My breathing is heavy. Never before have I been to a place as high in altitude – at about 4,300 meters – and as low in oxygen. But neither can I rest, nor can I enjoy the view. Instead, I descend into a stifling and dusty mine.
The beginning is not too bad. We follow the tracks for the trolleys. The ground is wet. At times I am wading in 20 cm of water.
But then we turn right into a narrower, lower, darker drift that resembles a cave. A shaft goes down 45 meters at a right angle. We use the shaft next to it. Not quite as deep, not quite as vertical, so I am not in complete free-fall as I am sliding down. These pants will have to get sewn.
I had some scary notions before I decided to go into one of the active mines of Cerro Rico in Potosí in Bolivia with Jonny, a former miner himself, and a few other visitors from Europe: The darkness. Narrow corridors, maybe claustrophobia. My biggest fear was getting stuck in a narrow passage. Embarrassment would top the peril. And of course a cave-in, followed by dying of hunger and thirst, by suffocating or freezing to death. Now, while brachiating down slippery boulders in darkness and in wellingtons, I realize that the gravest danger lies in slipping and breaking a leg or smashing my skull. After all, I am in the mountains. Inside a mountain, even. But without any rope or harness, only a headlamp attached to the loose helmet, slick rocks everywhere and dynamite in my backpack.
To convince the miners to allow us to visit them at work, we went to the market before in order to buy gifts. Jonny recommended that each of us should purchase a stick of dynamite, with detonator and fuse of course, a few cans of beer and a bag with coca leaves. I don’t know how much the dynamite cost, but I paid 25 bolivianos (about 3.30 Euros) for the whole combination – in which as an anti-alcoholic I replaced the beer with juice, which would later earn me very evil eyes from the miners. Thus, the dynamite can’t be too expensive. The market in Potosí is probably the only market in the world where you can get explosives with detonator, alcohol and drugs for the price of a kebab. (I wouldn’t be surprised if out of all sentences in all my articles about Bolivia, this is the one to increase tourism to Bolivia the most.)
Our small platoon has only been inside the mine for five minutes, and I am already beginning to regret the decision. As so often, curiosity had prevailed over fear. And the price of 12 Euros for touring an active mine for several hours was too enticing for a cheapskate like me.
One level lower. We are walking bent over until we have to crawl on the floor. On wobbly wooden panels, we cross deep holes. In a side corridor we meet Grover. Usually, the miners only go into the mountain in teams of three or four, but today he works alone at this badly accessible spot.Grover is 21 years old. He began working in the mine when he was 16. Jonny, who only guides tourists now, began at age 13. Child labor is legal in Bolivia. The schools run an evening shift for children who work during the day.
I ask Grover why he is working alone today. “The prices are not good right now. So, many don’t want to work at all.” I don’t understand what he means, have to ask him again. Then, a 21-year old crouched in a narrow shaft in almost complete darkness, interrupted by the sound of distant explosions, explains that the number of workers in the mines fluctuates with the world market prices for silver, zinc and tin. When China needs more resources, more 13-year olds will work in the mines again. When the world economy is ailing, they will return to school. The salary fluctuates too, but it isn’t all too bad. The mining boys can achieve 800 to 1,200 bolivianos (= 100 to 160 Euros) per week. Contrast that with a statutory minimum wage of 1,800 bolivianos (= 240 Euros) for a whole month, and the motivation is obvious. Working in the mountain means coming home dirty and tired, but you’ll be relatively rich.
At the top of the front page, the local newspaper El Potosí lists the daily prices for gold, silver, copper, lead, tin and zinc, just like newspapers in the rest of the world will list the maximum and minimum temperatures expected for the day. Currently, most of these prices are half as much as they were five years ago. For example, you can get an ounce for silver for 20 dollars today, when you still had to pay 43 dollars in 2011. Granted, that was a short bubble, but like all people, miners have a selective memory and prefer to remember the boom times. Also, many of them are simply too young to remember commodity prices prior to 2011.
