Words On A Bolivian Mine Tour

The Domain of El Tío:
Steps into the Cerro Rico
of Potosí, Bolivia

Close your eyes and picture a mine. What do you see? Do you see the seven dwarves? Whistling while they work, gleefully hacking away with picks, loading their carts with shimmering gold nuggets? Or is it a less Disney-fied view, one with strong men in flannel sauntering into tunnels, lit by a string of lanterns, perhaps carrying a birdcage stocked with canaries? Is the shaft framed by beams thick as your waist, propped up in angular arches? Wide enough for two lanes of carts clickety-clacking up and down the tracks, with workers resting off to the side smoking a corn-cob pipe or eating the sandwich their wives made for them that morning? Are the workers old and bearded, wizened and strengthened by years of manual labor and earthy simplicity? Can you picture it?

I can’t imagine anyone picturing what we saw and experienced this morning as we toured a mine on Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. First, a little history:

In 1545, while chasing an escaped llama, the Indian Huallpa spent the night on the mountain. By the light of his bonfire, he saw a shining, white stripe in the earth — pure silver. This discovery would draw the Spanish to Potosí with almost unprecedented fervor. In the following centuries, Potosí would grow to one of the most important positions in Europe; the bankroll of empires. 28 years after the discovery of silver, Potosí had grown larger in population than Madrid, Rome, and Paris. It was also among the world’s richest cities: it is said that the horses and mules were shod with silver because of its abundance and the difficulty of importing iron. By the mid-1600’s Potosí had over 80 decadent churches, 36 gambling houses, 14 dance academies, and brothels run and staffed by 120 famous prostitutes. Great writers and artists travelled to see the mountain that was bursting with riches, and the Holy Roman Emperor declared it an Imperial City, presenting it with a shield inscribed, “I am Potosí, treasure of the world, king of the mountains, envy of kings.” The mines are held to be among the richest in history, and it is estimated that as much as 60,000 tons of pure silver have been extracted since Huallpa’s fateful discovery. The grueling work was done under the whip of the Spanish on the backs of indigenous laborers and African slaves, with between two and eight million of them estimated to have perished during the three centuries of Spanish rule.

Cerro Rico towering over Potosí. Photo Credit: For Ninety One Days, Fineartamerica.com

But you’ve never heard of Potosí, and most likely didn’t even know that Bolivia was once a major silver-producing country. Once the silver production tapered off and the Spanish took the last of the wealth back across the Atlantic, Potosí’s collapse was rapid and devastating. During the independence era, the Potosí area alone had a population greater than all of what is now Argentina. A century and a half later, the population of all of Bolivia had plummeted to less than one-sixth of Argentina’s. Bolivia is now among the world’s most impoverished countries, with its GDP sitting at 130th on the 2013 United Nations ranking. Over 15,000 men and boys are estimated to work in the Cerro Rico today, making between $2 and $40 per day with minimal or no benefits. The two-meter-thick veins of perfect silver are centuries gone, the Spanish having taken every ounce, even sweeping the deposits out with brooms. Today’s targets are zinc, tin, and silver mixtures that sell for low prices, primarily in domestic markets. Potosí, raped and ravaged during the colonial era, was tossed aside, bruised and reeling, left with no options but to continue the cheap trade of its own flesh.

We departed on our $15, five-hour tour at 8:30am. The first step was to be outfitted in full miner gear. Given that I am not Bolivian-sized, this was a struggle. My rubber boots were a little narrow, my jacket, once zipped up, looked like heavy spandex and fell short of my waist, and my belt required a screw-punched hole. The rubberized pants we wore restricted all of our movement, and the discomfort and weight of the ensemble required a little heavier breathing — difficult at 14,000 feet of elevation. Once dressed, my wife and I, and the Danish couple that joined us on the tour clomped our way to the bus, with our guide, Johnny, leading the way.

On the way up the mountain, Johnny stopped at the mining market. We were encouraged (instructed) to buy gifts for the miners — bundles like easter baskets, composed of 96% grain alcohol, dynamite, fuse, and detonators, or beer, coca leaves, ammonium nitrate, and orange juice. Johnny explained that the dynamite was “85% solid, not much liquid” and of “high quality, made in Bolivia, not Chilean or Peruvian-made shit-dynamite.” He demonstrated its high quality by proceeding to hold the flame of his lighter to the end of the stick like a cigar, causing the four of us to squirm and our Danish companion to shout the English F-word in horror. Johnny smirked — it wasn’t the first time he’d gotten that reaction.

