Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia
After spending a relaxing week in Sucre, Potosi was a bit of a rude awakening. Sucre is one of the wealthiest cities in Bolivia, and at a low elevation boasts beautiful warm days and comfortable cool nights. On the other hand, Potosi is the world’s highest city at 4,060 m (13,300 ft), so is frigidly cold, and also is home to some of the grimmest mines in the world. Potosi was once the largest and wealthiest city in South America because of its rich silver mines that were fully exploited by the Spanish. Up to 8 million people, mainly indigenous and African slave laborers, died in the mines at the hands of the Spanish. One of the tools the Spanish used against their Quechua speaking slaves was to threaten vengeance from their god, ‘Dios’ in Spanish, if the slaves didn’t work hard enough. The Quechua language lacks the letter ‘d’, so ‘Dios’ became ‘Tio.’ The silver is now depleted from the mine and Potosi’s colonial architecture is crumbling away, but miners continue to work the mines for less valuable minerals in dangerous and extremely difficult conditions. Like their distant descendants, they still ask Tio for compassion, safety, and wealth.
Dynamite, ammonium nitrate, and a fuse
Mine tours in Potosi try to show a slice of the miner’s life, and after 3 hours I was fully convinced I would last less than a day in the mines. We first visited the miner’s market to buy presents for the miners. Shelves stacked floor to ceiling were brimming with sticks of dynamite, bags of ammonium nitrate, and fuses. Our enthusiastic guide, formerly a miner, demonstrated a fuse to us in the store. We nervously watched as he waved the sparking wire around what seemed to us a huge bomb of a store. After purchasing these lethal bomb-making ingredients, we headed to a nearby stand to buy coca leaves, 190 proof alcohol, and cigarettes. All of these would be distributed to any miners we met during our tour. As the miners do not eat in the mines and sometimes spend 24 hours straight underground, they go through bags of coca leaves a day, which they use as an appetite suppressant and energy booster.
We then drove to a mine entrance and entered on foot. The snaking tunnels were barely 5 feet tall in many sections and filled with water and dust. We climbed rickety ladders and crawled through narrow sections to descend into the mine. Chris helped shovel minerals into huge carts the miners push by hand down rusty rails. We also sat in the tunnels with some miners for half an hour to share alcohol, chew coca leaves, and learn more about their lives in the mines. We emerged from the mines after 2 hours exhausted, filthy, and choking on dust. As a special treat to conclude the tour our guide blew up a stick of dynamite outside the mine. That people can spend much of their (often short) working lives in these mines is really beyond belief. A hot shower and big lunch later we still felt so tired we spent the afternoon napping and reading in our hostel rather than visiting any of the local museums or churches. We head next to the salt flats of Uyuni to experience another harsh yet more beautiful location in Bolivia.