Potosi and a mountain that eats men!

High in the Bolivian Andes sits El Cerro Rico, a mountain that captures the imagination. Sitting like a scarred monolith above Potosi, it has dictated the town’s fortunes for over five centuries and extracted a vast human toll in the process.

After a lovely few days in Sucre, a hassle free four hour journey deposited us in Potosi. The arrival bus terminal was a vast circular palace, strangely deserted like some remnant from more affluent days. Or perhaps more a sign of optimism regarding the town’s future.

I have to confess to once again not having done my research on Potosi. People had recommended spending only a day, talking of the famous mine tours, but dismissed it for longer stays on the grounds of ugliness and lack of interesting diversions. As we arrived, we saw low red brick buildings sprawled across the mountain sides: not conventionally attractive. Above looms El Cerro Rico, with its comparatively minuscule mining operations scattered around the base.

Our hostel (Hostel Eucalyptus) was close to the centre and also functioned as a tourist agency. We asked about the mine tour and then went off to think about it. Mines are claustrophobic, dusty, and dangerous and South American mines are high scoring on all counts. Alison ruled herself out immediately, so it was left for me to ponder.

Mountain that eats men

For sunset we climbed up to the roof terrace that afforded a direct view of the mountain and town and watched our sun slowly descend behind the mountains to the west, illuminating them waspish yellow, amber and fiery red in turn before ultimately cloaking them in the creeping cold darkness. Thin tracks of street-lights, stringy like christmas lights, zig-zagged up El Cerro Rico to the east. With the closing of the light, I signed up for the morning tour.

Potosi sits at 4000m and is the highest city in the world (apparently). During the day, the sun is close, the sky clear and it’s hot. But in shade or once night falls, the temperature plummets and it’s incredibly cold.

Potosi’s downtown is lively, surrounded by some old colonial buildings and churches; and during our visit the town square was cordoned off for renovation. A pedestrian street runs above the plaza, full of restaurants, food stalls and shops. The streets are full of teenagers, really buzzing in the evenings. There are some very hip, bohemian places to eat frequented by Gringos and locals alike. It seems a pretty reasonable place for a few days and we ate and drank well.

Potosi night view

I woke early, my thoughts running to the tour: I am a little claustrophobic; the release form I had to sign cited cave-ins as a possibility and the leading cause of miners deaths; noxious gases don’t sound nice; internet advice warned of a gung-ho and alcohol-fuelled attitude towards explosives….what the hell was I up to? Breakfast was a quiet, sober affair.

El Cerro Rico

Nine hardy souls were on the bus for the tour: myself, a young French couple, three Irish, a young Danish lass, a Californian lady and her Bolivian sister-in-law. First stop the kit warehouse: over-trousers, welly boots, jacket and’, finally, miner’s helmet with head-torch. The battery pack clipped onto a belt to complete the ensemble.

Trainee miners

Then a swift tour round a refining plant where silver ore is crushed, tested and the raw metals extracted. The 80% silver powder is shipped out in 40kg sacks for smelting in other countries. The city is dotted with such plants: small-scale industrial outfits staffed by grafters.

Refinery

Next the miner’s market to pick up some gifts for the miners. We started with a shot of 96% alcohol, tipping three times onto the ground for luck, health and wealth before downing the rest. Then we were given the option to purchase dynamite and soft drinks. Moving on, the chance to buy coca leaves and filter-less cigarettes. I settled for some explosives and coca leaves. Who wouldn’t want to own their own dynamite at some point, no matter how briefly…and cigarettes are unhealthy!

Dynamite..ee..ee

Onwards to the mine itself and a few fears were shared at the back of the bus. We wound slowly up the mountain and eventually stopped outside some adobe huts. The view from here and over the city was panoramic and gratifying. We split into two groups and entered the working area. Alongside the adobe huts, narrow gauge tracks held hand wagons, some on their sides. Two curved branches merged into a single track entering into a small hole in the side of the mountain. Milton, our guide and a former miner, gathered us together and in we went.

