The second stopping point I made in Bolivia was in Potosí, four hours’ drive along winding mountain roads from Uyuni. Founded in 1545, it is a small, relatively provincial city located an impressive 4070 metres above sea level.
Potosí has a beautiful central square surrounded by splendid colonial era buildings – including a cathedral and The National Mint (now a museum) – though away from the centre the ambience is less impressive. The edges of the city, apparently expanding rapidly, mostly appear to comprise reinforced concrete and red-brick utilitarian dwellings. In addition, the air is rather contaminated, due to a proliferation of aging city buses that belch out unsavoury clouds of black smoke. Although you wouldn’t think it now, the settlement was once the most prosperous in the whole of Latin America. The reason: Cerro Rico.
Translated as ‘rich hill’, this mountain once contained seemingly inexhaustible reserves of silver. When the Spanish discovered this, they founded the city and set about pressing thousands of indigenous workers, as well as many more African slaves, into service. They mined the silver relentlessly in some of the most appalling conditions imaginable and invariably lived short lives. The metal, which was sent back to Spain, was a considerable source of wealth for the empire for over 250 years by which time the reserves were virtually depleted.
Nowadays, mining continues to be a big business in Potosí. The mines are run as co-operatives, which means that the miners work for themselves and take home whatever they are able to extract. Each team of workers define their own area of the mine which is off-limits to everyone else. As there is no longer very much silver left, most of what is harvested from within the mountain is tin, lead or zinc.
As I learned more about Potosí in the days leading up to my arrival, I became increasingly keen to take part in an organised mine tour. Claustrophobia was never a concern for me, but I did fantasise about the mine collapsing while I was in it, something that happened in Chile some years ago leaving 33 men (affectionately known in Spanish as Los 33) trapped underground. Eventually, I decided that the chances of anything untoward happening were extremely remote, the oldest parts of the mine having been there for centuries and my foray inside being for only an hour or two. I was determined to explore.
So on the morning of my first full day in Potosí, I set off for the tour company office with a new Australian friend called Aaron. He was very hesitant to go into the mines, but between me and one of the tour guides that we spoke with the night before, we managed to convince him that it would be a worthwhile experience. From the office, a rattly old minibus took us and the other tourists to our first stop: the miner’s market.
Here, workers typically visit in the morning to purchase tools (dynamite, gloves, pickaxes, etc.) and food and drink. We were advised by one of the guides that we could buy gifts here to give to the miners once inside. His actual wording was, ‘it’s not obligatory but it is a bit necessary’; I found this contradiction rather amusing. I bought a bag of coca leaves (which all miners seem to be addicted to chewing on) and a pair of protective gloves.
At the next stop we were kitted out in full protective gear. This comprised overalls, Wellington boots and a hard hat with integrated headlamp. Curiously, the battery for the light was attached to a belt that we wore round our waists – perhaps it was too large, heavy or fragile to fit onto the helmet itself.
After a short visit to a smelter to see how the ore is processed (and where I nearly stepped on a fragile plastic pipe carrying noxious metallic liquids – oops), we were driven up the mountain where we arrived at the entrance of the mine itself. This was the big moment.
The six of us followed our Bolivian guide inside the opening. The twisting passageway was narrow and very low, but fortunately it opened up into a roomier cavern just as soon as daylight had completely disappeared. Here we encountered our first miner, who was hurriedly carting a wheelbarrow full of rocks out to the entrance. We were asked to move out of the way as he scuttled past.
The subsequent passageway was relatively large and propped up by wooden supports. Still, we had to be careful to avoid random holes and shafts that we could fall into (insert obligatory anglophile joke about lack of health and safety precautions). As we walked, I noticed we were tracing the route of a network of large pipes that gave off a high-pitched whining noise. It turned out that these were air pipes, which delivered pressure to pneumatic drills further inside the mountain.
Meeting a couple more miners – who communicate with each other in Quechua rather than Spanish – we were informed that there would shortly be a series of nearby dynamite detonations. This definitely got us on our toes!
We were lead into a quiet cavernous corner of the mine which was relatively safe from the dangers of falling rocks. Next to us as we sat down was an ominous looking ceramic figurine with horns, marbles for eyes and a large penis(!), lavished with multiple offerings of coca leaves and confetti. Empty beer cans littered the floor around him, and cigarettes had been placed in his mouth and lit. As the mines are hot and rather hellish underground environments, many miners conclude that they must be close to the devil, and that the metals they mine belong to him. Offerings are left at his shrine, therefore, in order to appease him so that they might avoid accidents – and, of course, strike it lucky in their hunt for precious metals. He is referred to as Tío (‘Uncle’) or Supay – but never as Diablo.
Our guide explained the customs and beliefs of the miners, after which he proceeded to pass round a small bottle of 97% rubbing alcohol. Following his suggestion, we each poured a few drops on the ground, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth), before taking a small swig. As you can imagine, it is extremely nasty stuff to be imbibing, but nevertheless one must respect a miners’ tradition. Finally, we were told that we could ask Tío for a wish. Many of the miners ask for more girlfriends; a lot of them already have half a dozen, or so they claim!
There came some shouting, in Quechua, from another part of the mine. It was to warn us that the detonations were about to begin. The seven of us remained quiet, and waited with nervous excitement.
The explosion shook the mine with a deep and vigorous thud that permeated every atom around us.
I likened it to being in the vicinity of a warzone, something I’ve fortunately never experienced.
And so the detonations continued for a minute or so more. It was a visceral and humbling experience that I suppose brought our little group closer together, in a primal sort of way. At last, another shout from a distant part of the mine indicated that the detonations were over, and we could now relax.
We left Tío’s shrine and continued exploring the mine further, passing through narrow passageways and climbing rickety ladders; the smell of dynamite wafted through the air. We came across more miners, one of whom was completely covered in white dust; he had been using a pneumatic drill. I was glad to see that he was wearing a respiratory mask, but I think he was the only one.
The miners didn’t seem to express too much gratitude upon receiving their gifts, or for that matter really very much of anything at all. Our guide later explained that they become reserved around us Gringo tourists, and spending a large proportion of their lives underground, are often in awe of how different we look from local people. We must take into account, too, that Bolivians are generally very introverted from a cultural perspective. However, the miners are apparently rather gregarious between one another when tourists aren’t around, giving each other rude nicknames. Our guide, also a miner, reluctantly told us that he had been christened the Quechuan equivalent of ‘donkey fucker’.
These sort of jokes assist with keeping up morale. A miners’ life often begins in early adolescence and is one of hellish and relentless toil; conditions have hardly changed since colonial times. Miners typically work for 10-15 years before becoming afflicted with silicosis pneumonia, a result of continuous exposure to asbestos and other noxious gases, eventually leading to death. Staying in good spirits is therefore of the utmost importance, and we were advised several times beforehand that we should enter the mines with a positive disposition.
A second series of detonations, some more shimmying around narrow passageways, and a pause at another shrine followed. After this time, we were lead back outside for a little debrief and the chance to ask any final questions.
Entering the mines in Potosí was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience that offered a glimpse into a totally different way of life from what I am familiar with. My lengthy write-up is surely testament to the richness of the tour. Even Aaron admitted that his earlier fears were mostly in his head, and that he too had enjoyed the experience.