I have traveled quite a bit over the years, 55 countries and counting. I think it is fair to say that I have seen some of the most beautiful and breathtaking spots on the planet. At the same time, I haven’t looked away when real life hit me and so I am no stranger to what extreme poverty means either. When people ask what my most extraordinary experience was so far, they usually expect me to describe the most paradisiac scenes. And while I could name endless of such heavenly places with snow white beaches on deserted islands, a very different one always pops up in my mind.
In late 2016, I was travelling from Panama to Brazil over a period of four months. Quite a short time for such a long distance, you might think. In 2009, I had studied for half a year in Buenos Aires and had taken a trip between Mexico and Costa Rica a couple years later. So finally my dream came true to close the gap and visit most of the remaining countries inbetween. Surprisingly, my most confronting experience was to take place at an unplanned stop just before I had envisioned to enjoy the final days of my adventure on the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
Let The Adventure Begin
Back to the start. I kicked off my trip in Bocas del Toro, Panama. My vague plan started with crossing by catamaran to Colombia and then moving on through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia before ending my journey in Brazil. I had only planned the most “important” stops along the way. For Bolivia that was Lake Titicaca and the breathtaking salt flats of Uyuni. However, the seemingly easy passage over to Rio de Janeiro turned out way more complicated than expected. So, I finally decided to take a flight from Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional captial in the south-cental part of the country. Since the bus trip from my previous stop was too long to take at once, the available connections via Potosí made the place the perfect stop to break up the journey.
So on December 3, I arrived at said place by overnight bus. It was a small town in the south of Bolivia. Though the area is generally frequented by backpackers, Potosí was situated rather off the beaten tourist track. The location at an altitude above 4000m makes the municipality one of the highest in the world. But if it wasn’t for Cerro Rico, the mountain “that eats men”, there wouldn’t be much to talk about in this otherwise inconspicuous place. It was something I came across as I searched for an accommodation. The few details I learned about the mines sounded like an interesting way to make use of my time there. So upon my arrival, I immediately booked a tour through the silver mines of Potosí for the next day.
What Was I Getting Myself Into?
After a cold night at our rather puritan accommodation, the day of the great adventure had come. A woman in her late 30s awaited us at the entrance of the hostel. She was a former miner herself and was clearly marked by the years of working in the mountain. Before taking off, we had to get our mining gear for protection, stocked in the hostel’s own storage.
Each of us received a thick, wide pants and jackets to cover our body from top to bottom. Our feet would be protected by firm rubber boots with metal inlay. A helmet with a lamp for the head and a neckerchief to cover our mouths and noses. It all started like a fun dress up that felt more like carnival preparations than what the experience actually ended up being. But it didn’t take long though until our giggles about how silly we looked in those outfits turned into quiet awe and disbelief.
It was now that I actually learned about the century-old historic background of the silver mine for the first time in real detail. I have to admit, it was one of the moments where I felt like an ignorant Westerner for never having heard about it. To be precise, the second time on my trip after I had witnessed the signing of the historical peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC in Cartagena that I hadn’t been aware of before. At the same time, these situations are interesting observations on how Western education and media coverage is extremely selective and often looks away from developing countries.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
The Turbulent History Of The Man-Eating Mountain
I am getting distracted again, so back to the tour and the unbelievable history of Cerro Rico. According to our guide’s narrative, it was the Incas that first made use of the immense deposits of precious metals inside the so-called “Rich Mountain” – and the same who started the infinite chain of cruelty. The Andean intruders suppressed the local native population to work for them in the mine as slaves. Though, still in relativey small numbers.
Later, when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, mining activities skyrocketed. After all, Cerro Rico was the perfect source to fund the tremendous financial needs of their empire. The Incas, previously oppressors themselves, were now forced to mine next to the enslaved Bolivians. Conditions were horrendous. And as laborers were dying off by the thousands, most from overexertion, an estimated 30,000 Africans were shipped to Bolivia as replenishment. Historical sources suggest that up to eight million slaves may have died during Spanish reign. A simply unimaginable number.
