In the Hell of Potosi’s Mines

Potosi, your name means wealth and exuberance. Potosi, your name means suffering, hardship, and death. Behind tiny colorful streets, glorious colonial buildings appear, letting us wonder about the greatness and importance of this town back in the colonial time. Potosi lies at the base of the Cerro Rico, mountain whose silver sources used to seem infinite to supply the needs of the greedy Spanish Kingdom. Potosi, you saw wealth, you saw suffering, you saw death, and you keep going in this painful path in the hope of exploiting the last tiny bit of valuable metals that the Spaniards left you.

Cerro Rico: Hiding wealth and hell in its belly

Potosi’s miners say that they eat the mountain, and that the mountain eats them back. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves were exploited here for almost three centuries, 8 millions of them being swallowed by the mountain during that time. This forced Spain to look for men farther and farther away to supply the necessary workforce for their greedy exploitation. Letting these men live instead of working them to death was probably too much of an effort for their shameless mind. These courageous and hardworking men sometimes stayed four months in a row in the mine without seeing sunlight. Their only relief being found by chewing coca leaves to have a bit energy and ease their pains.

Nowadays, the working conditions are not much better. We left for a visit of the mine during the national holiday of Corpus Christi. Our guides, full of humor, are former miners that had the rare chance to leave their work in the mines and work in tourism instead. They gave us all our equipment: trousers, jacket, helmet, and electric torchlight. After getting ready, we went to the miners market where all the material that they need to extract the precious metals is sold without any sort of control. That way, we can buy dynamite and its catalyst, so that it blows off even more strongly, for no more than 20 bolivianos, the equivalent of three US dollars. In general, tourists buy a little gift here for the miners that they will visit while they work: dynamite, coca leaves, cigarettes, or fruit juice. The coca leaves help the miner resist fatigue, pain, and hunger when they are under. They constantly chew coca leaves and cannot eat in the mine. Indeed, the toxic dust would accumulate on the food and make them sick.
We could still joke around then

After this, we went in a processing plant where the rocks full of precious metal are brought and sold by the miners to a private company. In the past, when the Spanish dominion was still present, almost pure silver was extracted from the mines. Today, the best you can hope to find is a rock containing about 15% of silver, no more. This company will be in charge of extracting the metals, silver in this case, and make a first raw processing of the extracted product. After this first basic processing, the extracted material is sold abroad, to Chile and Argentina where they will be processed with better technologies. The equipment here is very basic and the chemical product smell forces us to put our bandanas on. And yet, this is paradise here compared to what we will see in a few minutes…

The processing plant

When we arrived outside the mine, we found a few barracks where miners change themselves as well as a few old wagons rusting in the sun. The mountain does not look that terrible before we enter inside its belly. Lama blood splashed the whole entrance. The animal was sacrificed in order to protect miners from the mountain’s dangers. Inside, the sunlight disappears, quickly letting place to a shivering darkness. We walked a few minutes in a relatively spacious corridor even though the tall persons in the group still had to bend a bit to avoid constantly knocking their helmet off. This spacious luxury will be very short though. We entered a small gallery where we had to crawl on the floor to visit the Tio statue. Miners give gifts to the Tio, or Uncle in English, who is more or less the god of the hell. Miners give him coca leaves and cigarettes among others in order to calm his wrath when they enter his kingdom. The walls are yellow and the sulfur smell is obnoxious. The path is even made harder by the warmth that makes it difficult to breath. Inside the mine, we do not talk about accident or death. We do not whistle either; this is bad luck. Miners do not listen to music either; it would prevent them from hearing explosions or rocks falling. Everything is silence, sweat, and dust.

One of the entrances to hell
El Tio

We kept moving forward and climbed down one floor, barely holding to the slippery rocks, trying not to throw loose stones on the guys below. When we arrived at the bottom, we had to crawl again and met the first miners working today. Even though it is a national holiday, these men work hard this day, like almost everyday of their short life in fact. These men are brothers. Both started to work in the mines well before their majority. They extract rocks manually with a hammer and a chisel. Their father works with them and selects the rocks extracted by his sons. Later today, they will have to carry their findings to the surface, carrying no less than 50 kilograms on their backs. We already start to be tired and the bandanas that protect us from the dust make it very difficult to breath. We continued our way and went down two more floors where the galleries are slightly larger and where rail tracks allowed the miners to use wagons to carry their loads to the surface. They would still have to push the heavy wagons manually though. Here, we met a 55-year old father and his four sons. This man is the oldest man working in the mine. The youngest kid is 16 years old and has been working here for 4 years. Their work is physically challenging but the hardest part is the dust that they constantly inhale. Indeed, they do not wear bandanas as it prevents them from breathing. It was already hard for us to breath with these on while doing nothing, I cannot imagine how hard it would be when working the stones or carrying the rocks away.

When we reached the surface again, nobody wanted to laugh anymore. Every one of us received a true lesson of humility that many of our fellows back home would deserve from time to time. These miners have such hard and terrifying working and living conditions. Nevertheless, they are really proud of what they do and they deserve our admiration. Unfortunately, their conditions are not about to improve and the young miners’ sons will not get out of the mine soon. Indeed, miners in Potosi earn on average 4 or 5 times more money per month than the average salary of other professions in Potosi. Young kids do not see the interest in going to school or changing job whereas they can earn much more in the mines. Moreover, as miners work in cooperatives that they manage themselves, the government does nothing to improve their conditions. Miners are managed independently in small groups and chose the number of day per week that they work as well as the number of hours per day. Each group exploits a little part of the mines for which the cooperative gives them the right of exploitation. 7% of their earning goes to the cooperative and about 7% to the state in the form of taxes. Moreover, miners earn their daily bread based on what they find in the mines. If their sources get dry, their revenue gets dry as well. Even though the salaries are relatively high for the region, their working conditions and the high death rate does not make it an attractive activity. In general, silicosis would sweep away the miners before they reach 55 years old. Retirement being at 65 years old, it would be the wife and the family of the deceased miner that would receive the allocation.

Smiles are swept away and hearts are crying

We went back to our hostel after this life lesson. This was not an enjoyable trip and we were greatly shocked by what we witnessed. The youth of these miners was the hardest thing of all. However, we are glad that we made this visit for what it taught us. I would recommend to every person traveling in the region to do it if his or her health allows it. But it is only advisable to do it with an agency that gives back part of the benefice to the miners so that the voyeurism that we are guilty of would not be done in vain.


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About nbeuchat

I am currently traveling South America to discover its culture, landscapes, and fascinating people. I am passionate about photography, scuba-diving and dancing.

2 responses to “In the Hell of Potosi’s Mines”

  1. RB says :

    Magnifique description de ces mineurs et de leur vie.Content de revivre la suite de tes (vos) aventures.Papoune

  2. Anonymous says :

    Poignant témoignage Nicolas, on ne peut en effet que se sentir touchés par ce courage, cette leçon de "surviemaman

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