Although the silver is depleted, the Cerro Rico is still being mined for composito a mixture of tin, mercury and other metals. Miners are organized in collectivos, i.e. they get together and work the mine as (in a way) entrepreneurs. This, however, happens with primitive technology: dynamite, pneumatic hammers (sometimes) and most commonly manpower. Many miners start working at the age of ~12, but do not live past 35 because of Silicosis, a lung infection caused by the excessive intake of dust that eventually destroys the lungs from the inside. Their fate is profoundly explored in the documentary ‘The Devil’s Miners‘ by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, which follows two pre-pubescent brothers working in the Potosi mines.
Although miners know that working in their mines will hasten their deaths they exhibit a certain pride in the fact that they are miners and that they are working for themselves. As I found out when I visited their mine, the most outstanding and breathtaking tourist attraction in Potosi. I explored an active shaft, saw the dynamite being planted and exploded, helped with drilling the dynamite holes and more. As this was not for the claustrophobic or faint hearted Michelle and I decided that I should have my boys’ adventure alone.
After getting our overalls, boots and hard hats, the tour started with the purchase of gifts for the miners: Bolivian whisky (98% alcohol), orange juice (to clear the throat after drinking the whisky), coca leaves (to numb hunger, thirst and fatigue), and gloves. Soon thereafter we drove to the entrance of the mine and descended down one of the many holes in the mountain.
The rest of the tour was indescribable; something one has to experience on his /her own. Walking hunched through the tunnels, experiencing the noise of oxygen pumps, the mud, the dust and everything else constitutes an attack on the senses that most of us in the developed world rarely experience. Seeing the miners work with techniques that have been in use for 100 years or more is unbelievable.
The tour is extremely immersive as tourist barriers or safety nets do not exist. Warped wooden planks are used as bridges over gaping holes that stretch into an indefinable darkness. Self-made ladders resembling those kids might make to access a tree house are standard, but only for a quarter of the way, for the rest you have to climb a rope. And every now and then you hear and feel the distant bass thump of a dynamite explosion, 5000 of which occur within the mountain every day.
Miners sometimes put in shifts of 24h straight, in which they drill dynamite holes, fill them, explode the dynamite and take-out the composito mining carts, over and over again. The only way to survive this is alcohol and coca. All miners have a huge bubble on one of their cheeks, resembling some kind of terrible tumor. This is a bulk of coca leaves they suck on to suppress thirst, hunger and fatigue. Additionally, everybody is drinks alcohol on duty. We were also invited to partake in the consumption of Bolivian whisky whenever a group of miners took a break.
The highlight of the tour was actually drilling dynamite holes in a shaft using a pneumatic driller (an easy going 80kg heavy). Again the dust, noise and exertion cannot be described but have to be experienced. The only thing I can say is that we were absolutely exhausted after drilling 2 holes (which probably took us 15 minutes each), and now imagine that you have to do that day in, day out for several hours.
The tour closed with a visit to the Tio, who owns the Cerro Rico, this ‘devil’ is the invisible power that can take or spare lives when working in the mines. Consequently, all miners make sacrifices to the Tio and spill whisky on the ground every time they drink. This superstition is deeply rooted in the community and although they are Catholic, they believe that Jesus’s power does not extend underground beyond the mine entrance. This belief is comes from colonial times and was invented by the Spaniards who told indigenous people that they had to work otherwise the Dio would get them. Since in Quecha, the local language, no sound for ‘d’ exists the Dio became Tio.
As a teenager I had heard of the infamous mines of Potosi, where indigenous and African slaves were used to exploit silver for the Spanish crown. Being in Bolivia I convinced Michelle to seize the opportunity to visit this city.
Situated at around 4100m above sea level, Potosi is the highest city on earth, and thus it literally takes your breath away, due to the lack of oxygen. Despite a gradual ascent through the Andes, we struggled to walk 1 km with our backpacks on when we arrived – what usually might have taken 15 minutes, took the better part of 30. Afterwards, we tried to make the most of the remaining sunshine but had to retire to a restaurant to have food and catch our breath.
Although Potosi is not particularly large (~180.000 people), it has a rich history and beautiful colonial architecture as it was once one of the richest cities in the world. This wealth stemmed from the silver the Spaniards extracted from the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) after colonizing this region. During 1556-1783 a total of 41.000 tons of silver were extracted in Potosi alone. Thus it became a magnet for adventurers, New World aristocrats, and artists, all seeking to benefit from the riches of Potosi and its population swelled to more than 200.000 (comparable to the size of London at that time). The fact that a whooping 86 churches were built in that period is another sign of that wealth.
By 1825 the silver was almost depleted and the population sank to a mere 10.000. In a way Potosi could be compared to places like Dubai, or Qatar, that achieved extreme riches because of a natural resource, and thus became a magnet for people from all over the world, but eventually faced the threat of obscurity once the resource was depleted. The only hope of the UAE and states like it is to successfully reinvent itself.
Another breathtaking site and hint of former wealth in Potosi is the Casa Nacional de la Moneda. Praised by the Lonely Planet as “being worth its weight in silver”, it is housed in one the largest colonial buildings in Bolivia, and was formerly used as a mint.
It displays colonial art, silver coins and silverware, as well as the different technologies used to process silver. Two coins displayed in the museum are from a galleon, the Nuestra Senore de Atocha, that sank off the coast of Florida in the US en route to Spain in 1622 and was discovered by the Americans in 1985. It was filled with silver bars and coins worth 440 million USD. Unfortunately, Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, only received a meager ‘donation’ of two coins, both of which are now on display in the museum.
This silver has another even darker side: The suffering and deaths of the indigenous and black African slaves used to extract the silver from the mines of Potosi. Spaniards never actually entered the mines, or got their hands dirty, instead they used a system of forced labour called mita, in which Indigenas were forced to ‘donate’ two months of the year to work in the mines. Sometimes these two months turned into four or six months, or as long as one survived. Forced to work shifts of 16h hours, with nothing but their bare hands, or primitive tools, some did not see daylight for days and most did not survive long. An estimated 8 million people are thought to have died in the mines of Potosi; the primitive conditions, use of child labor and deaths continue to this day.