Yet, the downfall of Spain’s colonial empire did not really bring relief. With the industrialization came corporations that continued the exploitation in a modern, yet not less cruel way. Only when the mountain officially became too unstable and the risk of collapsing mine shafts was not justifiable anymore, companies pulled out from harvesting the precious goods on a large scale. From a Western perspective, this may sound like a victory for more humane conditions. However, that kind of thinking hardly applies in a place where decision-making between exposing oneself to horrendous danger and starvation is always a losing game.
The Present Is Still As Dark
Today, due to the lacking sources of income, still some 15,000 “mineros” enter the ruinous silver mines of Potosí every day in search of precious minerals. Quite frankly, after all these years, the former “rich” mountain hardly has any more treasures to give. Yet, in an impoverished region within one of the poorest countries in the world, mining stays pretty much the only option that people have. After all, not a lot has changed over the years, except that the workers’ fate is now even more in their own hands.
The mining companies’ exit has forced people to keep working on their own account. Small co-operatives have formed in which private miners collaborate in extracting and transporting the materials out of the mines. There, outside and safe from the risks, contractors of large companies await to purchase the commodities at low cost and ingest them into the industrial value-adding chain where the big money is made.
Just imagine if you could use x-rays to look into Cerro Rico. With thousands of miners working in there every day, for centuries, the mountain must be completely drilled through with shafts that form a gigantic subterranean maze. One that could make you sink into oblivion if you don’t know your way out by heart. However, that isn’t the most severe issue.
Day by day, year by year, the risk of collapse is increasing dramatically. In 2011, Cerro Rico revealed its true fragility when a huge sink hole formed at the top if the mountain. Despite the tremendous danger, the workers kept harvesting the silver to feed their families. After a complex project, the Bolivian state finally managed to close the sink hole in 2014. But well, after the collapse is before the collapse. Experts are sure that it is just a matter of time until a huge catastrophe will hit the town.
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But First We Need Explosives
With this knowledge and a giant portion of awe, we were finally ready to get going. Next stop: a miners’ market where the workers go to collect their essentials before starting their day in the mountain. As it was a custom to gift small things when meeting people in the mine, this was also the place where we could buy those treats. Little did we expect how jaw-dropping these would be.
After a short ride from the hostel, we arrived on Plaza El Calvario. At first sight, the miners’ market in the center of Potosí looked unspectacular. Along a slightly inclined street called Calle Hernández, women were selling goods out of holes in the wall, one next to the other. Huge bags in front only revealed what it was all about after taking a closer look. The sacks contained the mine workers’ favorites that would get them through a hard day of work.
As well-behaved visitors, we bought exactly what our guide suggested. A nice little collection of dynamite sticks, cigarettes, coca leaves and a bottle of 100% alcohol. Yes, you heard right…a f@#$%ing dynamite stick! How else would they work their way through the solid rocks without any kind of machinery. Seems logical. But at the same time, we were holding explosives in our hand. Just like that. Purchased from an old lady on the street.
And then there was the pure alcohol which certainly wasn’t for disinfection. Supposedly, it helps clean the air that the mineros inhale – with some kind of magic power? Sadly more accurate, it helps to wash away the depressive thoughts. The coca leaves served as both a source of caffeine and an appetite suppressant. After all, the workers were forced to drudge all day without taking breaks for recreation or eating. At last, the cigarettes almost seemed to be the healthiest of all the small presents. But who would have the luxury here to think about what’s healthy and what isn’t!?
May The Devil Be With You
As we approached the mountain, the sight looked weirdly frightening and intriguing at the same time. Almost as if it could have been a scene from Disneyland or some other theme park. You know, those runaway mine train themed rollercoasters that meander through abandoned industrial premises and around puddles of toxic liquids shimmering in the most unreal colors.
And then we finally arrived at one of the dozens of entrances to the awe-inspiring silver mines of Potosí. A short glimpse inside revealed that many of the wooden beams holding the shaft were already broken at some point. While it seemed like just some extraordinary excursion before, it suddenly dawned upon me that the whole undertaking was a crazy thing to do. What was I thinking? But now I also didn’t want to back out anymore. I could almost hear how each of us was telling themselves in our heads that everything would be okay. Yet, the self-calming was only semi-effective. It only took me a couple of steps in before I started feeling the depressing atmosphere. Following the cold and damp air into the black hole through this narrow path.