Crawling, sliding and climbing along paths that I could never retrace myself, we get into a larger drift. There is a pair of railway tracks and I can stand upright again. Some boys are standing below a hatch, from which, as soon as they pull away a thick wooden board, stones are crashing down from a higher-lying drift. Under the hatch the miners have pushed a trolley, into which one of the boys mounts, wearing at least a helmet, but apart from that little protection in his T-shirt and with bare hands.
Then they let between one and two tons of rock rumble down. In clouds of dust and stone chippings that fly about, the boy is dancing from one side of the trolley to the other, trying to spread the rocks evenly. He holds up a spade with all the power he can muster to stop the avalanche of rocks. Now his two colleagues have to re-insert the wooden board in a way that the mass of stones pressing from above will be held back and that the three miners won’t be buried. High-tech like in the time of the conquistadors. But at least there is no more forced labor or slavery.
Because Cerro Rico has experienced that, too. The first silver at the mountain was discovered in 1545, which delighted the Spanish occupiers even more than previous discoveries of tobacco, potatoes, cacao, attractive latina women and malaria.The top of Cerro Rico (the name, which it obviously only received after the precious find, means “rich mountain”) was made out of extremely rich silver ore, which could be laid bare and extracted relatively easily. What you see today are still an imposing 4,800 meters, but the original height was 5,183 meters. The upper 400 meters were completely removed. Even today, the mountain shrinks by a few centimeters every year. Worried, I ask Jonny if the mountain won’t one day collapse due to the many adits, drifts, levels and shafts drilled into it. “Don’t worry,” he says, knocking on rock, “this is granite. Super-solid. Nothing can happen here.” Oh, well.
The silver deposits at Cerro Rico were so rich that they financed the Spanish empire over the coming centuries, including the wars led in Europe which Spain couldn’t have fought otherwise. This small town in Bolivia changed the course of world history. But it wasn’t always small! At the foot of Cerro Rico, the population exploded like never before in Europe or in the Americas. When the silver was discovered, 3,000 natives and only 170 Spaniards lived in Potosí. Two years later, 2,500 houses had been built to accommodate 14,000 people. In 1560 the population was around 60,000, twenty years later the 100,000-threshold was crossed, and at the heyday of Potosí, at the beginning of the 17th century, around 160,000 people lived on this inhospitable patch of land. The city was larger than Paris, New York or Berlin at the time. Potosí was once – at the same time- the highest, the largest and the richest city in all of North and South America. But except for the mines, there was nothing. Cities in more fertile areas of Bolivia, like Cochabamba, only grew because they were producing food for the miners. Even if the silver was meant for Spain, trickle-down economics worked for Potosí. Mansions as large and as beautiful as in Madrid were built, as were 25 churches. And there was a lot of booze every night.
The ones who suffered for all of this were the Indians, who were forced to work in the mines, and the slaves shipped over from Africa. Many of them already died on the way across the Atlantic. Now imagine malnourished, weakened, abused slaves from West Africa being brought to an ice-cold climate above 4,000 meters altitude and being sent to work in mines, and you understand the name “the mountain that eats men”.
From around 1650 it went downhill. The silver became less, the remaining ore harder to extract, and it had a lower silver content. In 1825, when Bolivia became independent, Potosí had a population of 9,000 left. It was a small town again, albeit one that was fought over several times during the Wars of Independence. At the end of the 19th century, there came another boom, this time for tin. Of course the tin had been there before, but next to the more shiny silver it had been ignored. Cerro Rico’s belly became alive again, and it filled with dead miners once more (admittedly far fewer than under the Spanish rule). This went well until the tin crash in 1985. As everyone knows from their own life, such a tin crash can really hit you hard. The Bolivian state overreacted and in its disappointment gave up all mining activity at Cerro Rico.
The miners whom I meet today are thus working in cooperatives which they founded and organize themselves. There are 36 of them. The concessions are still granted by the government to avoid everyone digging and exploding about crazily. Around 200 mines are currently active, thousands have been decommissioned, although I will discover a few “private mines” closer to the top of the mountain during my ascent the next day. By the way, women are barred from working in the mines of Potosí. Jonny explains that the miners would deem this to be a bad omen and also that Pachamama, the goddess of the Earth, could become jealous. And if there is one thing I can testify to, it is how easily Latin-American women can get jealous. Until a few years ago, women weren’t even allowed as visitors. I personally believe that this is more due to the macho culture, which is quite apparent. The men in the mine slap, jostle and insult each other. Overall, Potosí seemed rougher to me than the rest of Bolivia.
