Before departing Potosi for Uyuni, my fellow travelers and I signed up for a tour of the city’s silver mines. We were warned that it was an experience worth having but not one we would ever want to repeat. With that little nugget in the back of our minds, plus the estimation that eight million people have died in these tunnels since their construction in the 16th century, we weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to get into the mountain.
Our day began with a conversation with Claudia, our tour guide. We were taken to a small market where we were shown some of the staples of miner life: mountains of coca leaves, sticks of dynamite, and bottles of (allegedly potable) 96% alcohol.
Coca leaves are chewed by the dozen, or rather mashed to a pulp and then lodged between one’s teeth and cheek, where the juices can slowly leak out over the course of three hours. Claudia stressed repeatedly that working in the mines would be impossible without the leaves; there is little water and no time or clean space for food consumption. Coca leaves provide energy and eliminate feelings of hunger, fatigue, and thirst. I couldn’t help but think this might be a popular dieting technique in the States.
A few brave souls agreed to try a cap-full of Ceibo, the 96% alcohol concoction popular among the miners. Two full-grown men, an Aussie and a Brit at that, knocked back a bit of the drink and immediately doubled over, spun around, and grimaced in pain, exclaiming, “It’s rubbing alcohol!” “My esophagus is on fire!” Claudia smiled and took a swig without blinking.
Before leaving the market, we all purchased a small gift for the miners we’d soon meet. Some opted for a bottle of Coca Cola, a baggie of coca leaves, and a pack of cigarettes (yes, they smoke in the mines). I bought nitroglycerin paste, ammonium nitrate, and a fuse for 20 Bs (about $3 USD). For the next few hours, I would carry this combination of items in a small plastic bag through the mines. Precious cargo.
The next stop was a local residence where we entered the backyard and were presented with protective gear: bright yellow plastic coats, long trousers, boots resembling Wellies, and red helmets with headlights.
Then the descent began. We entered the mines, which looked more like a cave to Hades, usually with our backs bent and heads ducked. Even at a hair under five feet tall, I was rarely standing upright. The tunnels are cramped, dark, and dusty, but at least remained cool for the first twenty minutes of walking. After we dropped down a two-meter shaft with the help of a rope (which I held one-handed, since my other hand was occupied with a bag of explosives), the temperature increased drastically and the air became more difficult to swallow. I struggled to breathe behind the cheap medical mask I was asked to wear so I chose to remove it. I was later scolded by Claudia, who warned of silicosis, asbestosis, and various cancers if I breathed too much of the unfiltered air. I was skeptical of how much I could contract in an hour, compared to the thirty years many of the miners spent there.
Claudia explained that there are three tiers of miners: the lowest are the salaried helpers, usually the youngest men. We met one such assistant in the tunnels who was fifteen years old. The next level are those who are essentially self-employed; they pay a fee to the Cooperative, who technically owns the mine space, but they are free to collect and sell every bit of silver they mine. These men make good money, and work however many hours they choose (which often depends on what silver is selling for in the market). The last tier is reserved for the men who sit in the office administering the Cooperative. They do not step foot in the mines, but drive Hummers and live the high life in Potosi.
Most of the miners contract some sort of lung disease while working in the lungs. They are aware that they will work hard, earn good money for some time, retire, and probably die shortly thereafter. Conditions are better for them today than they were in the past, but are still horrendous by broader standards.
The mines are defined by centuries of death and suffering, but also incredible wealth. The Spanish founded Potosi in 1544 specifically to mine the rich mountains around her (called Cerro Rico). They first tried to bring in African slaves to work the mines, but they died far too quickly for their purposes, unaccustomed to the altitude. So instead, the Spanish forced the native people into the mines. Rather than monitor the workers in person in the mines, the Spanish installed images of Satan to create a sense of fear and authority. But the local people realized that if the devil is the enemy of the Catholic Spanish, then he could be their ally. This figure is now known as El Tio (the uncle) rather than Satan, and miners still make offerings to him for protection and prosperity in the mines. Claudia showed us how they sprinkle coca leaves on the statue, followed by a splash of Ceibo (after drinking a bit, of course), and finally a cigarette or two.
After walking for an hour, we met a group of miners rushing around frantically in preparation for an explosion. We gifted them with dynamite and coca leaves, and they shook our hands and thanked us profusely. We were deep in the mountain, and the air was so thick with dust that our headlamps projected solid beams of light. We opted to move upwards before the explosions went off, mostly because our novice lungs could not handle any more dust. The miners, however, ran around without masks. Too hard to breathe with them, they said.
From above, we finally felt the rumble of the explosions. I was ready to leave at this point. The cramped space and thin air was too hard for me, as embarrassing as that is to admit after seeing the miners in their element. I was thankful to emerge into the sunlight, finally, and take some very deep breaths.
In the end, the warning was accurate. I was glad to have visited the mines, but I would not choose to go there again. I feel some guilt in this admission, mostly because I have the choice not to return and others don’t. It is a good source of income for the residents of Potosi and other neighboring towns. But there are children working those tunnels breathing in acrid, toxic dust and pushing around three-ton trolleys of silver.
Amid the supernatural beauty of Bolivia, there is real poverty, and also extreme measures to avoid said poverty. Potosi is another place I left I with mixed emotions and some vague weight on my conscience. I asked to be moved by my travels, and my wish has been granted in ways I never quite expected.