The Potosí Mines: Working in the Bowels of Hell

Though deteriorating, Cerro Rico, or the Rich Hill still casts a majestic and impressive shadow over the equally deteriorating town of Potosí. At 4,050 meters above sea level Potosí is a small dusty mining town that curls-up around the mountain’s base like a dog whimpering at his master’s feet. Time has not been kind to either Cerro Rico or to Potosí and her inhabitants. The mountain, which funded the Spanish Empire – maybe even the continent of Europe during the 16th Century with its rich deposits of Sliver – now looks as if its been stripped down to its core; left weathered, exhausted, and spent.

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Potosí, which was once the largest city and the economic super-center of the New World also looks withered, hollowed, and neglected . . . the only remnants of the town’s former glory are evident in the crumbling and decaying facades of Colonial architecture scattered around the town’s main plaza. Nor have the people who live in work in Potosí been spared the ravages of time, most wander the city’s narrow streets with permanent lines of worry etched into their furrowed brows – their eyes occasionally shifting from the cobblestone streets furtively to the mountain looming above them. Some seem to regard it warmly, like an old friend, while others seem to look straight through the mountain as if it were a memory they wanted desperately to forget. Most, however, simply look as if their only concern is figuring out how they’ll make this month’s ends meet.

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Though the Spanish Conquistadores had their hearts set on gold, they happily pillaged Cerro Rico of its sliver. The African slaves and Quechua speaking natives, forced to work in the mines in unfathomable working conditions had another name for the Mountain: “The Mountain that eats men.” Stripped of Sliver, the descendents of the Quechua natives who worked for the Spanish Crown now retain ownership of the mines in the form of cooperatives and now work religiously to strip the mountain of tin, zinc, lead, and what little bit of sliver remains. The inhumane working conditions, however, have not changed.

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For most visitors, a visit to Potosí means signing-up for a tour to visit one of the many cooperatives working in the mines. While some may see the tour as a type of extreme adventure tourist sport, I couldn’t help but see it as exploitation and had decided long before reaching Potosí that visiting the mines wasn’t something that I was going to do. However, after a long conversation with an Australian girl who had visited the mines the day before said that if I really wanted to understand the working conditions the miners had to endure, than it was something I needed to experience for myself – coupled with the fact that some of the revenue from each tour went directly into the miner’s pocket forced me reconsider.

The next morning. I along with a Canadian, a German, and five young British twenty-some-things climbed in to a rusted out van and that creaked and moaned through the streets of Potosí headed for one of the cooperatives working in the bowels of Cerro Rico. Our guide, a former miner who had suffered a medical injury that left him unable to work in the mines, had been jovial – loudly teasing us and the driver suddenly seemed to withdraw and become more solemn has we drew closer to the base of the mountain. He rapidly de-steamed one coca leaf, and then another, shoving them into a large wad forming on the side of his cheek. Aware that I was watching, he smiled, “this is my breakfast.”

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Our first stop was a small street lined with shops known as the miners market. Our guide led us into one of the small cluttered shops and showed us all the things one could by, from 99% proof alcohol, headlamps, cigarettes, coca leaves, and dynamite – no permit needed. After our guide poured us all a cap full of rubbing alcohol, to toast to our good luck in the mines, he told us that it is common courtesy for each group to buy the miners a selection of gifts. We decided on two large bags of coca leaves and four liters of water.

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The words on the top of the waiver I signed, “Not for wimps or woosies!!!” flashes through my mind as we approach the small tunnel that seems to gape like an open mouth – a passage way that leads deep down into the earth – the entry into the mine. The guide asks if anyone is claustrophobic and looks slightly surprised when I timidly raise my hand. He tells us that we can all leave at any point that we feel uncomfortable, we just need to turn around and go back the way we came – that is until we rich the passage to the lower levels – that’s the point of no return. If we make it there, we’ll have to continue through the rest of the tour. I nod my head and try to sound overly optimistic the way any good American should. “I can do this,” I say, but not even I’m certain if I believe it.

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We are dressed in rubber boots, waterproof jackets, protective over pants, helmets with a hands-free electric lamp fastened on top, and a bandana to wrap around our mouths to help prevent breathing in the dust floating through the mine. It’s more protection than the workers wear because here the workers have to provide their own equipment and most can’t afford it. There are no worker’s rights. There are no safety standards. No signs with phone numbers asking you to report unsafe working conditions. Here the only rule is to work hard and try not to get hurt in process.

