Tracy and I made a solemn pact – we were not going to go down the Potosi Silver Mine.
The stories of exposure to asbestos, arsenic and other toxic chemicals was enough to put us off. The stories of the dark, dank, cramped conditions reinforced our decision. Since arriving in South America I’ve become aware that this region is overdue a major earthquake. In 2012 the Guardian reported that the Cerro Rico mine was in danger of collapse – more overdue trauma. In addition, the memories of the trapped Chilean miners loomed large. As we suffered the bus to Potosi we decided there were too many risks – we were not going to go down the mine.
The next day we found ourselves walking through the mine entrance into the mountain.
We arrived to Potosi from Sucre to find that the town was closed. The day before had seen one of the regular festivals which includes Llama sacrifices. The blood from the carcass is offered to the Gods, the miners smear the blood on the mine entrances and the factory doors. We were told that the festival is accompanied by much alcohol and frivolity, when we arrived the town was in a state of hangover, everywhere was shut.
We were due to stay in Potosi for only two days. It was clear that everything in this small Bolivian outpost revolves around the mine. The first day we did nothing more than wonder round the town which is built into the hillside. We began to discuss how disappointing it would be to leave this small Bolivian mining town without experiencing the mine especially since out first day had come to nothing. We had come away to experience life right? We would have to take the occasional risk? We reluctantly renewed our solemn pact and went to book a trip which would take us deep inside Cerro Ricco mountain. We then went for a drink to discuss how stupid we had been and to calm our nerves.
We used “Big Deal Tours” based on favourable reviews and because the tour guides are all ex-miners. The day began with a visit to the miners market. Dynamite was freely available to purchase. We decided against explosives, instead we bought more sensible gifts for the miners, juice and coca leaves. The miners chew the coca to give them energy, it also suppresses appetite and they use it as a form of clock. The miners will pack leaves into the side of their cheeks and suck the cocoa from the leaves during the morning. It takes about 4 hours to lose its flavour at which point they know its time for lunch. We were asked not to buy alcohol for the miners. Alcoholism is a problem and its association with domestic violence was something that out tour guide didn’t shy away from. Make no mistake, the miners live a tough, perhaps miserable existence. The average life expectancy of a miner is about 40 years old. The mountain is estimated to have taken over 8 million lives, mainly death by silicosis. I would have preferred to buy a bottle of Scotch but I thought I’d better do what I was told and so we bought orange juice and cocoa leaves instead.
After the market we were taken to a small, enclosed yard behind someone’s house. We were “robed up”. It was a bit rushed and hectic as the twenty of so members of our group jostled to find Wellington boots which fit. Overalls, a hat and a mining lamp completed the costume and we were ready to go, into the mountain. The clothing chaos had taken my mind temporarily off the challenge which was to come but as our minibus climbed the mountain in the bright sunshine leaving Potosi in the distance, my worries began to crystallise. I gazed longingly at the quaint town which was disappearing below – I was petrified, how could we have broken a pact so easily?
The video of Tracy walking through the mine can be found here. We walked into a dark chasm illuminated by our trusty miners lamps. I decided to prop up the back of the line (in order for a hasty exit if I bottled it) The mine was wider than anticipated but there was a lot of crouching and occasionally we had to wade through water which was running in a swift stream underneath of feet. Occasionally a miner would pass, I used an early opportunity to pass on my gifts whilst relieving some of the weight in my back pack.
Every now and again we stopped at a more open part of the mine. The guide gave a brief speech and I didn’t listen, preferring to use the opportunity to assess my state of mind. So far I hadn’t panicked but panic attacks quickly and I had to hold it all together. As usual Tracy seemed unperturbed by the dismal conditions and that made my mental state worse. After about 50 minutes we reached the deepest part of our tour, this was the first joint worst part of our visit. It had become noticeably warmer, in fact it was uncomfortably hot and something had began irritating my throat. I was grateful that the guide motioned that we were turning back but I was ungrateful that I now found myself at the front of the line.
We took a different route back which included climbing three vertical ladders up shafts to reach a different mine above. This was the second, joint first worse part of the tour. The ladder shafts were narrow and you had to climb alone. As I looked up to check my hand rung position something dislodged by the person in front of me fell into my eye. I hoped it wasn’t arsenic, if it was, it had found a direct path into my blood stream. Tracy climbed behind unaware of my eye trauma.
At the top of the shaft we were rewarded by a rest break. We sat to meet “El Tio”. To the miners, El Tio is the devil. The miners believe in God but don’t believe that God can penetrate the mine, the miners practice dual worship. The mine is El Tio’s world and they put much effort into keeping him happy. The miners visit El Tio to offer him sacrifices, coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol. Thankfully our guide had some 96% proof alcohol to offer up and more of the same for us to taste. The brew is cheap and strong and a favourite tipple of the miners. I have never drank anything so strong. I’ve tasted Irish Poitin – it doesn’t compare. I thought my throat had instantly burnt out and I wasn’t in the best place for access to the emergency room. We were then told is bad luck to do things in odd numbers so we had to take another swig!
There is nothing better than being in a group situation quietly thinking you are the weakest member. I really didn’t want to go down the mine but I really didn’t want to leave Potosi without a visit. I’d trailed at the back of the group focusing on keeping it all together and I had managed so far with some success. Just after El Tio another member of the group “came out”. A French girl complained that she had had enough, she wanted to get out. In an odd way, I instantly felt much better, there was someone struggling more than me. With a tinge of guilt, I offered her some water, it was refused and we plundered on.
About twenty minutes later the guide bought the French girl to the front of the line, he proclaimed that he had got lost and she would have to lead the group out. I knew that meant we were about to leave the stuffy miner’s chasms that had been our home for the past two hours. The French girl lead us out – the relief was consuming.
In hindsight we were both glad we took on the challenge of the mine. Some travellers consider the trip voyeuristic and even exploitative of the miners, each to their own. I didn’t understand those views. The miners we met were interesting and seemed grateful of the gifts that we bought them. I am still wondering why it is that if a miner knows his occupation will likely kill him before he reaches 50 – why do they do it? Aside from necessity, which I fully understand, what I gleamed from the Potosi experience is that mining is a position of personal pride. Miners are respected, they earn more than the average Bolivian wage and they want to work to provided for what are often large families. The want to work, the need to work, the pride and the short life expectancy presents a conundrum not easy to reconcile.