Panorama from the mine

Stooping in the cool tunnel we inched forwards. The walls were jagged, grey, dust covered. The correct height for a Bolivian miner, I was forced to stoop only being to stand fully infrequently. Wooden hoardings held the roof in place, and black two-inch pipes and long cables lined the tunnel sides. The black pipes for the compressed air to run the pneumatic drills, the electricity to run the ventilation fans deeper inside. Grey sticky fine dust everywhere.

Suddenly we were told to move into a shallow alcove at the track side. A roaring sound came from up ahead. Lights appeared in the gloom, a solitary miner ran past at high speed. Then the wagon, two tonnes of ore, dragged by one man and a rope with two pushing at the rear, all running at full tilt. Short, stooped low and sweating they passed. Then another and another. As they were gone towards the dwindling opening we continued, jumping aside again as the empty wagons came back at the same velocity in the opposite direction. When two sets of opposing carts were set to meet, the incoming carts were simply hauled onto their sides off the track to let the ore-laden carts pass without losing any speed. A few hundred metres in and two tourists lighter (quite a few drop out early) we turned into a quiet spur to the left and a hundred metres further on sat down on some rocks to rest and be educated.

The mine is actually hundreds of mines, all small concerns run by something like thirty nine co-operatives with concessions from the government. There are 500km of tunnels, hundreds of openings; some abandoned or collapsed, others active. A miner attached to a co-op has no benefits and is simply paid according to that week’s productivity: if they’ve hit ore they can be highly paid, if they’re unlucky it can be a pittance. After 5 years a miner can become an owner if he wishes. That means he takes control of a certain area, but is also expected to maintain the investment required to continue work. Only 30% of miners are owners and they have employment benefits.

There are two working models:

  • large groups of 15 or so miners using drills to make the holes for dynamite and blasting large sections. They blast everything and take the rock out without discrimination.
  • small groups of one to four guys. Over 2-3 hours, they chisel the 20 inch holes by hand with a cub hammer, rotating the chisel after each blow. They target the seams selectively for the high quality ore and use small explosions to dislodge 50kg sections of rock. Then they hammer the ore out of the fragments and carry it out in 50kg sacks, sometimes a few km.

Miners are superstitious. They worship the mine’s god/demon El Tio. Various statues of this monster are located in the shafts and tunnels adorned with cigarettes, alcohol and streamers. If El Tio is kept happy he may refrain from killing you, if he’s not that’s when bad shit happens. The first Friday and last Friday of each month are dedicated in part to appeasing El Tio with offerings of the 96% stuff, a healthy amount of which is consumed. Alcohol bottles litter the mine.

Women are not allowed to work in the mine. The Pachamama (Goddess Earth) gets jealous of them and hides the ore.

The miners don’t eat inside. They chew coca leaves at all times to give energy and combat hunger. Food gets covered in dust and causes stomach issues anyway. They’ll drink and pee inside but won’t defecate since excrement can rot to methane which is a little risky. They work from anywhere between two to twenty-four hours in a given day, decided by the co-operative.

There is no safety equipment bar helmets. Some use respirators, but in the altitude they make it harder to breathe so most go without. Some use a face cloth but the same applies, so most do not. The dust clogs their lungs, most will develop silicosis and the average life expectancy of a Potosi miner is around forty five. We met Oswald, around 39 years old, inside who’d been working twenty years. He’ll be dead in a few years. The guys half my age now (20 odd) will be dying as I turn 60.

So miners live fast and die young. They drink heavily, smoke heavily, can make lots of money or very little. They tend to father many children and some have multiple wives. Sixty percent of employed people in Potosi are related to the mine. 15,000 miners are inside at any time. Potosi is the mine, the mine is Potosi. You don’t see many old men in Potosi.

