The Cerro Rico of Potosí, Bolivia underwrote the Spanish Empire for over two centuries. This immense silver mine has been under constant assault every since its discovery over 400 years ago. Countless thousands, perhaps millions, have lost their lives from working in this hell on Earth. And it is still being mined. I would have the opportunity to experience first-hand what surely must be the toughest job in the world.
The Cerro Rico looms over Potosí
Potosí is a labyrinth-like place where getting lost is much easier than getting to your destination. The city’s population exploded after silver was discovered in the Cerro Rico, and no corresponding urban planning was ever undertaken. Potosí became one of the richest and most populated cities in the world. Nowadays, both the prosperity of the past and the poverty of the present are visible around every corner.
Potosí also has the distinction of being the highest city in the world – at an astounding 4,090 meters (13,420 feet)! While walking around, I had the overwhelming sensation that this city should not be here. It’s hard to believe that humans have settled in this brutal environment of thin air, harsh mountain landscapes, scorching daytime suns, and freezing cold nights. But the unimaginable wealth buried deep in the Cerro Rico eclipsed any of these inconveniences.
Our organized tour started with a trip to the miner’s market: where anyone can buy a stick of dynamite for about one dollar, no questions asked. We then visited the mineral refinery and observed the machinery that separates the miner’s findings into silver and other less valuable metals.
The truly unforgettable experience lay ahead. Our van climbed high above the city to arrive at the entrance to a cooperative mine. Strapping on my ventilation mask and flipping on my headlamp, I prepared to plunge into an alien world.
I first noticed that the air smelled of chemicals and was filled with dust and other particles. After passing through the initial corridor, the temperature began rising and the conditions worsened. The combination of dirty air, high altitude, and oppressive humidity was making it very difficult to breathe. While grappling with this obstacle, I not so much heard, but felt, an explosion shake my surroundings. A weary miner then approached from the direction of the blast.
Our guide, a former worker in the mines himself, questioned the miner as to how he get here. Like many we would come across, he began working in the mines at around 12 or 13 years of age. For the past 20 years, he had been spending 12, 16, even 24 hour days inside of this danger-filled purgatory. In return, the average miner’s earnings usually average out to not more than a few hundred dollars a month.
Systems of railed passages allow workers to export minerals out of the mine. I “helped” one pair of miners shovel rock to be transported out…although I’m sure my lack of experience was readily evident!
At many points in the mine, the passageway lowers to a few feet, and at times, forces you to crawl on your hands and knees. Claustrophobics would not have a pleasant time here. Ascending and descending different levels of the mine is no easy task either, involving climbing rickety ladders and navigating steep slopes.
With great relief I approached the light and exited the mine. I had only spent two hours inside, but it felt like an eternity. To think that men voluntarily toil here for hours on end, for years of their life and even childhood, is mind-boggling. The poor worker conditions mean that many will die of silicosis pneumonia by the time they reach forty. And yet still they soldier on. Chewing coca leaves helps to numb the system, and taking a clear drink consisting of 96% alcohol makes life in the mines more tolerable…it also happens to be a great way to end a mine tour. Just remember to take it in small doses, gringo.