Scratching the surface: the silver mines at Potosí

We arranged our tour of the infamous silver mines of Potosí several days in advance via email with Big Deal, a company run by a cooperative of ex-miners. We were glad to be supporting a venture that shares its money with the people working for it, not some other gringotastic outfit. We had read up about the mines and were well aware that the tour is perhaps not suitable for claustrophobes, those with asthma, and even those above, oh, 4ft tall. Not to be deterred, we braced ourselves for a challenge and signed the death release form.*

* not kidding.

First we went to the miners’ market to buy gifts of coca leaves and fizzy drinks for the miners we would meet on the way through the mine. We were also shown examples of dynamite that anyone could buy, no questions asked. Think of buying dynamite anywhere else in the world – surely you’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops. Fourteen year old boy in Potosi wandering around with some spare change? Here you go, laddy, no questions asked. The reason for this is that, although thankfully less common as the years go by, there are boys as young as 10 years old working in Cerro Rico.
First they took us to a factory where they process the minerals – a dirty, loud, and confusing experience. The machinery is clunky and deafening and we had to carefully watch our step and our heads as we worked our way round. Here is where they smash the mined rock and mix it with water and chemicals to extract every bit of silver or whatever other mineral they are working with. Cerro Rico was once estimated to be 90% silver, but the majority of that is long gone now, and the miners we spoke to were taking whatever they could find, like zinc, which is cheaper than silver but more abundant at the moment. Indeed, so honeycombed and criss-crossed is Cerro Rico, that there is talk of it not being unreasonable to foresee a significant collapse within the coming years.

So what did we do? We went into the mines. And despite the mental preparation, it is intense in there. Remember, you are at altitude and chewing coca (lots of coca) will help you inside the mine. Our guide said he wanted us all with 50 leaves in our mouths, and although James and I were well on the way to becoming seasoned chewers by then, I don’t think we quite managed 50 each. We started by putting our headtorches on and within a few metres we were crouched down making our way through the tunnels. There were moments when James and I had to squat right down and inch our way along, so tiny were the passages. The heat was manageable but the dust was everywhere – underfoot was ankle deep in muddy water and we had to be careful not to get our boots stuck. Putting your head up too quickly or even looking ahead, not at the floor, could get your helmet a good crack, and my neck, back and legs were strained into crooked angles as I made my way through. Moving on hands and knees would have been easier if it weren’t for the muddy, rocky floor. It was hard going and we were glad of a guide at the front and back of our small group to make sure everyone was coping and no one got left behind.

We stopped and chatted with miners along the way, and heard personal stories of our guide’s family history in Cerro Rico and an individual perspective on the silicosis pneumonia which claims so many lives in the mines. After watching the famous documentary The Devil’s Miner at the Joy Ride cafe in Sucre, which portrays two young brothers balancing working in the mine to support their family with trying to go to school and live a normal life, it was refreshing to hear that with each passing year, fewer and fewer children are working in the mines, and the miners who have children now are striving to get them an education and better opportunities. However, our guide was adamant that working in the mines was not something to be ashamed of: “if you steal and cheat and lie for a living, you should be ashamed,” he said to us as we crouched down for a rest, “but if you do an honest day’s work and work hard, it doesn’t matter if it’s dark and dirty – you’ve nothing to be embarrassed about”.

I think he must have heard a lot of gringos bemoaning the state of the mines and the poor souls who work them, and it is true – the mining practices themselves have changed little since colonial times, and most of the work in the mine itself it still done with hand tools and dynamite. Indeed, while we were in there, we came across a number of “gophers” – apprentice miners working from the bottom up, and whose job it was to carry up to 80kg of rock on their backs in plastic sacks up to the surface and scurry back down again for more. Don’t get me wrong – it is grim work indeed, but for the miners’ collectives who we came across, there was also a sense of camaraderie and strong bonds among the teams. If you are going to spend 10 hours a day in the darkness, not eating a thing (they only chew coca in the mines), it is important to have the right mindset to do it, and a strong team of co-workers can only help with that.

One of the last things we did was spend some time visiting the miner’s devil called Tío: a seated, grimacing, clay devil with the classic horns and an enormous manhood – a symbol of masculinity and power in the mines (women are not allowed down here; tourists excepted, apparently). Our guide was careful to point out that Tío is an indigenous devil – not the Catholic devil – and as such, they were not afraid of him in the same way as they might be otherwise. He explained that they placate Tío with offerings of cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves and fizzy drinks etc, as they want him to provide the miners with good veins of silver and minerals, but they do not hesitate to swear at Tío and have a dig at him if he doesn’t deliver. It seems to me to be a balance of give and take, and although lots of the youngest miners don’t bother anymore, the older miners, and our guide himself, absolutely believe in Tío, and we weren’t about to test him, so each of us were encouraged to spill some alcohol, take a sip, and ask something of Tío, before leaving some coca leaves for him.

The tour is physically and mentally demanding, and for that reason there are two guides with each group so that if you feel you want to turn back, you can do so safely. Just make sure you don’t decide that halfway through as it’s the same distance whichever way you go! The most difficult aspect was bending double to crouch through the tunnels, and a series of three vertical ladders cemented into the rock shaft which took us from one level of the mines to the other. We actually crossed Cerro Rico from one side to the other on our tour, and it is the only one which visits working mines, not mines that have been closed off for tourists.

So – worth a visit? Absolutely. The mines are dark, dirty and wet, and with a visit that lasts a good couple of hours, it is certainly not for the faint hearted, but I never felt unsafe. As our guide explained, a life in the mines means a positive attitude can make all the difference, so take it easy, chew some coca, and look after one another, and you’ll have a brilliant and deeply affecting visit.

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4 thoughts on “Scratching the surface: the silver mines at Potosí

  1. Nice article Ruth. We went on a tour with the same guys you did a couple of days after watching The Devil’s Miner (on James’ recommendation) but I left feeling confused. I asked about the boy from the film and the guide told us that he was an actor who had never worked in the mines and who now has a tour company in uyuni. But i’m not sure I buy that. It seemed a little bit like the guides were determined to present a positive picture of life working in the mines by brushing over the negative side of things, like how many millions of people have died doing that job. I felt like I had to take everything they said with a pinch of salt. But maybe we just caught them on an off day.

    • Hi Fergus, glad you liked the post, and thanks for an interesting perspective. We heard that the kid in the film was a miner but made some money from the film and his family aren’t in the mines any more. We definitely got the impression that the guides were trying to present things as “not as bad as in the film”. We didn’t mind that too much, after all, it must be a little wearing being at work and having benevolent gringos passing through wringing their hands over how awful your life is…I get both sides, and I’m not sure we necessarily got the full picture (our guide’s father died at age 59 or something, thought to be a good age) but we left under no illusion that that work is not to be envied, no matter how proud a tradition it may or may not be. We are in Arequipa at the moment, where are you two headed next?

  2. Hi Ruth and James…. and any other intrepid travellers who are currently discovering life on the edge! Wow! Sounds great. Ian and I were in a copper mine end of last year and a slate mine in North Wales last week…. do you think our family has a reckless streak?! Great photos and info on your experience. Lovely to keep in touch. We’re missing you guys this end at family ‘get-togethers’…. but somehow with the best will in the world, I think you and James are having too great a time to be missing us! Take care. Look forward to reading more of the blog soon. Elaine

    • Hiya Laney 🙂 Where was the copper mine? Going underground is certianly an experience. We went to Kent’s Cavern in Devon a few years back, on a much slicker and risk-free visit…one lady was even in heels! But it still looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. It’s the quiet and absolute darkness that gets me…makes you feel very small.

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