Potosi in Bolivia is one of the physically highest cities in the world. At an altitude of 13,420 life is hard enough just existing, but in this city the main industry is the continuation of a 450 year old tradition of attempting to earn a living by excavating the remaining metals from the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) behind the town.
Mining started here in the 1500’s with the Spanish conquest of South America. Between 1545 and 1824 approximately 8 million African and Quechua Indians died here in the service of supplying the Spanish with 40,000 tons of precious silver to be shipped back to the mainland. After the silver ran out in the 1800’s, the towns importance gradually declined, although a small amount of tin and zinc has been mined continuously ever since.
Today’s miners work in conditions little improved from that of their predecessors. Nowadays, zinc is the main metal produced here, and the poverty tourism industry is definitely alive and well.
With a bit of reservation and intense curiosity our group signed up for a tour of the Candaleria mine. Our guide was a former miner who couldn’t have been more than 23 or so, but acted and looked much older. Before we headed to the mines themselves, we were all issued vinyl jackets, pants, and helmets with ancient batteries and lights. LED technology hasn’t made it down here yet, and it wasn’t uncommon for these electrical lights to fail.
After getting kitted out, we headed to the miner’s market where it was explained to us that it was traditional to bring the miners gifts in exchange for their hospitality while underground. The store was a redneck’s dream come true! Shelves of dynamite, fuses, blasting caps, and ammonium nitrate were across from others holding sickly sweet soft drinks, “El Puro” which is the incredibly foul 96 percent alcohol rum, home made cigarettes, and of course the ubiquitous bags of coca leaves that act as a hunger suppressant and altitude medication for the workers. We bought lots of soft drinks, cigarettes and coca leaves to use as gifts, and I purchased a complete blasting kit consisting of a stick of dynamite, ammonium nitrate and a fuse for the price of about 17 Bolivianos (< $2.00) for playing with after the tour.
Once we got to the entrance of the mine itself, we switched on our headlamps and started the descent into the earth. The only illumination was that which we brought, and the only source of fresh air leaked out of the pipes carrying compressed air down to the workers below. We followed the manually operated trolley tracks down to the first level where we got our first look at “Tio”, the Bolivian representation of the devil. Despite being devout Christians on the surface, the miners believe that the devil rules the underworld, and thus must make sacrifices to him in order to ensure their safety. The statue that we saw had a penis that would make a porn star cry with envy; our guide poured alcohol on it and explained that it would help Tio fertilize the earth and produce higher quality ore for the miners.
Heading down to the second level the passages quickly got tighter as well as the air becoming hotter. We splashed through muddy water occasionally crawling on our hands and knees. The air was choked with dust but this was only a preview of how bad conditions would get. Our first stop was to talk to one miner who was working by himself, using the strategy to ensure he didn’t have to share his earnings with anyone. He was busy making a hole in the rock with a chisel and hammer that he’d later stuff with dynamite to try to follow the vein of zinc he was working. He told us that he could finish the hole in about four hours, and that while it wasn’t a great seam of zinc, it was all his and that made it worth something. We gave him some soda and he let us try swinging the hammer for a while…after two or three strokes everyone in our group was gasping for air and drenched with sweat. The miner just grinned and started banging away…he’s used to these interruptions, and probably thinks all westerners are soft.
The next few hours were mixed with interest in the workings of the mine, and horror that conditions like this are allowed to exist in modern times. Other high/low lights included crawling on our bellies through jagged tunnels, breathing a substance that seemed to be more dust than air, dodging rail cars and just chatting with our guide and the workers. Eventually we headed to the surface and all of us greedily inhaled the clean air of the real world.
Before we headed back to town our guide showed us how to set up the dynamite and fertilizer bomb I’d purchased earlier. He cut the fuse for an approximately three minute burn time, and we all took turns posing with the lit bomb…putting it on our heads, playing catch with it, etc. until the fuse was nearly finished. Our guide tossed it over the edge of a cliff and I was surprised at how big the eventual explosion was! It was a dumb thing to do, but a hell of a lot of fun!