Potosi: The darkness of the silver mines

I have to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of Potosi until I started reading travel books about Bolivia. So in case you don’t know it either, here’s a quick summary from my understanding.

Potosi is famous for being a major source of silver to the Spanish during their colonization of South America and Bolivia in particular during the 1500’s. The Cerro Rico mountain, which translates into “Rich Mountain” from Spanish, had enormous supplies of silver, so much so that the Spanish joked that they could build a bridge made out of silver from Potosi to Spain and still have loads of silver to transport via this bridge.

The view of Potosi from Cerro Rico

However, as with any discoveries involving precious metals, Potosi has a dark past. In order to exploit the silver resource, the Spanish enslaved millions of people of African origin as well as indigenous Bolivian people to work in the mines. The conditions in the mines were awful of course. From the long work hours to unsafe explosions, to health problems arising from breathing in toxic substances, it is estimated that about eight million miners died in the mines during the colonial times.

The city of Potosi itself is full of colonial architecture, like this main plaza in the center of the city
Ornate white arches decorate the center of Potosi

Today it is popular among tourists to go deep into the bowels of Cerro Rico to walk in the historic mine tunnels and see the miners still at work. Sadly the mountain only has about seven more years of silver left, after which it will be completely depleted. And despite working conditions improving slightly, miners start working as young as fifteen years old and die young as well, anywhere between 50 to 60 years of age.

Our tour started off with us being outfitted in some miners clothing, complete with a helmet and a headlamp and rubber boots. We also brought some bandanas with us to cover our mouth since we knew that the mines were going to be very dusty.

Sporting our new miners’ gear
And bandanas for good measure
Ready for the tour!

Our guide explained to us that there are currently 12,000 miners working in the mines. About 30% of these miners are organized into cooperatives, which actually provide some form of health insurance and pension. The cooperatives then employ the rest of the independent miners, which receive only 100 bolivianos per day (about CAD$20) plus a share of the profits from the mined minerals.

This is what all the fuss is about – specs of golden and blue dust, indicating zinc or silver

In order to help the independent miners (and in a way to say thank you for letting us walk through their workplace), tourists often buy gifts for the miners before the tour. But these are no ordinary gifts. In order to be as productive as possible, miners don’t eat much during their shifts. Instead they chew on coca leaves to give themselves an energy boost and keep alert. Coca leaves also help with altitude sickness since Potosi is the highest city in the world after La Paz, which is also in Bolivia. In addition, miners often drink almost pure alcohol at 96%! As such, it is common to buy the miners coca leaves, alcohol, Fanta or dynamite sticks as gifts. Yes, I also thought it was a joke at first to buy dynamite, but apparently miners are very appreciative of these gifts especially since there are many robberies that occur between the miners inside the mines. Anything from equipment to dynamite usually gets stolen if it’s not locked up properly. So a stick of dynamite actually comes in handy!

Never thought I would be holding a stick of dynamite in my hand, let alone be buying it as a gift!
But this is the reality of Potosi – dynamite is a hot commodity and makes for a valuable gift for independent miners
We also couldn’t help but to throw in some coca leaves in our gift for the miners

Outfitted in miners clothing and gifts in tow, we finally arrived to the main entrance of one particular mine to start the tour. This mine has nine levels, containing 91 kilometers of tunnels inside and about 500 entrances. Every day, miners have to walk for about ten minutes just to get to their work site!

Rami ready to enter the mine
Posing near the entrance to the mine, and of course photobombed by an actual miner

Inside the mine it is absolutely pitch dark. Unless you have your headlamp on, you will not be able to see anything in front of you. The mine is literally a tunnel burrowed out of rock, with jagged ceilings and uneven floors. There are rails that run along the floor that enable carts loaded with rocks to be wheeled out of the mine. There are various cables that run along the ceiling of the mine supplying electricity or pressured air.

Rami inside the mine
In some places inside the mine, we could spot some colourful spots on the ceilings due to various gases that are released from the rock during the explosions
Carts outside of the mine used to wheel out the rocks and transport it to the refinery

The tunnels are uneven, requiring you to bend your knees and bow your head in order not to hit it against the sharp ceiling. Thank goodness for helmets because I definitely hit my head more than once! The air is hot in places and cold in others. There is constant dust hanging in the air, which reflects in the rays of lights from your headlamp. If you are not moving, you are surrounded by dead silence, the kind that doesn’t even carry sound.

The only source of light is the headlights of the people on the tour with us

We spent about three hours inside the mine. We came across two miners working on preparing an explosion on the level above us in order to break a large piece of rock that they found. Although we didn’t linger long enough to hear the explosion, Rami climbed up to another level to see the piece of rock for himself.

A miner at work, preparing to block the wooden shaft in order to collect the remnants of the rock that is about to be blown up
Another miner getting everything ready for the dynamite explosion

We descended into another level, crouching on our knees at times and scaling down a precarious wooden ladder not attached to anything in particular. At this level, we came across an area, where the miners were preparing holes in the rock, in which to stick dynamite sticks. While there were no miners there at the moment, we were able to peek into the bags they had loaded with promising samples. Some rocks contained blue shiny particles, which were silver deposits, while other rocks sparkled with almost golden dust that was zinc deposit.

We also came across the “God” that miners worship, which was basically a statue decorated with ribbons and surrounded by various offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and beer cans. I put the word “God” in quotations because the miners, which are from indigenous backgrounds, actually cannot pronounce the word God in Spanish, and instead refer to this statue as the Devil. The miners believe that this God or Devil rules the underground and hence should be worshiped in order to keep the miners safe and bring them luck in finding good deposits of silver.

The God or Devil that the miners worship

After three hours of walking around and breathing in dusty air, I personally was exhausted and eager to get out and see the light of day. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but by the end of the tour I was starting to get antsy. I can’t even imagine working a 12-hour shift in this dark and dusty mine every day for several decades! Nevertheless, it was remarkable to walk through these tunnels that are saturated with history and struggle. I only wonder what will happen to the 12,000 miners that are on the line to lose their jobs once all of the silver is depleted from Cerro Rico.

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