The massive Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”) dominates the skyline of Potosi. It is an incredible source of mineral wealth, and it has been mined since the mid-16th century. There are massive deposits of silver, tin, zinc and more within the hill. Around 14,000 miners work daily in the hill, which has about 500 entrances.
The mining groups are split up into cooperatives, some being very small outfits of around fifty people and some being very large with multiple hundreds of members. Each cooperative works in a certain area of the mine and the profits from the ore they extract are theirs to distribute as they wish.
The life expectancy of a Bolivian male is about sixty years, but only forty-five for miners. An average of fourteen miners die in the mines each month. The statistics are not surprising after seeing the working conditions and where they were willing to let tourists go!
The trip started when we were outfitted in our gear. We paid a couple of bucks for scarves to act as makeshift filters in the mine — there are lots of noxious gases, dust, and particles that obviously aren’t great for the lungs. Sandra and I opted for the “Tio” version — he’s the god of the miners. Mostly we liked it because of the brilliant placement of Tio’s privates. Why choose a scarf that had a map of the mine on it when this one’s on offer?!
After getting kitted out, we visited a small shop where we could purchase gifts for the miners. Juices, beers, coca leaves, dynamite, respirators, and many other items were available for sale. We were shown a drinking ritual in which offerings were made to Tio for safety, health, and riches before imbibing the “Ceibo” alcohol popular among miners. It’s 96% alcohol, and the tagline is simply “Alcohol Potable”. Buy this alcohol! It’s technically drinkable! We exited the shop when our guide started holding lit matches up to a fuse leading to a real stick of dynamite.
Next up we hit the refinery where the ore is crushed and treated with various chemicals and process to extract the valuable minerals. A whole bunch of cyanide is involved, and we got our first glimpse of the lack of safety involved in these tours. We’re just kind of wandering around a refinery with massive iron tubs rotating at high speed to crush rock, ducking under heads under moving cables and belts and casually examining cyanide baths.
Our guide showed us how the silver is gradually skimmed at 80% purity from the solution, and he painted nice little designs on our hands.
Now it was time to enter the mines! We visited the Caracoles section of the mine. As we were about to enter, a group came out with a cart full of rock. Given the poor quality of the tracks in the mine, the cart skipped out and they had to relocate it using a large piece of wood as a lever. The cart weights about two tons.
Upon walking into the mine, it wasn’t long before we were asked to step aside because a group was literally riding one of these two ton mine carts in the opposite direction. This tour is not for people who are bad at following instructions.
We visited with different miner groups and chatted with them about how long they’d been working there and at what age they started. Many had been working in the mines for 10 years and were now at the ripe old age of 25.
We descended deeper into the mine to visit a working area. This involved us descending ladders that went down about 30 metres. The first ladder had rungs. The second ladder didn’t. So you’re just kind of grabbing into the two ladder sides and trying to walk down an incredibly steep slope. After reaching the bottom of the ladder set, we crossed some boards about a foot wide with multi-storey drops directly below. Not for the faint of heart!
The workers don't eat in the mines, since the dust would cause stomach upset and also because then they would have to defecate. Feces produces potentially deadly methane gas and that's not safe when you’re frequently working with dynamite! They only drink liquids and chew coca leaves. For an entire day!
The miners were all very appreciative of the gifts we gave them. Just a bit of juice or beer can really lighten up their days. That being said, I got the impression that choosing to work in the mines is one big gamble. Everybody seems to be in it with the hope of striking it rich and starting their own cooperative. Although the conditions are very bad, it seems to be the miners themselves who are in control of their working hours and safety.
It was definitely an eye-opening experience for both of us!
Bonus picture shows the various haircuts I got to choose from when I got my locks snipped in Potosi. I chose the “Charly”.