This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Giving Mountain: Into the Mines of Potosi

We finally get out of Uyuni, Bolivia (with cash in hand) and take the six hour bus to Potosi. Before coming here I knew that Potosi is a colonial town and a mining town, but what I did not know is that it would end up being one of the most fun visits that we have had in a while. A lot of this is just due to luck and the good timing of our arrival in June.

Baby You're a Rich Man

In 1545 Potosi was conceived around one of the richest silver mines in human history. In its heyday Potosi was the largest city in the New World and bigger than Paris or London. Up until the late 18th century, 45,000 tons of silver had been extracted. Standing over the town is the mountain Cerro Rico whose veins have been giving out these minerals for centuries while millions of indigenous people and African slaves gave up their lives in return to The Mountain That Eats Men. The Spanish used to force workers to stay underground for six months at a time. Today, 466 years later, there is hardly any silver here but miners are still working in Cerro Rico to find zinc and tin.
Cerro Rico overlooking Potosi
Like many of the colonial towns we have been visiting in South America Potosi, is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is actually the first time where I question that distinction. Yes, the city center is full of old buildings with nice interior courtyards but besides the churches and Casa de Moneda not much seems well-maintained. Walls are crumbling and there is way too much grafitti. Traffic is also a problem. The narrow Spanish streets were designed for mules not buses. And being at 4060m (13,320 ft - making Potosi the highest city in the world) oxygen is hard to come by. Our first night here I definitely feel the altitude. The worst part is not the lack of air. It's that I am sucking in diesel whenever I need to take a deep breathe.
The center of Potosi still has several gems and
ancient churches sprouting above town
Despite the flaws there is some charm here. In the central market you can buy groceries, coca leaves, toiletries, pirated cd's, get a suit made and have lunch all within a few steps of each other. Modern Potosi appears to have everything, but an overabundance of nothing. There are a few ATM‘s, one cinema, one supermarket, some discos and small variety of restaurants.
The movie theater
The main sight in town is the Casa Real de la Moneda, a nice museum dedicated to Potosi’s wealthy silver past. It is housed in the former mint. In the mid 1700’s, it cost US $10,000,000 to build (that‘s in today‘s dollars). Upon hearing this outrageous sum, the king of Spain assumed it was built in silver. It’s not. The building is still well-maintained and houses the original silver coin-making contraptions and some luxurious art from back in the day.
A procession in front of the former Spanish mint
Here Comes the Sun

We happen to arrive to Potosi on Saturday June 18th, a few days before the winter solstice. We and some others in our hotel are invited by two of the Bolivian staff to go with them to a party on a hill to commemorate winter solstice by welcoming the sunrise. On June 21, we leave our place in the cold and dark of 4:30 AM and walk about a half hour with just a thermos of coca tea and a bottle of Bolivian Whiskey - 96% pure evil cane alcohol - to keep us warm.
Our first introduction to "Bolivian Whiskey"
is this fire demonstration on the sidewalk
We make it up the hill where people are gathering in small groups covering a fairly large area. People are building fires. Usually all year the sun keeps us warm, but today, the shortest day of the year, it needs our help. The fires will give the sun energy and warmth. There are many different small bands of musicians walking around playing traditional music. This party is a wonderful mix of urban folks and campesinos (rural folks). Everyone is huddled around the fires. It is cold, but people are in good spirits.
One of the many bands on hand
As light begins to climb over the hills to the east and the sun finally starts to rear its head, the fiesta stops and everyone turns to face the sun. It becomes very quiet. People raise their hands, palms out, to welcome the sun. Random individuals in the crowd make benedictions starting with the Quechua phrase "Hai Yai" and when finished everyone replies with "Hai Yai." I do not know what Hai Yai means.
Facing the sun
Facing the crowd
The sun is up. People give hugs and shake hands. The climax of the event has been reached, but the revelry continues. Now people are more generous than when it was dark sharing alcohol and coca leaves with strangers, pulling us into their dance circles and asking to pose for photos with our group of gringos and accepting our own camera requests.
Mika making friends

