In the Bolivian city of Potosi lies the infamous silver mine, Cerro Rico. It looms over the town like a towering tomb, and locals say ‘we eat the mountain and the mountain eats us.’
We had our doubts before going, having heard stories of the dangerous, claustrophobic conditions, and read repeated warnings of safety (and the general lack thereof). And we were right to be worried, but, while at times shocking and frightening, the experience was one of the most eye-opening and rewarding of our trip.
With a group of 8 others (German, Danish, Irish, French and Spanish) and our guide, we went to visit Cerro Rico. The first part, the mine preparation, is really quite fun and interesting. We met our guide as we were getting our gear together (helmet – check, overalls – check, headlamp – check, wellies – check, bandanna for the toxic dust – check). He was an ex-miner who had been lucky enough to get a job carrying tourists bags. From there he practised English phrases and made the move to being a guide. Ronald introduced himself to us by running out wearing only his boxers, a gas mask and a bolt action rifle. This was apparently to let us know it was going to be hot in the mine, but whatever it was for, it made us all laugh.
We named ourselves the llama f*****s and headed to the miners market. This is where the miners get their gear, and we were each going to bring them some supplies. This is anything from mining equipment to dynamite, from coca leaves to fizzy drinks. The miners don’t eat in the mine because something in the dust gives you the runs. The fizzy drinks are just a sugar hit to keep energy levels up.
Something needs to be said about the dynamite. It costs 20 Bolivianos for one stick of ‘blow-your-head-off’ grade TNT, that’s about 2 British pounds. It costs 15 Bolivianos for a bottle of 95% alcohol. That’s under 1.50. And Ronald confirmed there are not any restrictions of any kind on the purchase of either… If that’s not a recipe for destruction I don’t know what is. As he told us, ‘Potosi is a crazy town, not many places in the world like it.’
Then we jumped in a minibus and headed up to the mine entrance, which looked something like the entrance to hell. An open mouth led into the mountain, with two rails like a metal tongue, waiting to swallow us up (see the first picture above – the pipes are for the hydraulic drills). I only found out later that the front of each mine is sprayed with freshly killed llama blood to appease the devil.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned the altitude yet, but it’s definitely a factor in making the situation considerably more breathless and claustrophobic. Potosi is the worlds highest city at 4070 metres about sea level, and we entered the mine at about 4400. For those who haven’t been at altitude, just walking up a flight of stairs can leave you out of breath. Now imagine doing that in a pitch black mine, where it’s 35 degrees celcius, the air is thick with dust and hissing pipes, oh and its not stairs, its a cramped rocky shaft with occassional 40 metre vertical drops on either side to spice things up.
In short, being in the mine is hell. It’s a labyrinth of tunnels, any which might collapse at any point, because, as Ronald informed us, ‘there are so many now the mountain is like a swiss cheese’. You also have to run to avoid speeding mine-carts loaded with up to 3 tonnes of rubble. You can hear them coming in the distant blackness like a deafening thunder.
I spent a large portion of the time trying to convince myself I didn’t have asthma, because I hadn’t brought my inhaler and pretty much figured if I had an attack I’d be screwed. But each of us was waging our own internal battle against our own demons. The further we went the quieter we all got. A few of us opted to crawl through a horribly tight gap to go and watch someone using a hydraulic drill. I was second in, and in a few seconds of scrambling was in a small inclosed space with a roaring drill and dust, so much choking dust. The headlamps barely penetrated it, but I could make out the drill and a few figures around it. I tried to hold my hand steady for a photo but nothing came out. I turned around and everyone else had left, no one could bare being there. This had to be the worst place to work in the world.
Then something truly terrifying happened. We were climbing a sheer slope, probably around 45 degrees, that had been used as an old mine-cart run. The years had worn it smooth and all that was left to hold on to was the rusting metal cart tracks. I was last, as I’d spent some time trying to photograph a sleeping boy in a previous cavern (see photograph number 6). I heard a commotion up above, someone yelp in pain, and was hit by a few falling rocks, one as big as a tennis ball. I promptly pressed myself to the side of the passage and yelled ‘Watch out!! Falling rocks coming down!!!’ (or something like that) to the group behind us.
Later I found out that the Danish girl at the front of our group had had a panic attack, and started screaming that she couldn’t breath. Jemma had been trying to calm her down, and coax her into breathing normally when a huge boulder, about the size of a small chair had come bouncing down the tunnel. It had bounced right over the two girls, smashed into a wall, and hit the Irish guy square in the shoulder. That was the yelp of pain I had heard. Luckily it hadn’t hit anyone in the face. Even more luckily, it hadn’t been followed by more rocks and the roof of the tunnel.
After that everyone in the group was mostly silent. We all just wanted to get out, and even the obligatory visit to get our photos in front of the Tio (the devil) felt rushed. There really was a tangible sense of relief to see the light at the end of the tunnel and finally escape this oppressive tomb. It was an experience that had changed our lives forever, but we sure as shit were not going to be rushing back to do it again any time soon.The photos and my descriptions do not do it justice, I urge anyone reading to go and experience this for themselves, if only to support the miners and their families.
The statistics are truly horrifying. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard about it before. It is estimated 8 million people have died in the mine. That is a truly staggering number, especially as it’s just one mountain. It dates back to the time of the Spanish conquistadors, who used slave labour (African and indigenous peoples) to rob the mountain of all its silver. At one point the Spanish overseers had people working in the mine for 6 month shifts, were the workers would work 12 hours a day and sleep & eat in the mine. When they were released they were blindfolded because the outside light would otherwise blind them. Having been in the mine for 2 hours (without even lifting an axe or spade) I believe this would easily be comparable to the worst psychological torture techniques in use today.
The conditions were so awful the slaves refused to work. The Spanish came up with an incredibly cruel and cunning remedy for this: understanding the indigenous people believed in (and feared) many gods, they told them that if they did not work, the devil would punish them with death. We were at first surprised to find that this ritual is still devotedly followed to this day. Each mine has it’s own handmade devil, carved from mud and stone which the miners shower with gifts like coca leaves, small sticks of dynamite and 95% alcohol. They do this as they believe the devil punishes those who don’t.
After experiencing the mine I started to understand a little more why the miners hold these seemingly crazy beliefs. It has to be truly extreme circumstances that will make devoted Catholics (as most miners are) worship the devil as soon as they enter these mines. Most miners have friends who have died, whether it’s of rock falls (the biggest cause of death) or silicosis from breathing the deadly dust, runaway mine carts, or any of the other horrible ways they come to their end. So when you enter a place of death every day, you almost have to make some allowance to death, respect it and fear it, for it ends lives. And I have no doubt that any atheist (such as me) would start to make offerings to this subterannean Satan just to cling to some comfort that I had done all I could to stay alive.
I still cannot believe that today around 5000 miners work the mountain, risking death day and night just for a pittance (and that’s if they’re lucky and hit a seam). There are also children working the mine, and anyone interested I recommend watching the excellent 2005 documentary The Devil’s Miner for some idea of their plight. But prepare yourself for a shock….
I have included the details of the tour company we went with for those interested below.
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Guide: Ronald Fuertes
Agency: Koala Tours