“I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of mountains, envy of kings” – First coat of arms of Potosi, 1547
“There are those who, having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of colour, grinding their teeth and unable to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the horrors that are in there.” – Bartolomé Arzans de Orsua, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, 1703
Set among the barren, windswept mountains of southern Bolivia, at over 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, and possibly Bolivia’s most fascinating (and maybe saddest) place. The architecturally-rich town, with its cathedrals and churches, owes its entire existence to the nearby mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill), once the most profitable silver mine on earth, and the source of most of the Spanish Empire’s fabulous wealth. Cerro Rico’s immense reserves of silver not only bankrolled Spain for centuries, it turned Potosí into the biggest city in the Americas, and the richest jewel in the Spanish Empire’s crown, with the expression “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) used to describe anything priceless.
Today, Potosí is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a quiet town full of colonial architecture, with sunny days offset by freezing night-time temperatures (it’s one of the few towns I’ve stayed in where the hotels have heaters in the rooms – not that I’m complaining). But apart from the old buildings, the main reason I (and the rest of the tourists) am here is to take a tour into one of Cerro Rico’s mines, which are still operating after nearly 500 years.
At 8AM, I’m in the courtyard of my hostel, being briefed by our guide and trying on our gear (and being told that anyone with medical problems – especially claustrophobia, asthma, and other respiratory conditions – should not go into the mine). As we squeeze into our boots, don our overalls, and test our headlamps, the guide (a former miner) tells us the story of how a local Inca, searching for his escaped llama, stopped to build a fire on the mountain, a fire which grew so hot that the very earth beneath it started to melt, until a shiny liquid oozed from the ground. When the Spanish learned of the mountain’s treasures, they enslaved thousands of indigenous workers to hack the silver out of the mine, and smelt it on the mountain’s slopes. The silver would be carried to the Pacific coast by mule train, shipped to Panama City, ferried across the Panamanian isthmus by more mules, and then shipped to Spain. Miners would work 12 hour shifts, staying underground for weeks at a time. The work was incredibly dangerous, with many miners dying of accidents, mercury poisoning, and the lung disease silicosis (it’s estimated that from 1545 to 1845, eight million people perished); and eventually, Cerro Rico acquired its fearsome nickname – The Mountain That Eats Men.
As we trundle out of Potosí and up towards Cerro Rico (having all signed the disclaimer absolving the tour company from any responsibility for injury or death), our first stop is the miner’s market. Tourists are encouraged to buy the miners ‘essentials’, such as soft drinks, hand-rolled cigarettes, neat alcohol, bags of coca leaves, and, er, dynamite. These gifts are necessary to the miners, who have to pay for all their equipment and barely make enough money to survive. Especially the coca, as that’s what they chew constantly to ward off hunger and exhaustion and get them through the day.
At the foot of the mountain, its slopes stained red and yellow with chemicals and pockmarked by numerous mine openings, we disembark the bus and have a final safety briefing – which mostly consists of the guide giving everyone a ball of coca leaves to chew, a puff on the foul-tasting black-tobacco cigarettes, and a shot of the equally-awful raw alcohol, a lovely breakfast combo. A shot of the liquor is poured on to the ground, as an offering for the earth goddess Pachamama, and we’re off.
As soon as we go through the mine entrance, I realise this isn’t going to be a usual tour. The mine shafts are about four feet high (supported by weak-looking wooden beams that have probably been there since the Spanish times) – so I spend almost all of the next few hours bent over in a most uncomfortable position (no such problems for the locals – just like on the buses, while I’m hunched over, they have plenty of room). After over 400 years of mining, almost all of the silver is gone, and most of the tin and lead, too; and yet, the mine we visit (one of many honeycombing through the mountain) is buzzing with activity, with men scurrying about, carrying pickaxes, or pushing wheelbarrows, perhaps sustained by the thought of that lucky strike. Bent double, we stumble over the uneven rocky ground, or splash through muddy puddles, until we leave the sunlight behind and reach our first (and perhaps most important) stop – the ‘church’ of El Tío.
