to document my travels through South America, beginning in November in Bogotá, Colombia... destination, unknown!
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One Response to Potosi: Mining, Altitude and the Culture of Coca Leaves

  1. Kiley Mullen says:

    I’m really glad you did the tour; I’m sure it’s an intense lifestyle, and I can’t even imagine what the miners endure every day. I love the second photo – very photojournalistic!! Love you!!

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