Many travelers have mixed emotions about visiting Potosi Bolivia. It is a city with a long history revolving around the mining of the Cerro Rico mountain that looms overhead. Mining in Bolivia has a long sad history with millions of deaths in its mines, children mining as young as 11 or 12, the use of forced labor slaves, and the export of the great wealth of Bolivia to Spain.
Today Potosi is a city that travelers come to for only one reason – to visit the mines. Yes, you can take a tour of a mine as workers chisel, drill, and even explode dynamite as they go about their daily business of mining the various minerals found in the Cerro Rico (meaning rich hill).
History of Potosi
Founded in the mid 1500s as a mining town, Potosi quickly became famous for the wealth of silver found in its Cerro Rico mines. At this time the Spanish occupied Bolivia along with much of South America and as quickly as the silver was mined it was carted off to fill the Spanish coffers. There is a saying in Bolivia that you could build a bridge all the way to Spain with the silver that was mined in Bolivia. It is estimated that about 45,000 metric tons of silver was excavated and sent to fund the Spanish Empire.
Workers in the Cerro Rico Mines
The laborers in the mines have gone through changes throughout the years. Originally miners were the indigenous people of Bolivia some contracted and some forced labor. As workers met their deaths due to the horrid working conditions the Spanish started importing African slaves to fill the worker demand. Today workers are part of various cooperatives that own the individual mines and as such they work for themselves paying a percentage of their earnings to the cooperative. Since the mine is the lone industry in Potosi, children often work in the mines as early as 10 or 11 since it is one of the only ways to bring in money to support a family.
There is a great film that follows the life of a 14 year old boy and his younger brother as they work in the mine called The Devil’s Miner. I highly recommend it.
Conditions in the Potosi Mines
Unlike more modern mines around the world, the mines of the Cerro Rico are still mined like they were hundreds of years ago for the most part. Workers do not have sufficient safety gear. Most miners have only their mining tools, a helmet, a light or lantern, and a bandanna or possibly a paper mask to cover their mouth and nose.
There are many dangers in the mine. The first is the toxic fumes that can sometimes be released during the mining process. Many miners still use old lanterns instead of lights as these lanterns alert the miners to a change in the air around them. Either the flame of the lantern changes color or goes out altogether so the miner knows they need to get out of the mine immediately. Exposure to the toxic chemicals deep in the mines ultimately leads to a lung disease that usually claims the miner’s lives. The average life expectancy for a miner in Potosi is only mid 40s. Miners are fully aware of the risks and dangers but with limited other options to feed their families, they enter the workforce at the mine.
Cave-in’s and mine collapses are also a real danger and given that many of the shafts contain cracking and splitting braces I certainly had to pause and assess some of the supports along the way. At one point when climbing between levels, I saw a section over the hole we would be wiggling through that just didn’t look very stable. This is one of the times our guide instructed us to only touch one piece of wood as we moved through the hole as the rest of the structure might come loose.
Mine collapses as a real concern at Cerro Rico. According to Time Magazine, the Cerro Rico is already hundreds of meters shorter than it was at the start of mining in the area and in 2011 a large crater opened near its summit. Geologists warn of more collapses to come due to the ancient mining techniques still in use and the lack of a strong support system. Rumors around Potosi even suggest that some miners are actually causing cave-in’s to access tin mineral veins in main shafts.
Visiting the Mines in Potosi
In recent years, a new industry has started to emerge but again its one strongly tied to the mines: Tourism. For a small fee ($100 Bolivianos or about $15 at time of writing) you can spend a couple of hours touring the mines as the miners complete their work. You will learn about the history of the mines, the way the mines are worked, and also tour a mineral refining facility to see how the minerals are extracted from the rocks of the mountain.
There are many tour companies that have sprung up over the years with varying reputations. I used Koala Den as they had been recommended by other travelers. This company will actually let you explode dynamite if you are touring on a weekend. During the week, while the miners are present and working, extra dynamite explosions would only add to the health concerns of the miners.
As you enter the mine you gradually loose the light from behind you and eventually you are forced to hunch over to walk through the tunnel sections. You pass numerous support systems that look insufficient and see the remnants of small cave-in’s as you venture deeper into the mine. Through some sections you are forced to crawl or at minimum duck waddle your way through so anyone with an aversion to tight spaces should think real hard before venturing in.
To reach another level you are typically shimmying down a hole with only rough foot holds on rocks or cracking boards to support your weight as you drop down above 10 feet further into the Earth. The lower levels get hotter and hotter and breathing becomes much more difficult. You will smell a strong odor of sulfur in the air that left some coughing. As you approach sections where miners are actively working, breathing is near impossible whether with a mask/bandanna over your nose and mouth or without. When you’re wearing this basic protective gear the heat makes it difficult to breath. When you’re not, the dust in the air almost chokes you.
On top of the difficulties of breathing in the mine you also have to contend with the altitude. Potosi sits at a 4,090 meters or 13,420 feet and is one of the highest cities in the world so breathing is constrained further by the altitude. When I tried to make my way out of the mine climbing the same shafts I repeatedly had to stop to catch my breath as the altitude really gives me a hard time breathing when doing any kind of physical exertion.
Meeting Tio, the Lord of the Underworld
On the second level of the mine I visited is where this mine’s Tio lived. Every mine in the Cerro Rico has a Tio, or lord of the underworld. Tio, which in Spanish means uncle, is often confused on its meanings. The word actually comes from a missed translation of Dios, or God, into Quechua which is the native language of Bolivia. When the Spanish conquered Bolivia they tried to change what they saw as pagan religious practices and told the indigenous people about God who watched over them in the mines. Since in Quechua there is no letter D, when the Spanish said Dios, the locals pronounced it as Tio.
Tio is a statue God in each mine that the miners visit and bring offerings of coca leaves, alcohol, and offerings to ask for safety and prosperity as they work in the mines. The Tio I met on the second level of the mine was still wearing his decorations from the Carnival celebration only the week before and was surrounded by beer cans and water bottles.
Ethical Concerns About Visiting the Mines
As I mentioned earlier, many travelers have concerns about visiting the mines. Some feel it is exploiting the miners by watching them as they work. Others feel that by paying to visit the mines they are only reinforcing a system of dangerous working conditions and child labor.
All of these are valid concerns and I certainly went back and forth on whether I would visit the mines in Potosi. Ultimately I decided to take the trip for a couple of reasons. First, since I have a medium (this blog) to share the dire situation of the miners I could do a small part to expose the need for change and improvement here. Secondly, a portion of the fee you pay goes directly to the miners in effect subsidizing the mining effort. My hope is that the small amount of additional income offsets the number of hours that the miners need to spend in the mines to feed their families.