The Devil's Mine
17.04.2012 - 20.04.2012 15 °C
After about four hours on a windy dirt road we found ourselves in Potosí. Potosí is one of the worlds highest cities with an elevation of 4090 m (13,420 ft). It was founded in 1546 as a silver mining town by the Spanish, and soon produced incredible wealth. The city grew to one of the biggest cities and richest in the world at the time, with over 200.000 citizens. All the money went straight to Spain, meanwhile Indian workers forced to work in the mines died by the millions. Later African slaves were also sent to Potosí to work as "human mules" because the actual mules would die after only a few moths work.
Today Potosí is very different. When the silver extracted from Cerro Rico eventually ran out miners continued to mine for other minerals, but the wealth of the city steadily declined. Now, Potosí is a poor city with many people living in shanty towns or slums.
Nevertheless, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site among other things you can visit the former Spanish mint (Casa de la Moneda) which used to be in Potosí.
For us it was another climb to reach Potosí. The city is very hilly and the altitude really has an effect on your general fitness. After dinner Faye and I retired to our rooms fairly early, I had a headache after just half a bottle of wine (the altitude makes you a wimpy drinker) and we were both still tired after the salt flats trip. The boys kept at it. Needless to say there were some tired faces at breakfast the next day.
Potosina the world's highest beer
The main "attraction" in Potosí is the mine. I say "attraction" because it is not a museum or an abandoned mine, it is still fully functional. As I mentioned above the Potosí mine was originally a silver mine, but today all the silver has been extracted and the workers mine for other minerals. There are numerous tour guides offering tours of the mine, we went with the one recommended by our hostel. To be honest with you I have no idea whether this is an official business or not, it felt fairly random, but the tour was good
Picking up gear on the way to the mine
One of the reasons so many people come to see the mine in Potosí is the way it is run. The workers still mine the way they did in colonial times using picks and transporting minerals and debris in carts manually. There is no modern equipment here, the use of dynamite is the only addition to manual labour.
On the way to the mine we stopped to pick up some gifts for the workers. High on the wish list was coca leaves, 96% alcohol, mix and dynamite.
Picking up presents
One thing to keep in mind when on this tour is that you are entering someones work place. You will be in someones way at some point, and you better move when people tell you to move. This of course can be difficult as the mine shafts aren't really build for two people to pass each other, but try to see it from the workers point of view; they're definitely done working around curious picture snapping gringos.
Ready to go! Me and Jason with Raine, Stu and Tom The whole crew, except for Faye the photographer
Workers pushing a cart to a waiting truck
The gringos entering the mine
Both Jason and I suffer from minor cases of claustrophobia, so we were a little worried about how we would feel crawling through narrow passages far beneath the ground. Fortunately this didn't cause any problems despite our initial fears
Jason barely fitting through a passage
Tom catching up
Sagging bearing beams
Part of the crew
When above ground the mine workers are catholic, like most Bolivians, but below ground they turn to the Devil referred to as "Tio" meaning uncle in English. Their reasoning is that they believe that the world underground belongs to the Devil, so there's no room for Ave Marias and crucifixes.
The mine workers have built a shrine for "Tio" where they leave him little offerings. The most common are alcohol, mix, coca leaves and cigarettes.
After seeing Tio we went further down underground to get to know some of the workers. At the end of one of the small passage ways we were introduced to three of them. Turned out they were father and sons working together.
This is not uncommon in the Potosí mine. The mine is not run by a company or the state and the workers therefore do not get paid by a company or the government. If a worker has enough money he can buy part of the mine and extract minerals from his claim. Whatever minerals he finds he will sell, therefore how much a miner makes will depend on how much minerals he finds. Miners who own part of the mine can hire other workers and pay them if he can afford it, or he can employ his sons. There are many family businesses down here.
We arrived just in time for dynamite preparations
Our guide assured us they weren't going to blow anything up before we were back in the daylight. However, the fuses were not long enough for them to get out before the blast. They seemed pretty content with just waiting around the corner.
While we were watching these guys put together their explosives together we could hear others going off somewhere beneath us. It was a little scary, I'll admit that.
We presented the small family with our gifts, and they insisted we share one of the small 96% bottles. For everybody's benefit the dad mixed it with water, making it almost drinkable.
When having a drink it is customary to spill some of the drink on the ground first as a sacrifice to "Tio".
Tom enjoying an afternoon shot
Life in the mine is hard. As I mentioned the workers get paid for how much mineral they extract. The more you work , the more minerals you extract; a normal work day in the mine lasts 12 hours. There are no breaks, not even for lunch or dinner. That's why the workers chew coca leaves; it gives them more energy and represses the feeling of hunger. Because the Potosí mine isn't owned by anyone as a whole nobody is technically in charge of maintenance or the welfare of the workers. This results in sagging bearing posts, poor ventilation and broken rails for the carts. Of course there is no such thing as minimum wage or work insurance. Add to the demanding physical labour inhalation of silica and other dangerous substances. Many mine workers die of pulmonary disease caused by the different harmful minerals they inhale in the mines. It is not unusual for children to be taken out of school to work here. The workers we talked to in the mine ranged in age from 14 to 67, the father of the small "family business" we met had worked in the mines for over 40 years.
We were all happy when we could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, literally, at the end of the tour. I cannot begin to imagine how it must be to spend the majority of your life in these conditions.
Stu walking towards the light
Leaving the mines behind us we headed back to the city. It was our last day in Potosí and after a shower we headed out for dinner. The whole crew were heading for Sucre the next morning so we had a quiet last night. Pictures will be up soon