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As we enter the mines, the first thing I register is the smell and how difficult it is to breathe. The air is thick with a heavy dust that rises in thick cloud from the floor with every footstep – coating your mouth and nose. Not even ten feet in and I’m fighting my natural instinct to turn back. The next thing to register, aside from my head bumping the top of the tunnel every other step is the stifling heat that has begun to fill the tunnel, sweat starts to bead and drip from my forehead. My anxiety level is quickly rising and as we approach the first hole that we will have crawl through on our stomachs, I feel myself giving in to the terror of claustrophobia. I tell myself that for the workers, this is their normal commute. They do it everyday, only they are shouldering the burden of hoisting cumbersome equipment and heavy rocks strapped to their backs. I take a deep breath, fight back tears and crawl through the dirt and rocks.

Since we have entered the mines on Saturday there aren’t many workers. We do however come across a miner sitting alone in one of larger tunnels. He, like the British tourists, is also a young twenty-something. He says he is waiting on his brother to help move a huge iron cart filled with heavy rocks. He points to a part of the track on the ground that is broken, he can’t do it by himself he says and our group offers to help heave and push the cart to another part of the passage so that it can be hauled to the surface and sorted for anything that might have value. “His story is like many of the other miners,” the guide says. “He started work with his brother when they were young because their father worked in the mines and there aren’t really any other options.” The guide tells us how most men join the cooperatives young in hopes of saving enough money to buy a car so they can become taxi drivers, but in reality must work their whole lives down here.The young miner sits quietly in a corner as our guide asks him questions for our benefit. He’s eyes are red, his cheeks swollen with coca leaves. He looks exhausted. He looks like he’s been crying. Our guide tells us he has been working all night, and after this load, he and his brother will go home. I notice close to his feet an empty bottle of rubbing alcohol, and think that maybe he’s drunk. An effort to numb his brain and his senses – knowing that every breath he inhales knocks off a little bit more of his life. One of the British tourists blurts out, “but I thought you said they liked working here?” The question is left unanswered and hangs heavy in the air – like the dust.

His brother eventually crawls out of a tiny hole, gasping for air. He is surprised to see so many headlamps pointed in his direction and manages a smile, his teeth covered with bits of coca leaves. He is eager to get the cart to the surface so he answers the guides questions at quick clip and before long he and his brother take our gifts and hastily retreat into the darkness – the sound of the cart’s metal wheels echoing behind them.

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In total, we spent roughly three hours in the mines – it felt like a lifetime. As we emerge into the sun and rip off our bandanas and helmets – and gasp for air our guide gives us a round of high-fives. “I’ve never lost a tourist yet” he beams. The workers aren’t so lucky. Hundreds of men die each year from illness, toxic gas, or cave-ins. If they don’t die in the mines, most are guaranteed to develop chronic respiratory illness or cancer. Most don’t live past 50. I ask the guide how much longer he thinks the miners will be able to pull minerals from the mines – enough to still make a humble living. “Ten years or so,” he replies. It is a staggering thought – that in as little as ten years Potosí, or what’s left of it will become a ghost town and the 16,000 miners working here will be forced to move to other mines in Bolivia, Peru, or Chile.

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As we climb back into the rickety bus to return to our hostels, and the beginning of the rest of respective journeys, I think back on the crude sculpture of the devil the miner’s affectionately call Tio. He sits, alone in one of the darkest recesses, ruling over the honey combed tunnels that are carved deep into the mountain. He is covered with garland and offerings of coca leaves, empty beer and alcohol bottles, cigarettes and a tiny llama fetus laid at the bottom of his feet – a sacrifice for good luck – that the miners will find precious minerals and their lives will be spared so that they may live to work another day. I think of his crooked and toothless grin as the men scurry around him, working themselves to an early grave in hopes they might make enough to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. I think of their lives and how they are slaving away in a man-made hell on Earth and how there’s absolutely nothing that I can do to change it. My eyes glaze over as I watch the mountain recede into the rearview mirror. I’m intensely tired. My body is drained. I feel spent. All that’s left is an acrid taste in my mouth . . . the bitter taste of dust.

One response to “The Potosí Mines: Working in the Bowels of Hell

  1. Wonderful post although too sad to imagine peope earning their living this way. Kudos for being able to stay down – I couldn’t breathe just reading your post about scooting in on your belly!

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