By Alexandra Alden
Once upon a time, a llama sat down, and the history of Potosi and its infamous mine began.
According to the legend, the llama belonged to a man named Diego Huallpa. He tugged and tugged at the llama but it refused to move.
Since llamas are up there with donkeys in the stubbornness category, Diego decided to make camp for the night and wait for the llama to change its mind.
He built a fire and before he knew it liquid silver was flowing from it. The Cerro Rico had been discovered.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and Potosi, located in the southwest, is no exception to this rule. However Potosi is different in that, as a drunken miner told me, its streets were once paved in silver.
The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), a striated yellow, gold and orange mass rising 800 meters (2,600 feet) above Potosi’s already stunning altitude of 4092m (13,400 ft) is home to the mine that during the 1500s provided most of Western Europe with its silver.
Today the mine is running dry, only producing about 15% silver ore. The city that once boasted a population greater than that of London is now crumbling under the creeping vines of poverty.
While the city was once opulent, the mine could never be compared to anything but hell.
The main reason backpackers and tourists come to Potosi is to do a mine tour that allows you to descend into the miners´ world for a day. The tours cost from about $10 to $15 and last about four hours.
There are many companies in town but an old and recommendable one is Koala Tours located near the main square. They also have English-speaking guides which can be hard to find in Bolivia.
The Cerro Rico Mine
I am staring out the window of the dilapidated demi-school bus as it tenaciously chugs towards the mine entrance of the Cerro Rico when I feel the dull throb at the base of my skull that signifies altitude sickness.
I reach into the sack in my lap, shove aside the stick of dynamite, and pull out some coca leaves that I then stuff into my mouth and chew slowly.
The bitter taste fills my mouth and the pain ebbs away as the time-honored altitude cure of the people of the altiplano takes effect. The jeep slows as we reach a gaping black hole cut into the side of the hill.
We gather around the guide all dressed in full-body jumpsuits, hard hats, and boots. Bandanas hang around our necks to protect us from the coming dust. Our guide explains that as we descend it will become hotter and steadily more cramped and if we want to turn back we can.
He also explains that while we will be in the mine for around two hours, the average miner works 10 hours a day chewing coca leaves as his only sustenance. During our little huddle, some miners pass that we give coca leaves to. They are covered in dust and reward us with grins revealing missing teeth.
Descent into the Cerro Rico Mine
We enter the mine and at first it’s not so bad, you have to bend down a little but nothing too difficult. It is black; the only light filtering through the dusty air is from our headlamps. Then we are crawling and it is getting hotter.
I hear noises of panic coming from the French woman a couple of people back. Breathing becomes harder; I pull up the bandana as more and more dust clouds my eyes. The dull ache in my head is back and I furiously shove more coca leaves into my mouth.
We reach a ladder with a black abyss next to it, and scale down that all the while averting my eyes to the nothing immediately to my left. Once we have descended 300m (94 ft), we stop.
We sit in a circle and shut off our headlamps. In the complete blackness that ensues our guide begins to speak, occasionally interrupted by the muffled booms of dynamite being exploded elsewhere in the mine.
Started Mining at Age 15
He himself had been a miner, starting in the mines at age fifteen. He learned English and became a guide to give his family a better life. Most miners don’t have that option and the mine claims 80% of their lives after 10 years.
The average day is the aforementioned 10 hours, however since the mine is a cooperative, many spend 24 hours or more at a time in the black hole hoping to eke out just a little more ore.
He recounts that the mine is their life. It is sort of like a second hellish home to them. They throw parties there where they drink the ridiculously strong moonshine that comes in gasoline tanks and costs about $1.
He shakes his head slowly at the rampant alcoholism that destroys in the workers’ bodies what the mine has not.
The working conditions in the mine are horrifying, but at least the people still have jobs in this high-altitude community where no other industry survives. The mine is quickly running out of silver and in 20 years will be no more. What will happen to Potosi and its miners then?
Ascent down into the Mine
We begin our ascent and panic slowly creeps up my spine. With the exertion of the climb, breathing has become nearly impossible and the mine shaft seems to be closing in around me.
Sweat trickles down my forehead and back as I hoarsely whisper “I can’t breathe.” The English man next to me reminds me that I can breathe, there is oxygen here. I stop for a second and repeat this mantra to myself and then, slightly less panicked, continue on.
On our way out we visit the statue of ‘El Tio’ (the Uncle), the patron saint of the mine, the devil. Red, hairy with an erect ceramic penis he is the miners’ idol and they make sacrifices of coca leaves and alcohol to him. Besides the one we visited, there are hundreds of other similar statues sprinkled throughout the mine.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
At one point I see the light at the end of the tunnel, literally, and we break out into the thin air of the Cerro Rico. Sunlight and fresh air never feel as good as they do in this moment.
Now that we are out of the mine we get to participate in the made for tourists, childishly delightful, the activity of blowing up dynamite.
One of the miners makes it for us, which he has been doing since he was 15, and we light it while holding it and pose for pictures that will be sure to awe our friends at home. After some loud explosions followed by giddy laughter, we climb back in the school bus and begin our descent.
I take off the dirty boots I have been wearing all day and examine them, thinking of the stubborn llama that changed history. I’ve just paid to experience what these people are forced to live every day.
While I can go home and brag about my intrepid experience, the miners will be waking up at 3 am, eating a large breakfast and disappearing for hours on end into the closest approximation to hell I can imagine.
+591 2 6222092
Calle Ayacucho #3
Potosi, Bolivia, 33
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7:30 am – 8:00 pm Sun. 9:00 am – 8:00 pm
Getting there, weather, attractions
Alexandra Alden has been traveling and writing freelance in South America for a year.