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A Journey into the Harsh Reality of the Mines of Potosi – Potosi, Bolivia

A Journey into the Harsh Reality of the Mines of Potosi

Potosi, Bolivia

Cerro Rico - Potosi
Cerro Rico – Potosi
The hole seemed to get smaller as I was forced to drop to my knees in order to advance forward. Wobbling along like a penguin in this crouched position, I wasn’t able to get somewhat comfortable again until the area opened back up. All I could see in front of me was what the powerful glare of my halogen headlamp revealed. A jagged rocky interior with pellets of water clinging at each point. Endless clouds of dusts so thick that it felt like you had to choke down each breath. Our guide turned to us with a grin stretching from one end of his face to the other revealing a couple missing front teeth. “How everyone doing?” he asks in a broken but jovial English accent. He didn’t get much of a response. Suffice to say, group moral was a bit low. Our guide reassured us we only have a bit further to go. At the back of the line I just kept my head to the ground to watch my footing and followed the nine streams of light bobbing up and down ahead of me. Just like everyone else who tours the mines of Potosi, you do it not because of some flowery feeling of joy it fills you up with inside, you do it for the experience and the experience alone. And in the experience is SHIT, but I mean that in a good way….kind of.

Cerro Rico looms over Potosi, Bolivia (the highest city in the world at over 4,000 meters above sea level) looking down on the town like a God watching over his creation. The mountain has exercised all the emotions of humanity on this once innocent little pueblo while remaining indifferent to the many lives it affects below. Cerro Rico gave Potosi life. And just like a powerful God it may one day take that life away.

We continued down this hallowed cave lined with tracks, stopping rather abruptly on occasion to let miners roll by hanging on a cart full of rocks. Witnessing this I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. But there were no riches to be found on this trip. As we proceeded the air was getting hotter and I began sweating profusely. It was like being in a sauna. I felt a bit disoriented so I stopped momentarily to regain my composure. Another guide following in the back of our group came over to check on me. “You awe right, amigo?,” he asks, shining his light right in my face. I couldn’t even say anything so I just gave him a thumbs up. “You try this,” he tells me and pulls out a handful of coca leaves. I had never tried them before but knew that chewing coca leaves was a cultural norm in Bolivia and took the place of cigarettes as being the country’s preferential vice. “Amigo…it help with altitude and sick feeling,” he assured me. I hesitantly took the leaves and shoved them into my mouth. The guide smiled and patted me on the back. I didn’t feel like talking with all those leaves in my mouth so I gave him the double thumbs up this time to show my appreciation. I ventured onward.

In the middle of the 16th century, Potosi was one of the wealthiest and most prestigious cities in the world. Fine wine, Persian rugs, exquisite hotels and restaurants, glamourous cathedrals – the town was a wet dream for the elitist bourgeoisie. With a population of over 1 million people it rivaled even the largest of European cities such as Paris, Sevilla, and London. The mines of Cerro Rico proffered the region with unimaginable riches. When the local indigenous slaves weren’t enough to fill the workload they were shipped in from Africa to help mine the mountain’s great gift to mankind…silver.

We carried on slightly downhill, twisting and turning, at times declining steeply enough to where I was forced to slide on my ass, all the while careful not to fall over one of the drops that fell several meters down to a cushy rock bottom. I now knew what it was like to be an ant fanatically scurrying around in one of those glass ant farms. Finally our group came upon a rather largely excavated area where we could all stop and relax. It was as far into the mine as we would be trekking, roughly 1 kilometer, before retracing our steps back out the way we came in order to conclude the tour. I made myself comfortable on a jagged rock while our guide explained to us how the mines operated.

Cerro Rico is a cooperative mine, which means that the miners essentially work for themselves. They set their own work schedule, generally 8-12 hours/day for 5-6 days/week, and work in teams to extract the rocks, or complejo as they call it. They then sell the complejo to one of the 25 companies in town that break it down into a more simpler composition that usually comprises of lead, tin, zinc, and maybe a bit of silver if lucky. Typically, a miner will earn anywhere from 30 – 50 Bolivianos for a days work, which roughly converts into $4 – $6 per day. There are over 300 mines that run through Cerro Rico, a maze like labyrinth of tunnels that delve several kilometers into the mountain. The mines provide jobs for over 12,000 people in Potosi, by far the town’s main employer.