I Me Mine

Just like the boy in Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree, the people in Potosi over time have adapted new ways to get wealth from Cerro Rico. Today it is through tours to the mines deep inside the mountain. As usual, we do not know which company to choose and decide to go with a new agency created by a group of very nice guys who were ex-miners then ex-guides and now small business owners. Also, their tour is the only one that includes lunch.
Grilled llama for lunch
The tour starts with us putting on our mining outfit, boots and helmet then it is a shopping stop to the Miners Market. At the stores here the miners can buy everything they need for their work such as: clothing, tools, wheel barrow tires and dynamite. We are at this shop to buy gifts for the miners. Since this tour will take us to an actual working mine we bring goodies to show our appreciation to the miners that they are tolerating a group of foreigners with flashing cameras hanging around their "office." This market is the one chance in my life that I will have to legally buy dynamite, but I chicken out when I realize that I will have to carry it around the mine until we find someone to blow it up for me. Our guide suggests that we buy 2L bottles of juice for the miners. The mines can get incredibly hot and dusty and the miners will spend all day down there without proper hydration. They never eat in the mines.
In the miners shop our second encounter with Bolivian
 Whiskey - the favorite drink of the miners.
We all take a swig of the 96% hell in a bottle and then our guide puts it back on the shelf
At the market we also stock up on coca leaves buying bags for 5 and 10 Bolivianos (US $0.72 and 1.45). The coca leaf is as important to the miners as their drills and helmets. Because they never eat in the mines the coca leaf is used to stave off hunger and gives necessary energy to the miners. We do not see one miner without a large coca leaf bulge in his cheek. Sharing coca leaves - by putting two pinches from your bag into someone else's bag or into their hands -  is also a good way to make friends. Two Swiss guys in our group are coca leaf professionals. Pretty soon we all (apart from one woman) have wads in our mouths that last us throughout the morning. I later learn from them that chewing coca leaves will show up in urine tests as cocaine in the system. Oh well, there went my chances at the Olympics.
A coca leaf seller
After shopping we go to a refinery where they process the minerals. As soon as we arrive some workers are waiting and we hand out some coca leaves. They are like kids on Halloween with their bags open waiting to get a treat. We pass by the various whirling machines that finish at a pile of sludge that should hold some metals. This is where the process ends. The sludge at this refinery is sent off to Brazil where they pull out the precious metals.
Our guide showing us specks of metal in the strainer.
A lot of it is probably fool's gold
There's something of value in there?
After the refinery we go to the mine entrance, switch on our headlamps and walk into the unknown. The first part of the mine is constructed from stones dating back to colonial times which is not very reassuring. We go further and further sometimes through very low, narrow passageways and other times opening up into large cavernous sections. To avoid hitting my head I end up doing a type of duck walk while others prefer to bend forward or to the side. Headlamps are our only source of light and bumping helmets onto stone is not uncommon. The temperature has changed and it begins to feel much warmer. The dust in the thin air has increased and I can taste it when I am breathing.

After walking a  bit and getting used to the conditions underground we arrive at El Tio to pay our respects to the deity of this underworld. Above ground the miners may pray to Pachamama or Jesus, but it is El Tio who rules the mines. We take a break as the guide talks to us about the history and present conditions of the mines. There are a countless number of mines and tunnels in the mountain and the history is ruled by tales of exploitation. Now the mines are run by small cooperatives. Some of these cooperatives share tunnels while others work their own. The miners only earn money from the amount of minerals they take out of the mine. The conditions are far from ideal but at least now in this century the miners have some control over their own destiny. Each mine has its own Tio who they pray to to bring a richness of minerals and ask for their personal safety.
El Tio
We leave offerings of coca leaves and spills of Bolivian Whiskey to Tio to ask for our safety for the rest of the tour and for that of the miners working far below us. We head further away from the entrance climbing deeper down a few rickety ladders and through one tight space on our hands and knees. There is the smell of gunpowder from recently blown dynamite and the dust has gotten worse. We climb down a hole and squeeze into a little cavern where three miners are taking a break. They kindly answer our questions for a while and we fill their bags of coca leaves before leaving.
Having a break
Sharing coca leaves
As we head back towards light we have to scramble out of the way and off the tracks several times as miners make their way towards the exit hauling excruciatingly heavy carts full of rocks.
Heavy load
There are so many mines and I am not sure how the guide chose ours. but we end up not seeing so many miners working today. Other tourists we talk to see dynamite explosions and drilling. Unfortunately, we seem to just catch the workers as they are taking out rocks or having a break. Other than that the tour is fantastic and a real eye-opener to a world very far from my own.

I leave my one day in the mine with a much greater appreciation for these miners who depend greatly on the generosity of Pachamama and Cerro Rico and the benevolence of Tio for their livelihood and safety. Our tour feels like we go far into the mine, but it barely scratches the surface of where these miners go daily. And since new mining routes are constantly being made it makes me wonder how much longer can Cerro Rico remain stable with its insides forever being dug out. Accidents are always a danger. However, the biggest threat to the miners is silicosis - a disease caused by the formation of dust in the lungs. Many miners are afflicted with this when they are as young as 35 or 40 years old.
Entrance to the mining area under Cerro Rico
Editor's Note: We have one more big event with the miners in Potosi (hint: llama sacrifices), but since this post is getting long I will save it for next time. So stay tuned... 

It's ready. Click here to read my second post about Potosi.

The video below is the trailer for the 2005 documentary film The Devil's Miner about a 14 year old boy working in  the mines in Potosi and the miners' relationship with Tio below ground and their god above. The second mine that the boy works at, Rosario, is coincidentally the same one that we visit on our tour. I highly recommend you rent this film. It gives very good insight into life of the miners of Potosi.

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