Surviving the Potosi Mine – Potosi, Bolivia

Surviving the Potosi Mine

Potosi, Bolivia

Right off the bat, the superlatives concerning the Potosi silver mine are impressive. The mine is located above the world’s highest city, Potosi, which is at an elevation of 4,090 meters (13,500 feet). The wealth the Spanish gained from the mines practically single handedly funded their expansion of their empire. It was boasted that the amount of silver contained in the mine was enough to build a bridge of silver from Potosi to Spain, with enough remaining to be transported to Spain over the bridge itself.

At one point, the city of Potosi was more populous than both London and Paris. All this wealth did come at some expense, however. The number of Black and Indian slaves, who died as a consequence of working in the mines during its Spanish colonial period from 1545 to 1825, is estimated to be over eight million. Cerro Rico, the mountain towering symmetrically like a pyramid over downtown Potosi that contains the Potosi mine, seems deserving of its nickname – The Mountain That Eats Men.

Potosi is still very much an operating mine. These days zinc is the most profitable metal extracted from the mines. Before zinc, it was tin. Conditions haven’t changed a whole lot since the Spanish left, however. A miner working today in the mine is not expected to do so for more than 15 years before succumbing to silicosis pneumonia. The miners work as part of collectives; they are working for themselves. This fact makes it all the more alarming that the dangerous, unhealthy conditions persist. The miners must accept their fate to die young as opposed to initiating any improvements in working conditions. Mine workers throughout Bolivia have the potential to earn much more money mining than at other available jobs. Hence, it appears that the supply of people willing to work in the mines will continue.

Needless to say, working in these mines under the prevalent conditions would not be allowed in the United States, and you can sure that the tour of the mines that we participated in would not be legal either. We had to exercise caution in order not to further contribute to the masses that have been “eaten by the mountain”.

Our tour began in the shadows of the mountain at the miner’s market. Here we bought gifts that are customarily given by the tour groups to the working miners inside the mine. The gifts consisted of coca leaves, hand-rolled cigarettes, soda, dynamite, and since it was Friday, alcohol potable.

The miners work with a big wad of coca leaves between their cheek and teeth. The coca helps energize them and suppresses their hunger. You must be strong to work in these poorly ventilated, death trap mine tunnels that are at an approximate elevation of 4,300 meters. Miners attribute their strength to the coca leaf – they will not work without it. They spend approximately 15% of their income on the purchase of coca leaves. When mining is not going well, they may only earn enough money to pay for their coca leaves.

All used up
All used up
For many in the mines, Friday afternoon is the end of the workweek, which means it is time to get drunk. The alcohol of choice is called “alcohol potable” which has a whopping 96% alcohol. These miners don’t fool around! They drink to pass out. Our guide joked, well perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all, that beer, which with only 5% alcohol, is quite useless to a miner, and is what his father gave him to drink when he was a baby. I tried some alcohol potable and surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It definitely was not good, though.

There are three types of dynamite available to the miners: Argentinean, Bolivian and Peruvian. The miners prefer the Argentinean and Bolivian varieties for use in the mines. The Peruvian dynamite is of a lesser quality, “crap”, and is only used for celebrations during fiestas, and to kill people in clashes and riots amongst different miner groups and between the miners and police.

After a bit of shopping our group headed off to the notoriously dangerous Potosi mines well stocked with coca leaves, cigarettes, 96% alcohol potable, and about seven sticks of dynamite packed in ammonium nitrate. It promised to be an exciting and potentially dangerous tour. I was brimming with anticipation.

After our guide detonated some of our dynamite adjacent to the mine entrance, it was time for a bit of a safety talk before entering the mine itself. We learned that “Dynamite is safe; you can drop it, bang it on your friend’s hard hat (or head)….”, while the detonator charge at the end of the fuse is not, “but this part of the fuse (the detonator) is dangerous: if you bang it on your best friend’s head, your best friend is dead.” We were also directed what to touch and what best not to touch within the mines, “If you touch the metal pipes, you will die. If you touch these wires, they have electricity, you will die. You can touch the plastic pipes. You will not die.” After this reassuring safety talk, we entered the initial mine shaft, and it was barely moments before we were scrambling along the walls of the narrow tunnel to avoid being hit by a railroad cart full of ore rock that was hurtling along the railroad track towards us through the darkness.

Inside the mine, the air was unbearably hot, the tunnels were cramped, and the air was filled with dust generated from the blasting of rocks. To get around, we often had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl. We visited three different levels within the mine. To get between levels, we had to manually climb up or descend down nearly vertical tunnels that connected them. No lifts have been installed in the mines of Potosi.

One of our first stops within the mine was at the shrine of Tio (Uncle). Tio represents the god of the underworld, as opposed to the god of the aboveground world. In each level, in a relatively quiet and tucked away place, there is a place of worship for Tio. In order to have good luck in the mines, the miners bestow many gifts and offerings to Tio. These gifts don’t vary much from the gifts we brought for the miners – coca leaves, alcohol potable and cigarettes.

To honor Tio, our group drank alcohol potable diluted with tea and chewed coca leaves. Before we drank each shot of the alcohol, we had to pour a little on the ground, for Tio and Pachamama (Mother Earth). It was during this time spent in front of Tio when an Irish girl in our group said, “I don’t care for coca, no thanks.” to which our guided responded, “This is not about what you care for.” The Irish girl reluctantly put the coca in her mouth and began chewing. I don’t think she cared for alcohol potable either, but she kept quiet. She did have her shot glass returned to her after she handed it back to the tour guide without completely finishing it, though. By the end of our session in front of Tio, we had drunk five rounds of shots in his honor.

After our time with Tio, we continued on through the mines sharing our gifts, including more alcohol potable, with those miners we encountered.

Luckily, we all managed to survive our afternoon in the Potosi mine.

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