Potosi is the highest city in the world, at almost 4100 metres above sea level. It is also the richest source of silver the world has ever seen. But such riches came at a price. Estimates are that between 8 and 9 million people have lost their lives in the mines of Cerro Rico. The mining boom began after a llama herder was caught out after dark and was surprised to see a trickle of silver run out from the blaze of his temporary camp fire. Over the next three centuries, Spanish colonists put indigenous workers and African slaves to work in the mines, resulting in astonishing levels of mortality.
As the saying goes, with all the silver mined from Potosi, you could build a bridge all the way to Spain, and with all the bodies of those who lost their lives in the mines, you could build a second bridge of bones.
Today, it’s possible to take a guided tour of the mines – provided you’re willing to sign a piece of paper to say you are aware of the very real dangers of entering. Some people consider it unethical to take a tour and gawp at less fortunate people going about their daily lives, but I consider it a humbling and enlightening experience to see the conditions that these people still work under. If you go with the right attitude, you’re bound to find it one of the most interesting places in Bolivia.
We booked the tour with Koala Tours, which uses ex-miners as guides and ensures that 15% of the cost of the tour goes to the miners (although I wish it was more). For half a day, the price was B$100.
The morning group was significantly larger than the afternoon group, at 20 people, but they separated us into teams of 6 or 7 to enter the mines.
Our first stop was a place where we could put on protective overalls, a helmet with torch and wellies. They recommend you bring a camera, water bottle and bandana for the dust. We were able to leave our other belongings securely in the storage room during the duration of the tour.
As we waited to leave, Ronald, one of the tour guides and an ex-miner, came out dressed only in a helmet and his underpants, with a soft toy zebra hanging out of the front. He told us it was very hot in the mines and advised us to wear as little as possible. Sadly, no one else followed suit!
It turned out that Ronald was to be our team’s guide, though he did go and put more clothes on. He named us the ‘Sexy dynamites’ and we all had to put our hands in a circle and shout out our name. Next we headed to the miner’s market to buy gifts for the miners we were about to meet underground.
We went in one shop and Ronald pointed out the best gifts. Obviously, there was dynamite. One was wrapped in white paper, which he told us was made in Bolivia. Another in brown paper was from Peru. He asked which we thought was best and when we said the Bolivian one, he congratulated us on being intelligent. Apparently, the Peruvian one was ‘shit’.
He threw a piece of dynamite with some force against the floor to demonstrate that it wasn’t explosive without the fuse and ammonium nitrate. The fuse didn’t look very long to me, but apparently it burns for 2 minutes.
As well as the dynamite, there was a gas lamp. While the miners use electric lamps these days, they still rely on the flame of a gas lamp changing colour to indicate if there’s any toxic carbon monoxide in the air.
For the third time in Bolivia, I was dared to take a shot of Ciebo – a popular spirit with 96% methylated alcohol. This is popular with the miners too.
And of course, there were coca leaves. Miners chew these to keep up their energy levels, but they also offer them as a gift to the ‘God’ of the mines – a little chap nicknamed Tio, or Uncle, who we would meet later.
Armed with sticks of dynamite and soft drinks for the workers, we headed to a processing plant to see how the minerals are extracted from the rocks. The machinery looked very basic, including coca cola bottle lids to pour chemicals over the stones.
In one room, there was a giant grinder and some sifting machines. Ronald took some of the froth and sieved it, then rinsed it with water, leaving silver crystals, which he placed on each of our hands.
Back in the van, we quizzed Ronald about his past and the working conditions. He had worked in the mines just 2 years to make money after school, before becoming a guide. He said often kids would join their fathers in the mines from a young age, and they’d work together and share the profits.
Some people only worked there part time as a holiday job from their studies, but others had been working long hours in the mines for the past 30 years. That they’d been there my entire lifetime was a sobering thought. One of the other guides said that, when he’d worked the mines 10 years ago, he’d made B$30 a day (about £3) for 6 hours work. To him, this had been a good wage.
We reached the mines, having stopped briefly at a viewpoint to take photos of the city and Cerro Rico. Ronald told us the hill had dropped in height by about 300 metres due to the thousands of mines that worm through its belly.
At the entrance, we saw the stains of llama blood that had been splashed on the walls as an offering to Pachamama, in the hope that it would keep the miners safe. The first level of the mine was relatively open and there was a cool breeze, but as we descended down slippery tunnels with low ceilings, sometimes having to watch our step to prevent falling into massive deep pits, it became much warmer and more humid.
It also started to reek of sulphur and other poisonous gases. This, combined with the ever-present effect of altitude and the exertion of dragging ourselves through narrow crevices made it difficult to tell whether or not we were in the midst of a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.
One of our first stops was Tio, the miner’s God. There’s one in every mine. He’s a very old dude made of cement for whom the miners leave gifts in return for protection. He had a can of beer by one hand and a cigarette hanging from his lips. By his side was a massive bag of coca leaves, and surrounding him were hundreds, if not thousands, of empty plastic bottles. It seems Tio likes to live life on the wild side! Ronald also pointed out that he had a reasonably sizeable penis, which had broken in two. He said Tio had been very ‘busy’ over the years!
As we huddled around the bizarre creature and caught our breath, Ronald explained that only men worked in the mines – partly because you had to be strong to do the work, and also because it was believed that women would steal the minerals!
We hadn’t even made it to the second level before one girl had to turn back. It was so smelly and claustrophobic I had a pounding headache, but I pushed on. After all, if millions of people had spent years of their lives in these conditions working for peanuts, I could hack it for a couple of hours to get a feel for what they’d encountered.
Moving between levels was the scariest part. We had to squeeze through very narrow gaps while picking our way down steep, slippery drops. When a ladder existed, its slats would rock from side to side with our weight, and at one point, there was a massive hole to one side we could easily have fallen into.
Even on the flat, many of the tunnels had a foot of water in them, with hidden pits underfoot, and our hands would get covered with with toxic yellow slime as we touched them to steady ourselves. Ronald pointed out cyanide and asbestos as we picked our way forwards as carefully as possible.
On level 2, there was an abandoned cart used for shipping the minerals to a pulley system so they could be transported outside. Christina and I mustered enough energy to climb inside for a photo, but it came out blurry and obscured by dust.
By level 3, we were deep inside the mountain. We met some guys who were repairing a wooden ladder. As we sat below making conversation, one of them dropped a heavy chisel and it narrowly missed my leg. This was just another reminder of the hazards the miners face every day.
Before we left the mines, we wriggled our bodies into a narrow hole one by one to wave at some more miners 20 feet below, and we lowered the bag of gifts to them. Meanwhile, another girl in our group had to stop for 5 minutes with her head between her legs because she felt so faint and breathless.
We emerged with a massive sigh of relief after just 2 hours underground. While I’d never want to put myself through that experience again, I’m glad I did it once so I have a better understanding of the working conditions of the Potosi miners. As we waited for the bus to pick us up, it began to hail and snow heavily. Some of the miners cracked open beers and chatted jovially among themselves, and one came over to me and Christina to ask if he could be in a photo with us.
The main thing that struck me about the whole experience was the unusually high morale of the miners. I guess the only way to get through such a tough lifestyle is to develop a strong sense of humour. To me, one of the most attractive traits in a person’s character is the ability to keep a positive frame of mind regardless of life’s circumstances, and I was inspired by the miners of Potosi.
For now, and probably another 10 years or so, mining will continue and tourists will flock to Potosi, but Ronald predicts that, one day in the not-too-distant future, reserves will dry up and Potosi will eventually become a ghost town. For a place steeped in so much history, I think this would be a tragic shame.