Potosí is a famous mining town that dates back to the 16th century. There have been hundreds of books, features and news articles about Potosi and its famous Cerro Rico or “Rich Mountain” because of its importance to the city’s economy, its poor working conditions and its fate in the upcoming years. The mountain once housed the largest silver bed in the world, but after nearly 480 years of being mined, Cerro Rico is now almost completely depleted of minerals. Even so, the mountain continues to be mined today by 15,000 miners and is still a large contributor to Potosi’s economy.
I took a mine tour through Cerro Rico to have a peak into life inside the mines. Milton, our tour guide and ex-miner, said experts project the mountain will only be able to be mined for 7 more years before its minerals are completely exploited. That’s assuming the mountain doesn’t collapse and sink in first from it’s countless holes and tunnels. He told us to imagine the mountain as a block of swiss cheese ridden with chinks. Milton didn’t give us a clear answer how Potosí plans to stimulate it’s economy after the mines are fully depleted.
The life expectancy of a miner is between 40-45 years old due to the inhalation of dust and long-term exposure to silica. Many miners don’t even make it to 40 years if an accident takes them first – crashes and collisions of mining carts, explosion mishaps, falling rocks, fights with mine robbers…. Milton said 14 miners still die each month in the “mountain that eats men.”
It’s grueling work. It’s extremely dangerous. It’s a dark and nightmarish lifestyle, but it’s also an unquestioned lifestyle dictated by fate and tradition. If your dad worked and died in the mines, you naturally work and die in the mines. There aren’t too many options in Potosi. For many families, if this line of work isn’t a responsibility, it’s simply a fact of life.
Many teens start to work when they are 15 or 16 years old. Miners work for upwards of 11 hours a day in complete darkness, only broken by the light of the their headlamps. They push carts weighing between 1-2 tons in and out of the mines. Sometimes they have to push a minimum of 16 or 17 carts a day depending on the Mining Cooperative they work for. If they aren’t pushing carts, they are shoveling and carrying rocks, drilling or exploding dynamite.
They don’t eat in the mines. Miners chew coca leaves to cut their appetites and boost their energy.
Milton brought us to a devil statue known as El Tio in Cerro Rico. Miners have created many devil statues over the years. By leaving offerings like alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes, they believe these statues will offer them protection and prosperity. The fact that El Tio has a huge erection is not a twisted joke. According to Milton, the mountain is female because it’s mother earth and the erection is meant to impregnate the mother earth so she can produce more minerals.
Before the tour, we went to the miner’s market to buy the miners presents. The most wanted and appreciated presents are bags of coca leaves, dynamite, liters of soda and water and cheap bottles of 96% alcohol. We bought multiples of all these things to gift to the workers.
The mine tour was one of the wildest, saddest, darkest things I have ever done in my life. If you read mine tour reviews online or in guidebooks like Lonely Planet, they explicitly say the safety standards are sub-par and you’re going in at your own risk. You have to sign a liability waiver as these are real working mines – it’s a very authentic, but dangerous tour. You have to duck through long tunnels, jump to the side or even run when miners speed through with carts… At one point, we climbed 30 meters up through a black, dank passageway with rocks falling beneath our feet. It’s physically demanding and exhausting as is, but it’s even more challenging due to extremely high altitude (over 4,000 meters above sea-level). I definitely was breathless throughout the several hour tour.
This is a video I took of the miners right before they blew up the dynamite. One guy was elected to tie rope around his body and be dropped down by his peers. After he placed the dynamite, he had 3 minutes to be lifted up out of the 15 meter hole before the explosion…