A silver lining in Bolivia

When we set off at 6am, tired but eager eyed to start our journey from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, I really wasn’t expecting to find my second story worth repeating.

However as I began chatting with our driver I was quickly captivated by his life story and began scribbling things down as we crossed the desert to the border.

Luis Barras-Cruz: ex-miner, tour guide, Latin American (and proud).

Tour Guide Bolivia HB

(A brief history of silver mining in Bolivia…feel free to skip!)

In the mid 1500’s the Spanish colonisers founded Potosí, Bolivia as a silver mining town. For over 200 years, over 40,000 tons of silver were mined by the Bolivian people and shipped over to Spain, making their Empire one of the wealthiest at the time.

But with this wealth came great pain and suffering; the indigenous population were viewed as slaves and brutally treated. When Bolivia was liberated in 1825, the Spanish left the Bolivians with nothing and there was no silver left to mine.

Despite this hardship, to this day Potosí’s silver mine is still active, where a workers collective dangerously attempt to extract other remaining minerals from the mountain…

…and this is where Luis’s story begins.

“For many years Bolivia was the most economically successful country in South America. We had the most silver and minerals and we could earn a decent living from them.”

“I worked in the mines for 28 years. It was very dangerous work, we were exposed to a lot of toxins and it wasn’t good for my health.”

*When in Potosi we learnt that a miners’ life expectancy is 35-40 years old, and although child labour is illegal in Bolivia, some workers are as young as 14.

Boarder Crossing, Bolivia

“So I stopped working. I knew the best thing I could do was to educate my sons about the dangers of this work, and encourage them to see more of the world.”

Luis told me that he wanted to meet people from all around the world, so he decided that becoming a tour guide was the best solution.

“For me education is the most important thing you can pass on to your family.”

I was excited to hear that Luis’s sons took his advice about travelling and seeing the world. One of his sons works in Canada as a teacher, and another as an engineer in Japan!

“I am now 68 years old.”

Bolivia Tour Guide

Luis was also keen to tell me that he is Latin American and proud. His mother was Spanish, and his father and grandparents’s ancestors originated from China, then became part of the indigenous population of South America.

* I’m finding the anthropological makeup of the South American people so interesting – but I’ll save that for another blog post!

I hope you found Luis’s story as intriguing as I did, until next time.

Read more about silver mining in Bolivia here.

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