As we caught our breath and continued acclimating ourselves to this new environment, a team of miners approached from the other direction. Our guide would introduce us to the miners, strike up a conversation with them in the indigenous Quechuan language, and present them with gifts our group had purchased for them before starting the tour. The bag of gifts generally included a 2 liter bottle of soda, a bag of coca leaves, and a stick of dynamite. Our guide would tell us each miners name, age, and how long they’d been working in the mines. The oldest member of the team standing in front of us was Jorge. He was 44 years old and had been working the mines for 22 years. As astonished as I was at that I was even more amazed at the youngest member of their team, Pablo, who had just turned 16 years old the week before. I couldn’t quite grasp it, the divide between his world and mine. I remember when I was 16 my top concerns involved homework, getting a drivers license, zits, and what popular people at school thought of me. And what about the enforcement of child labor laws? Simple, that concept didn’t even exist. Pablo was forced to work probably to support his family and didn’t have the luxury to pine over the trivialities of an upper-middle class lifestyle. I was feeling a little better now even though I was still experiencing shortness of breath and felt congested. I wanted to sneeze but at such high altitude I couldn’t even get enough oxygen to accomplish that small task. I was ready to get back outside.

The air quality in Cerro Rico is extremely poor at best. Dust made up of silicon, arsenic, and asbestos ensure that just about all miners will not be enjoying a long retirement. Those that spend over 15 years toiling in the mines of Cerro Rico are extremely likely to come down with silicosis, which is not treatable and ultimately leads to death. This outcome seems to be widely accepted in the town of Potosi. People still continue to work the mines against all odds, knowing their chances, and knowing a fate that everyone considers to be…inevitable.

Entrance to the Candelaria Mine
Entrance to the Candelaria Mine
Before beginning our exodus towards the light of day the miners were generous enough to share a bottle of alcohol with us. We each passed around a bottle of what must have been 100 proof alcohol, which tasted like it was of sugarcane. It was a superstitious tradition that before taking a sip you poor a little out onto the ground to appease “El Tio,” the feared and believed to be owner of the riches of Cerro Rico.

Ever since the conception of Cerro Rico’s mines it has been a widely held belief that what lies within the mountain belongs to a deity named El Tio. Inside the mine there is a museum with a statue and painting to commemorate El Tio, who not surprisingly shares a stark resemblance to the devil. The miners believe that when there are accidents or other travesties it is because El Tio is unhappy. Therefore ritualistic offerings such as cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol help to ensure that El Tio will provide the miners with save passage in and out of his mines.

The light at the end of the tunnel was an overwhelming relief. Stepping back outside, breathing the fresh air, and feeling the warmth of sunlight on my face made me feel alive. It made me appreciate life and what others have to endure just to barely survive it. I had only been underground for about three hours and wouldn’t even entertain the thought of going back in there. I like to think that I have a strong will and can do many things, but I honestly don’t think I would last one week working in the mines. Maybe not even one day. Working those mines makes corporate cube life look like a permanent vacation. Why would anyone want to work in such deplorable conditions? I kept thinking to myself that if that were my life I would rather take my chances out on the street. Why don’t these people take their families and try to make it to the next town and start life over? There would be hardships but it would be worth not having to put yourself at the mercy of El Tio. The thoughts passed easily through my mind just as they would for anyone who was looking at the situation through the sheltered eyes of a privileged life.

The tour was over. A light breeze kicked up as the sun began to set over the rooftops of Potosi. An array of colors – orange, violet, light green – were cascading up into the sky. Many of the miners were packing up to head home to their families. The moment was serene. It’s experiences like this that change a person, shaping ones views, thoughts, and beliefs on many different levels that one might not be able to describe its effect or even acknowledge that there has been an effect. I was happy to have seen the mines of Potosi and seeing them once was certainly enough for me. The thought occurred to me that if I ever did return it may not be possible to do another tour even if I wanted to. The mines may be gone. Just like petroleum and other riches from the earth the mines are operating on a finite source and nobody knows for sure when the veins of Cerro Rico will competely run dry. What would become of Potosi? The town is dependent on the subsistence of Cerro Rico. The mountain has given Potosi a history just as rich as the silver it once produced, from its pinnacle of magnificent splendor and luxury several hundred years ago to being converted into one of the poorest towns in one of South America’s poorest countries. Cerro Rico has showered Potosi with a mixture of blessings and tyranny, placing the pulse of the town on what is now a thin line of life support.

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