Beyond the certainty of an early demise, death can come at any point inside: cave-ins, accidents, gas explosions, noxious gases that can paralyse and suffocate you. I asked about the mortality rate inside the mine, but Milton wouldn’t tell us until we were outside.

 

 

Mid lecture, four miners arrived and disappeared into a narrow chute behind a wagon. Greeting them with the word Maestro, Milton asked them their ages: 17, 23, 20, 39.

Lecture over we continued along the tunnel. We came to a rock slide, disappearing into the ceiling a narrow slot at the top. Naturally, we climbed up the slide and disappeared crawling on our bellies inside. The shaft turned suddenly upwards at an angle, a board holding back the rock. We continued on, finally climbing up a nine-foot chute and into a small chamber: four feet wide by twenty long and twenty high. Like a gash cut into the mountain. I was first in and as I squeezed past one miner realised my exit was now blocked by one miner, a guide, two tour goers and forty feet of narrow shaft and tunnel, followed by a kilometre of tunnels. After the exertion I couldn’t breathe (altitude does that to you), the dust was thick, the walls strangely damp with a black dusty film. I felt hot and I began to panic, badly:

“Milton no me gusta, necessito a salir”.

He didn’t hear me. No option but to tough it out, listen as he babbled with the miners and get my shit together. It took a while: I introduced myself to the miner next to me: Freddy, 20, working in the mine two years. I shook his hand. Milton continued to babble and explain. Lorenzo, 35, and twenty years in was the boss. The two had worked together for a month. Before that Lorenzo was solo.

As I regained my breath, I calmed down slowly and almost stopped shaking. After an eternity it was time to leave and I was last out. As the French couple took an age to descend I waited with Lorenzo. Finally I shook his hand, thanked him and started the climb down, squeezing myself through the treacherous chute. As I hit the main tunnel, Milton asked if we wanted to see another small shaft:

“You can fuck right off with that plan”

we telepathically chorused.

 “No gracias, preferemos a salir”

we verbalised.

On the way back, we spent a few minutes with El Tio to the sound of distant drilling. As we hit the main shaft again, the traffic noise hit us and we resumed our routine of dashing a few yards before flattening ourselves against the wall. Gradually the pin-prick ahead became larger and we emerged into the light: happy, relieved, proud and not a little terrified.

Light at the end of the tunnel

 

Thirty two miners died in the mine last year, seven so far this year.

 

An Historical Perspective

Back in Potosi and on the roof terrace again, I couldn’t take my eyes off the mountain. After the tour it had a strange hold on me. So I did my research.

Responsible for the fortune of Potosi, the mine has been operating since the 1500s. One five oh ohs! Some of the wooden hoardings in the mine date from that period and are still in use. I wish I’d known that beforehand. Or maybe not.

The silver extracted helped fund Spain’s empire for many years and the quantity would apparently build a silver bridge from Potosi to Madrid. Now the mine is not hugely profitable; but it is all Potosi has so the miners never stop.

If the initials ‘PTSI’ for Potosi Silver overwrite one another – some say – this is the origin of the dollar sign.

The mountain is known as the mountain that eats men. Over 500 years it has apparently claimed the life of 8 million people. Yes, 8 million! In the early years, Inca slaves and slaves from Africa were used as expendable labour. African slaves replaced donkeys pulling carts since donkeys were expensive and died after a few months on the job. Much cheaper and easier to use people. Today the death rate is still large but not on the same scale. Given the average life expectancy and lack of action on safety, however, it still seems we view some people as expendable, even if we pay them now.

The mine is apparently at risk of massive collapse. Over the years the mountain has lost a few hundred feet in height, is a warren of tunnels and in some places massive sink-holes have appeared. The miners don’t want to stop for anyone though. They just carry on.

So how do I feel now? Humbled, hugely respectful of the miners and their lot, confused as to how people work there with prior knowledge of the impact on their health, grateful to have seen it, tainted because I am a tourist and real people work and die there, intrigued and horrified by the history… and a little fixated on the mountain that eats men.

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