I usually wouldn’t mind such little space as I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. At least, I thought so. This experience taught me otherwise. The thought of straying through the shafts for three long hours without any connection to the outside world, completely vulnerable to the circumstances inside the mountain, gave me shivers. And all that despite being rather short. I could only imagine how some of my taller companions must have felt in there.
After only a couple of minutes squeezing ourselves through the narrow paths, we reached our first stop. An obligatory one for everybody entering the mines. While one would expect the miners to pray to some Christian saint or praise Pachamama for protection from all the dangers in the mines, their hopes are directed to El Tío. The devil-like sculpture can be found close to entraces throughout the mine tunnels.
As we gathered around the grim looking figure, our guide lit a cigarette and stuffed it in his mouth. Then she poured some of the pure alcohol and offered it to him while all of us took a tiny sip from the bottle. For centuries, miners have been performing this daily ritual, longing for supernatural protection in return for the offerings.
As we moved on through the shafts, we would keep meeting miners here and there along the way. Every time, one of our group would hand them some of the presents we had brought from the miners’ market.
The further we went inside, the more often we could hear explosions where the workers used dynamite to expose or extract the precious metals. Even if you had forgotten for a minute in what kind of dangerous surrounding we were, each loud bang – some further away, others rather close by – reminded me that the entire mountain could collapse at any time.
After all, the miners didn’t use any elaborate technology to determine the most promising, and even more importantly, safest spots for the detonations. All they had was their experience and gut feeling. But even with years of working in the mine, there was no way to be sure about anything in this swiss cheese of a mountain.
As we turned the corner, we stumbled upon two miners who had got stuck on the way out. Their fully loaded carriage had derailed at a spot where water was running over the tracks. The liquid made it too slippery for them to deal with the heavily loaded vehicle on their own. With a wooden beam under the wheel for better traction on the mud, half of us supporting one of the miners in pushing from the back and the other half helping the second worker pulling from the front, it took all of our united forces to lift the carriage back onto the tracks. Not to imagine how helpless they would have been if we hadn’t passed by, coincidentally.
“nah, these are no crystals, it is just arsenic”
A couple more meters into the mountain and it was time for a break. The altitude and the constantly oppressive feeling was already taking its toll on us. While we were taking a rest, our guide finally exposed Cerro Rico’s precious treasures. This was what the miners were risking their lives for every day. Swinging the torch around in the darkness made the stone glitter everywhere in golden, silver and reddish nuances.
Believing he was touching some precious minerals, one of the guys swiped with his hand over a layer of salt-like crystals that covered the low ceiling above us. Only to be informed by our guide with an almost indifferent voice: “nah, these are no crystals, it is just arsenic”. Well, in case you weren’t aware of this minor detail, arsenic is nicknamed the “king of poisons” due to its acute toxicity. But no biggie!
And suddenly it became more than obvious why we were wearing those neckerchiefs over our mouths the entire time. The air was filled with millions of tiny toxic particles – also including asbestos and other devilish materials. Being exposed to this on a daily basis is a guarantee for respiratory conditions and other diseases. No wonder life expectancy for mine workers is just above 40 years of age. As they spend several hours a day inhaling crystalline silica dust, many miners fall ill with silicosis at some point in their life. All of that for a couple Bolivianos to somehow make ends meet for their families.
Just days before, I had been on a video call negotiating my contract for a new job after my return. The usual topics: higher salary, more vacation days, better work conditions. How ironic and spoilt that seemed now.
Show Those Tourists What Hard Work Means
Time to move on, now with our neckerchiefs tightly strapped over our mouths and noses. It didn’t take long for our next lesson, though, as we quickly ran into two mineros that were hard at work. What a lucky coincidence for them to have some eager workforce come their way. Faster than we could think, two of us had a shovel and a wheelbarrow in their hands. After a quick introduction, the six of us would take turns in filling the wheelbarrow with debris and pushing it a couple meters to where we would empty it into a big hole.
I mean, we barely “worked” for 15 minutes, and not even constantly since each of us had a couple minutes inbetween until it was their turn again. And to be fair, each of us only took two turns overall. But that alone was enough to freak us out completely. For the first time in my life, I was on the edge of having a panic attack. And I am not exaggerating in any way. What lasted probably for a few seconds, felt like forever.