It’s not a church, of course, it’s just an open section of the passageway. And El Tío (the Uncle) isn’t God, or even a god – he’s clearly the Devil, judging from the pointy horns and demonic face. With his painted eyes, pointy beard, leering smile, and, er, erect phallus, El Tío is quite a sight. The miners are practicing Catholics above ground, but down here they worship El Tío, and consider him to be king of the underworld and owner of the precious metals, a fearsome diety to whom sacrifices must be made and homage paid if the miners are to stay safe and find rich deposits. El Tío is given regular libations of alcohol, and offerings of coca and lit cigarettes; and sure enough, our guide sticks a smoking fag in his mouth, and pours some booze on to the ground in front of him. When the first miners heard Spanish priests describe heaven and hell, they must’ve concluded that the mines were hell itself, so it’s not so strange that they ended up believing in El Tío, and now every mine has its own devil.
We continue on our way, and it isn’t long before everyone in the group is suffering – the cramped conditions, heat, humidity, and dust has everyone stumbling and coughing. And yet the Bolivian miners are working like Trojans in this unforgiving environment. I have a scarf wrapped around my face to cover my mouth, and the combination of the scarf and the hard hat is quite claustrophobic; plus, I’m constantly feeling as though I can’t breathe. But every time I pull down the scarf and take a big lungful of air, it’s thick with dust and poisonous gases, and I’m choking more than breathing. The whole experience is exhausting, possibly exacerbated by the fact that we’re two and half miles above sea level.
Every few minutes, we stop for a break, or to let miners pass us – they’re often pushing a cart full of rocks along the mine’s railway (and we all need to get our feet off the tracks, so we don’t get run over or derail the trolley). Some of the miners look awfully young (the guide tells us how Bolivia does have laws against child labour, but they’re often ignored, and there simply aren’t many other ways to earn a living in Potosí); and they’re all scrawny and sweaty from the exertion. I’m almost starting to think about how all this physical activity might make the miners fit, when the guide says that their average life expectancy is just 40 years, due mainly to the lung disease silicosis. Or the arsenic. Or the mercury. Or the cave-ins.
And yet they’re all surprisingly friendly and chatty, and seemingly happy for us to witness their endless toil. And in some cases, to join in on it. Whether it’s helping to right a fallen cart full of rocks, or throwing rocks on to a larger pile of rocks, or shovelling tiny rocks, the miners are always happy to chew their coca, drink their free fizzy pop, and laugh at the useless tourists. While we silently think about the gruelling work and appalling conditions, and wonder how anyone could do this horrific job for a day, let alone a decade.
The last stop of the tour is an unplanned (and mildly terrifying) one – a group of men are clearing up rocks that are piled up in the tunnel. The rocks have come down from some upper level, and we have to wait while more dynamiting goes on above us. Before anyone can say “Dynamite? Is that safe?”, there’s an enormous explosion that shakes the tunnel, stones and dust rain down on us, and everyone looks at each other in bewilderment and shock. As the miners clear up the fallen debris, the guide tells us it’s time to leave now, and we all enthusiastically agree.
Finally, after several hours in the underground hell, we emerge blinking into the bright Andean sunlight. The view of Potosí from up here is excellent, although the ambience is somewhat torpedoed by the sight (and fumes) of the all the ingenios, make-shift smelting plants set up on the mountain’s lower slopes, where more miners extract the precious metals from their ores, using mercury (which, along with other noxious chemicals, makes its way down the mountain and into the ground). Also outside are all the women workers – they’re not allowed inside the mines, because (according to local belief) that would invite jealousy from Mother Earth Pachamama. As a result, the ladies stay outside the mines, picking through the tailings, and gleaning small amounts of minerals that may otherwise have been missed. Many of them are widows, their husbands killed in the mines, and their children now risk their lives inside every day, too. Bolivian President Evo Morales won a historic third term in elections in 2014, promising to give the wealth of the land back to the people (and the IMF says Bolivia has reduced poverty and tripled per capita income since Morales has been in charge of South America’s poorest country). But for the poorest of the poor, living on Bolivia’s richest mountain, it seems they have yet to benefit.
In addition to all the well-know problems of mining here, another downside of all this underground activity is that the whole mountain is slowly collapsing, with sinkholes regularly appearing and fractures opening up overnight, and engineers fighting to avoid a complete collapse of the mines. But despite the instability, despite the hardships, despite the terrible pay, despite Cerro Rico’s terrifying history of misery and suffering, it’s still here. Desperation, the lack of any alternative employment (and maybe the lure of striking it lucky) all keep people coming to Bolivia’s man-eating mountain.