19.01.2011 - 20.01.2011 15 °C
Potosi was founded by the Spanish in 1545 after silver deposits were discovered in Cerro Rico or the “Rich Hill”. The city is 4,080m above sea level which makes just walking up a slight hill exhausting especially for someone with little acclimatisation let alone digging for silver.
To mine the deposits the Spanish enslaved the local indigenous population and imported millions more bodies from Africa. The slaves were required to work 12 hour days and could remain underground for up to four months at a time. It is estimated that over the three centuries of Spanish rule up to 8 million perished under the atrocious conditions.
The deposits were so vast that they bankrolled the Spanish empire for centuries and Potosi grew to be one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. Testament to this is some of the colonial architecture and churches that fill the central part of the city and provide parts of the city with a degree of grandeur. However, as output declined so to did Potosi's fortunes and today it feels like a desperate place, especially outside the touristy colonial centre.
The mines are still operating but are now primarily controlled by miner owned collectives. While conditions are still diabolical, the money one can earn in the mines is significantly higher than the average Bolivian wage and that, combined with a sense of tradition (my father's father etc.), mean that up to 10,000 men delve into the mountain everyday. The air in the shafts is thick with dust and poisonous gases and to help make the conditions and the altitude more palatable the miners are constantly chewing handfuls coca leaves. Once entering the mines one can expect to live for,on average, approximately 10 years before succumbing to lung disease or some other form of poisoning.
Tours of the mines are big business in Potosi and for as little as $11 - $12 you can don overalls, gumboots, a hard hat and headlamp and head inside. I'm not sure whether the miners appreciate the hordes of tourists that visit the mines to gawk at the conditions but it is customary to give gifts (coca leaves, soft drink and sticks of dynamite) to help preserve some goodwill. After hearing and reading about the conditions Jess and I were unsure whether we wanted to go, but eventually I decided to take the plunge and headed into the mines for a truly uncomfortable experience.
The mines have little oxygen inside (especially given the altitude) and we spent much of our time in darkness with only the light from our headlamps. The tunnels are so low that you are constantly bent double and there is often water up to your ankles. In parts of the mine there were small shrines where the miners would make offerings to Diablo in thanks for the silver and other minerals.
Given the conditions it wasn't difficult to believe the devil was close at hand. While travelling through the mine we would come across the miners working – four men pushing a cart weighing over a ton or a 16 year old boy (already in the mines for 3 years) making a 30 inch hole for dynamite with a chisel and a hammer.
Occasionally we would push ourselves up against the walls of the shaft to dodge mining carts as they came rushing past, an adrenalin rush of an occurrence, which reminded me of a twisted, Disneyland ride for a brief moment. However, any moments of fantasy were truly fleeting and I emerged from the shaft glad that I would not be returning the next day.
To end the tour on a light hearted note our guide blew up some sticks of dynamite on the slopes of Cerro Rico – something the Lonely Planet frowns upon because of the element of danger involved and the environmental impact. However, when you are in a place that has been strip mined for almost 500 years, it's hard to see that there is any environment still around to damage.
The mine tour was an eye opener, serving not just as a window into the history of Spanish rule and the working conditions of the past but also giving you a reality check that people still work under the same conditions today. Even if one takes the view that current miners have a real choice as to whether they work, or not work in the mines, the hazardous environment and lack of safety standards would never be accepted in more developed countries and it is a terrible shame that the modern day Potosi miner is not able to demand better working conditions.
The next part of our tour is in Uyuni where we will be doing a tour of the Bolivian salt flats and taking thousands of perspective photos.