We arrived at the mine at 9:30am, and the area was already buzzing with activity. Carts came racing out of the opening heaped with nondescript gray mineral, which was dumped down slopes sectioned off for each of the teams working that mine. I learned from another guide that the workers are paid by contract — ten cartloads from a certain section of the mine pays amount, divided by the three workers who share the contract. The guide explained that the contract value is determined by the harvest’s distance into the mine. A target area at 1000 meters of depth would generally pay around 600 Bolivianos. That’s a full day’s work for roughly $30 USD per person. Mineworkers try their best to save as they go, because after four or five years of work they’re eligible to become partners in the cooperative, operating a section of the mine, dishing out contracts to other small teams of workers, and directing traffic and operations inside rather than having to load and push the massive carts. But the buy-in is about $600 USD, a formidable sum that can take several additional years to achieve.

Every single worker, without exception as far as I saw, was chewing coca leaves. The leaves are said to help with nausea, altitude sickness, hunger, and fatigue. The workers can urinate down below, but not defecate, so they cannot eat during their shift. The coca leaves alleviate their hunger and give them the needed energy to work long shifts. The workers all had golf-ball-sized pooches in one cheek, frequently pulling out a green cellophane bag to sneak in a few more leaves. We all tried it, and the taste is definitely an acquired one. I tucked in and chewed five or six leaves before my stomach turned and I could do no more. I imagine the crop is fertilized with manure because the taste is very… biological.

The immediate entrance to the mine was large enough for me to stand up straight, but within a few feet I had to stoop over a bit for my head to clear the beams. Speaking of the beams, they weren’t the thick, uniform, manufactured railroad ties I imagined. They were quite clearly limbs of trees, generally as thick as my calf, some halved length-wise. Ominously, every once in a while we would pass one that had buckled and broken right in the center, resting in a v-shaped protrusion that forced you to squat further to clear your head underneath. The earth around us wasn’t stone, but dirt. An elbow or knee, bumping into the side wall during the hustle, would knock off softball-sized chunks — simply horrifying.

After a short walk in, Johnny led us into a small pocket off to the side of the main tunnel. In front of us sat a devil sculpted from dirt. He had horns, silver eyes, and an open mouth in which sat three half-burned cigarettes. He was strewn with coca leaves, beer cans, and burned butts; offerings made to this devil of the mines. Johnny explained that in colonial times, indigenous workers had revolted against their Spanish masters, refusing to work in the mines any longer. Preying on the polytheistic nature of the native beliefs, the Spanish invented a god — a Dios — of the mines. They told the natives that their souls would be eaten by this horned, furious god if they did not return to work. Since there is no letter d in the Quechua alphabet, the natives dubbed him El Tio. Now, every single one of the 200+ mine entrances on Cerro Rico has a sculpture of El Tio, the devil of the mines, and the miners make offerings to him every day upon entering. Those who die in accidents on Cerro Rico (about one per day) are assumed to have fallen behind on their offerings, or to have mocked El Tio. Interestingly, many of the miners are practicing Catholics in their lives outside the mine. But the God above is said to be powerless in the mines, where El Tio reigns with an unforgiving fist.

Johnny sprinkled coca leaves on El Tio’s head, asking that he protect us in the mines, then he anointed him with grain alcohol on the head (“that we may be smart and aware and protected from collapses”), on the hands (“that all the workers may have a good harvest”), and on the penis (“that we men may be strong tonight, and that our baby-making factories may be fruitful”). Fully aligned with the miners’ devil, we moved further deeper into the mountain.

The next section constricted considerably. The mine is built for the Bolivians, who hover around five to five-and-a-half feet tall. At six-foot-three, I had to stoop deeply, and still knocked my helmet off every fifty feet or so. We clomped clumsily through six inches of water, anxiously trying to keep our helmet lights forward while ducking under the ceiling of varying height. Tighter and tighter the tunnel closed in — down in a full squat now, duck-walking, trying not to tip over against the wall. I wondered how the lumbering carts could make it through — they must just graze the upper beams. My thighs burned and my lungs gasped for the air that was desperately thinned by altitude and the depth of the tunnel. At last I saw Johnny ahead, standing straight up, in a room that had opened. We scrambled the last few feet to join him, standing and stretching out, relieved.

