I came into Potosi on the overnight bus. It was dark and I could not see el Cerro Rico, the mineral rich mountain that Potosi depended on for survival. I found a room in a dusty inn and woke up early the next morning almost at the foot of the huge orange mountain and I walked into the city with it looming over me.
I found a tour company that offered guided excursions into the mines that honeycombed the mountain. I had plenty to pick from, they started popping up in the 80’s when the Bolivian government abandoned the mines after they stopped producing. After the government left, small collectives moved in to make a living picking up the scrapes. Cerro Rico has been mined for silver for hundreds of years but there isn’t much left anymore and collectives mostly drag out bits of tin, zinc, and lead.
After I signed the liability waivers a man took me around the back of the building to a warehouse where muddy gumboots, coveralls, and hardhats were lined up against a wall. He told me to get dressed and to wait for my tour guide. I put on the miner’s uniform and met the rest of the people in my group and when we were kitted up we got on a bus with our tour guide, Roberto.
Before we went to the mine Roberto stopped in the miner’s market and told us to pick up a few items as gifts for the workers. We bought coca leaves, jugs of pop, and doughy plugs of dynamite. A member of our group came out of a store with a plastic bottle of pure alcohol and Roberto pointed out that it was a Sunday and the miners would not be interested in it.
“The miners? Hell, this is for us.” He said and twisted off the lid. He poured a little bit into the cap and slugged it back.
“C’mon everyone. If everything I heard about this mine is true we’re going to need to be half-cut in order to make it.”
The man filled the cap again and passed it to me. The alcohol content was so high that by the time I brought the cap to my lips it was already half evaporated. I took the shot and almost threw up, the taste was so powerful that I wished I had a bottle of rubbing alcohol on hand as a chaser.
We took our purchases and got back on the bus and made our way to the entrance of the Candelabra mine. We stopped on a dusty pull out littered with plastic bags and followed a twin set of rail car tracks into the mountain. We walked to the entrance and were greeted with a breath of hot, sour air; like we were walking into the mouth of a predator.
As we went further into the mine the light behind us disappeared into a pinprick and we turned on the miner’s lights on our helmets. The tunnel got tighter and we are soon stooped over as we went deeper into the mountain. Roberto stopped at a cave carved into the side of the tunnel and we were introduced to El Tio, the horned god of the mine. He was a paper-mache effigy that looked like a cross between the devil and a satyr, complete with red skin, curly moustache, and foot long penis. He was covered in coca leaves, tobacco, and colourful strings of paper. Empty beer cans and bottles of pure alcohol were littered at his feet; offerings from the miners for safe passage and high quality minerals.
“We give him pura alcohol to get pura minerals back.” Roberto explained. “If someone doesn’t give El Tio something he might not let them leave the mine.”
With that in mind I placed a small bag of coca leaves by El Tio’s cloven hoof and we continued into the mountain. The air started getting hotter and thicker and soon it was like trying to breath through a blanket.
At some point during our trek we heard thundering coming down the tracks behind us and Roberto shouted, “Corre!” and sprinted down the tunnel. I don’t speak a lot of Spanish but I didn’t need to to understand what he was trying to get across. We sprinted after him with a heavy iron mine car hot on our trail, Roberto found a spot where the tunnel widened out and he flattened himself against it. He gestured for us to do the same and we all sucked in our stomachs as a mine car being pushed by two workers came barrelling down the tracks and almost took two inches off of everyone’s waistline.
We continued down and found ourselves in a cavern where two miners sat on rocks. It looked like they were having lunch but all they were doing was placing leaves of coca in their mouths and taking swigs of orange soda. Roberto pointed out that the miners don’t bring any food into the mines with them because dust coats it and makes them sick. Instead they eat coca leaves to dull the hunger. They do nothing to protect their lungs though and silicosis, the scarification of lungs from the inhalation of dust, is a real worry here and many miners don’t make it past forty.
Roberto tried to talk to the miners but they ignored us and we moved on. Deeper down we found two guys filling up a cart with rocks, the same cart that almost took us out a few minutes back. They were younger and seemed to be in much better spirits than their coworkers in the cavern. They welcomed the distraction and were happy to pose for pictures with the girls in our group and used the opportunity to rest their hands on their butts.
We continued on our way and approached a turn in the mineshaft with a deafening roar coming from around the corner, Roberto shouted to make himself heard over the cacophony.
“Is a drill team. They drill hole in rock to put the dynamite in. If you want to see drill team go look. But no stay long. There is much dust and is bad for your lungs.”
Most of our tour stayed put but a few of us went around the corner and down a series of ladders to see the drill team. Two men were pushing an enormous drill bit into the rock and the noise was so loud that I could barely think. Both men were covered in a fine white powder from the rocks they were drilling. They were down in a dark, hot hole that only God knows was how far from daylight and were breathing in air that was more mineral than oxygen. There wasn’t enough money in the world to get me to do that for a living and they were doing it for less than twenty dollars a day.
I had seen enough. I walked back to the tour and we got started on the hike up to the surface. The darkness, heat, and lack of air was starting to get to me and I felt like I was suffocating. I saw the beam of light from the entrance and I had to stop myself from running towards it,. When I finally emerged I took a moment with the rest of the group to enjoy being above ground and got back on the bus that would take us back to Potosi.
The Cerro Rico has been mined for silver since the middle of the sixteenth century and countless numbers of indigenous labourers have toiled under hellish conditions in the mine since then. It’s hard to wrap your head around, we were only in the mine for five hours but we were all exhausted. It was difficult to imagine being down there year after year. I leaned forward in my seat and asked Roberto if he had ever been a miner.
“Si, I start when I am young. Fifteen years. Sometime touristas get uncomfortable, they feel like they can not breathe. So I walk them outside so they not get lost. I talk to these people and learn English. After ten years I teach myself enough that I no longer have to work as miner. I now work as tour guide, much better for my life and my family. I am lucky. Most miners do not live to be old. I don’t go in mine very often, but I spend many years when I am younger. So maybe I still get sick. Who knows?” He shrugged.
“That’s awful.” I say.
“Si, very sad. But Potosi needs the mountain. Many people are working for the mine, and people working in the markets for miners and tourism. Without the mine we would have no Potosi, nothing to eat. We have a saying ‘we eat the mine, and the mine eats us.’ Very sad.”
I didn’t know what to say to that so I simply agreed and sat back in my seat and looked out the window. Outside, children hung around the entrance of the tunnel. Their hands were filthy as well as their knees where it looked like they had been kneeling on the ground and I wondered if they had been working. I felt a little sick about my voyeuristic tour of other peoples suffering and I was embarrassed for every time I complained about my job back home.
The Potosi mines supplied the Spanish Empire with it’s wealth. At one point giving up 60% of all silver produced in the sixteenth century. The mountain has been mined for over five hundred years and during this period it has been estimated that eight million people have died from cave-ins and occupational diseases. Today, the mines don’t produce as much minerals as they did but fifteen thousand people still work in them with about fourteen people dying every month.
Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan author, wrote that you could build a bridge to Madrid from all of the silver that was mined out of Potosi – and one back with the bones of those who died taking it out. He wrote those words almost fifty years ago. That was a long time and I wonder how far that bridge would stretch today.