But one might as well cut these people slack when you know about the shortened life expectancy of the miners. And about the many widows and orphans supported by the cooperatives. Because the mountain only contains rests of ore, which must be laboriously extracted from different far-lying spots, the use of modern technology wouldn’t be worth the investment. Although I do wonder why none of the miners at least wears a mask over their mouth. During the about two hours in the mine, I had no chance to take out the notebook from my backpack, yet afterward it is fully covered in dust. What may the lungs of the workers look like after 8 or 12 hours of work? The miners tell me that chewing coca leaves works like a filter, but I readily relegate this to the realm of rumor.
The belief in myths is strong with these tough guys who read the listings of the commodity exchange every day. On the way back we pass an alcove in which there sits a devil in life-size. El tío, the uncle, is his name, but it may also originate from the Spanish dios (God).
According to the sincere belief of the miners, he is the lord of the underworld, who must be appeased with alcohol and coca and by sacrificing a llama from time to time. (You see the blood on the wall?) Because carnival was just a few months ago, it is draped in tinsel. But I actually believe that we disturbed Tío at an intimate moment because he sits there without underpants and with a hard-on. So I am happy when we say hasta luego to the scantily-clad knave of the cave .
Now I would even find the way back myself. Because the trolleys are harder to push when they are fully laden, the tracks run towards the exit on a slightly downward slope. Following this direction, freedom and fresh air beckon. The only danger are the massive trolleys, weighing more than a ton, that are being pushed through the darkness. Whenever one of them approaches, we shout at each other and quickly have to find a cave or a side drift to make way. As a precaution, I ask Jonny how long the batteries in the headlamps will last. “Don’t worry, these are good batteries. From China”, he replies. “With lithium from Bolivia?” I ask, half in jest. “Exactly!” Now he gets angry, breaks out in a tirade against the government. “We have all the natural resources here, but no factories. We produce nothing! Instead, we ship everything to China.” Only the dirt and the dust, the disabled and the dead, they remain
The light glistens brightly when we step out of the monster’s mouth. I feel relief. For the first time, I have the chance to take a closer look at the barren slopes of the mountain. They are riddled with entries. Like the arm of a drug addict.
Men go into the mountain. Men come out of the mountain.
Children dig through mounds of stones, searching for something of value. Men load trucks. Every day, several thousand people work in Cerro Rico. From here come the metals that are turned into the computer, the tablet or the phone on which you have read this article.
- Potosí lies above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) of altitude. The mines are higher still.
- I did have some problems with altitude sickness. But you can get pills against it at any pharmacy, and at least in my case they helped quickly and effectively. Simply ask for pills against “mal de altura” (Spanish) or against “sorojchi” (Quechua).
- Even in summer, the nights can be damn cold. Not all houses are insulated, so bring a set of warm clothes.
- Around the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre you find many agencies offering tours in the mines, usually in Spanish or English. I went with Intrepid. Jonny Salas is a bit of a macho (on his business card, it says “single and looking for a fiancée”), but the tour was professionally organized and he did not get tired of answering all my questions. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone+591-2-6230523. Address: Chuquisaca 460.
- Jonny also runs the Hostal La Casona which is centrally located. It is in one of the old Spanish houses with a beautiful courtyard and balconies. Very cozy.
- It’s not too hard to walk up to the top of Cerro Rico (4,800 meters). I will publish a separate article on this if anyone asks for it.
- The most important museum in Potosí is Casa de la Moneda, the former mint. And then there are dozens of churches and convents that you can visit.
- The most romantic way to get to Potosí is by train from Sucre.
- Of course there are also buses from/to Sucre, Oruru, Uyuni and La Paz, running almost every couple of minutes. The bus terminal in Potosí is outside of the city, but from the rear exit you can take local buses into the center.
- Potosí also has an airport, from where you can fly to Cochabamba or Santa Cruz with BoA. Because there are flights from 40 EUR on that will save you a whole day on a blustering bus, this is particularly useful for travelers with little time.