The thin air from the altitude, combined with the heat, claustrophobic space and physical exertion got me close to hyperventilating. The neckerchief over my mouse and nose gave me an even harder time breathing. So, I decided to pull it down once in a while. At the same time, I was too afraid to keep it off completely after what we heard about the silica dust which made me panic even more in this situation.
While I was too focused to recognize what was going on around me at that moment, I heard from the others afterwards that they made a similar nerve-wrecking experience. It took us all quite some time to catch our breath again and calm down. As I was sitting there, it slowly dawned upon me. The miners would do this 10 to 12 hours a day while only a few minutes already had this crazy effect on us. Of course, they are much more accostumed to those conditions. Nevertheless, my office job is nothing but a walk in the park in comparison.
Student During The Day, Mine Worker At Night
After a generous amount of mental torture, the tour was slowly coming to an end. Yet, on our way towards the exit, we bumped into two more people. It was an aged miner with his 14 year old son who just started training to become a mine worker himself. Of course, this wasn’t really an unusual encounter. In a place where families need all available capacities to make ends meet, children as young as eight are a common sight in the silver mines. Many of these underaged laborers even work night shifts in order to attend school in the morning. The young boy’s demeanor, a confusing mix of anxiety, shyness, courage and pride left me completely baffled.
Even though I was able to rationally grasp how this was their only option, it surely didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Seeing these young children in that hostile environment and foreseeing their fate of a lifelong presence under these conditions, was truly depressing. Oh boy, how different my well-protected childhood was…
And as if the miners’ fate with low life expectancy and almost certain diseases wasn’t horrible enough. It is just a matter of time until a huge catastrophe will hit the town and the entire mountain will collapse, burying thousands of workers below its precious debris. Yet the saddest thing of this all is that people here aren’t unaware of it but they simply don’t have any other options.
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How To Take A Tour Through The Silver Mines Of Potosí
With all the knowledge I have today, I am torn whether I would do such a tour again. Of course, there are and always have been ethical debates around them. After all, making it an attraction to look at other people’s misery is not the most honorable thing to do. At the same time, I feel that experiences like these are extremely eye-opening. They can help change the world if you, as a visitor, don’t just take them as an adventure but more as an educational journey. Sure, you can watch a Netflix documentary that will make you feel humble. You might even want to become active in one way or another. But that feeling will never be as powerful or sustainable as when you travel somewhere and experience it for yourself.
Now, even if we neglect this controversy, there is still the tremendous risk of implications on your health or death. For that reason, we do not recommend entering the mines. If you decide to do so anyway, we want to highly emphasize that you will carry the full responsibility.
Having pointed this out, if you still want to give it a go, finding a tour is pretty easy. However, we highly suggest to only pick the most renowned ones. Otherwise you might be facing substantial risk of getting lost in the maze due to the inexperience of the guides that are just out to make some quick money. I booked the tour with Big Deal Tours straight through the hostel I stayed in. Just like ours, all guides with this operator are ex-miners with years of experience who know Cerro Rico like the back of their hand. On top, Big Deal Tours donates part of their revenue to the miners’ association.
Be aware that this experience is really not for the faint of heart. The combination of constricting spaces, the altitude, high temperatures and polluted air can have a tremendous physical and psychological effect on you.
How To Get There
Although Potosí has it’s own airport, one of the highest located on the planet, it is reserved for the Bolivian president. Thus, your best option to get there from other places in the country is by bus.
There a numerous long-distance buses from destinations along the typical travel route. Overnight coaches will get you to Potosí from La Paz or Cochabamba in about 10 hours. Uyuni can be reached in 5 hours and Sucre is a 3-hour ride away. Beware that these are just the official duration times. On many stretches, roads are notoriously bad. Thus, you may have to add a couple of hours to each of these scheduled times. The mining town is not the most frequented stop neither by locals nor travelers. Therefore, check for options to change in Oruro, as there are usually more buses going that way.
Once you have made it to Potosí, you won’t have to worry about getting to the mines. Your chosen tour operator will usually pick you up from your accommodation. Cerro Rico is right next to the town and only a couple minutes by car from the center of town.
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