“You are okay? Bien?” he asked, his coca-coated teeth showing as he grinned hopefully. Neither my wife nor I answered, both wondering ourselves. We pulled in air hungrily but to little avail, wondering whether it was possible to catch one’s breath in such conditions. I asked Johnny what it was like from here forward: does it open up soon? Is this the worst of it? “More tight than this, then opens, then tight again. Changes a lot. Want to give it a try?” Not feeling very encouraged, but wanting to push forward, I asked my wife if she wanted to go through one more section to see how it was. Wide-eyed and still gasping, she nodded, and we began again.

Right as we started, we heard the characteristic clack-clack-tack-tack of a mine cart coming toward us, accompanied by the warning shouts of its three escorts. Johnny had us shimmy to the side, and they hustled past. Loaded with hundreds of pounds of minerals and not equipped with brakes, one would not want to be in the way of a loaded cart in full gallop. We hustled forward along the submerged tracks.

It immediately got tighter than it ever had been. I tried to squat-walk but simply could not fit under the roof, and my helmet fell off into the water. When I pulled it up, the light didn’t rise with it. The lamp had fallen out of its seat on the helmet. I scrambled to follow the cord from my belt to the lamp, but knowing how small the clip was, I didn’t attempt to reattach it to my head. I held it in my hand and tried to step forward again. Once more my helmet crashed into the ceiling and fell back. I caught it and dropped to my knees. Jagged stones dug at my joints, but I tried to move forward. I fell into the wall and it crumbled under my weight. Johnny and the Danes were a good twenty feet ahead now, and I heard a gasp and heavy breathing behind me. I looked back to find my wife stopped, frozen, sobbing in the throes of an anxiety attack. Coming to her, I shouted ahead, “Johnny! Regresamos!” We’re going back.

Telling the Danes to wait, Johnny came back and immediately set to consoling my wife. The fierce aroma of the coca leaves he was chewing and grain alcohol he’d been sipping was almost a comfort — the rugged smell of confident experience. Johnny had been a miner for ten years (since he was thirteen years old) and a guide since his retirement. “You okay, don’t cry señorita. Is the same: American, Holland, Sweden, Chinese, Bolivian. Always people can’t go. You can’t go, you can’t go. Is okay. You okay, don’t cry.” His blackened, leathery hands smudged the tears from her cheeks, and he embraced her, and me. Leading us back to where we could see daylight, he told us to wait for him by the bus, he’d be back in an hour or so.

When they emerged at the end of the tour, the Danes looked shell-shocked. “It’s good you turned back. It got worse, much tighter” the woman said with a vacant, exhausted gaze, “we were like this” she went on, miming an army-crawl. “Barely fitting. Up, down, up down.” They explained that cascades of stone and dirt were more frequent deeper in, and the thundering noise of dynamite could be heard at varying distances, without warning. We asked if it was “nice,” the staple European-translated-English word for good, enjoyable, overall positive. They wavered — “the best, and the worst”.

I cannot think of a worse life than that lived by the slaves and indigenous laborers of colonial times on Cerro Rico. They are said to have worked twenty-hour shifts with a four-hour break between, never leaving the mines. Beyond the physical punishment, the chemical conditions were — and continue to be — torturous. Cyanide is secreted with the water deep underground, and asbestos is visible in the walls. Workers prefer acetylene headlamps because they will shut off in the presence of carbon monoxide, warning them to get out before asphyxiation. The primary killer of mine workers in Cerro Rico today is silicitis, the accumulation of silicone in the lungs. Their life expectancy is 40–45 years, and they die gasping, coughing up blood. Masks are only worn in the dustiest areas of active drilling and detonation, and even then their use is far from ubiquitous.

The peak of the mountain physically descends a few meters per year; the earth underneath porous with thousands of tunnels that collapse and are reblasted day by day. I was told that mining is the only significant industry in Potosí, which foretells that it will not be slowing down soon. Legally, one must be eighteen years old to work in the mines, but the complete lack of monitoring and the life-or-death necessity for family income means fourteen to sixteen-year-old workers are common, and ten to twelve-year-old assistant miners are not unheard-of. Chewing coca just like the most grizzled veteran, they make a few dollars a day part-time and go to school when/if they can. For them and the other workers, Cerro Rico — Wealthy Hill — is now a misnomer. More appropriate may be the colloquial name derived from colonial-era Quechua: La montaña que come hombres vivos — the mountain that eats men alive.


The author recommends the Bolivian documentary film El Minero del Diablo (The Devil’s Miner), and the seminal nonfiction book Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, from which most of the facts and statistics, and some of the anecdotes in this essay are drawn.

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