The Potosi Silver Mines – Educated at Altitude!
Potosi, Bolivia – when you arrive into the city of Potosi here in Bolivia, apart from being breathless at 4090m above sea level, the first thing you’ll notice is the massive cone shape mountain called Cerro Rico (Rich mountain). This mountain is the reason for Potosi’s explosion of wealth back in the glory years between 1545 and 1783. The mountain held masses of silver within its bowels that supplies the Spanish Empire back in it’s not too nice rule of the Americas. To this day the mountain is still mined although silver is very hard to come by, especially in any rich vein and usually miners are simply hoping for a good pay-day rather than expecting it.
The miners back in the day of the Spanish were even less fortunate, by a long, long way. The Spanish did not car for the indigenous people, they thought of them as way below their own superiority, like most conquering civilisations. Many died within the mines after being overworked and even African slaves were brought to the mines in the latter years, they got an even tough ride again. It is estimated that during the Spanish reign approximately 8 million lives were claimed by the mountain. that really is a staggering figure and hard to comprehend. To this day it is the reason why superstition and ceremonies are deep-rooted within the mining community and rightly so.
Tito and His Thirst for Blood.
Tito, this is the name given to what we would know as the devil. Introduced by the Spanish to keep the superstitious Indians working, it has stuck, and is now a mixture of Catholicism and traditional Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth beliefs. Ceremonies are performed giving offering to Tito and the more regular ones take place inside the mine. Each section of mine has its regular workers and also their own Tito, a grand figure built to look like what we would perceive to be the devil. Here the miners will offer coca leaves, cigarettes and this crazy alcohol that is 95% proof! The miners drink it too. Other ceremonies include a yearly sacrifice of a Lama outside the entrance to the mines, the Lama is killed and its blood collected before being smeared over the walls and the entrance of the mine. All these offerings are in the hope of Tito will not need to quench his thirst for blood with the miners lives. Of-course the mines have taken an unbelievably number of souls in previous times but thankfully not as many now a days.
The Richest in the World
So in 1672 the next step came in Potosi’s history, a mint was established to coin the silver. The population was ever-growing and the city basked in glory and was seen as one of the richest cities in the whole world. The dollar sign we know today, $, it is said the PTSI for Potosi is where it comes from. Unfortunately the era did have a lifespan and after 1800 all of the silver was mined out leaving tin as the main mineral. Slowly the city’s wealth and stature declined and now being as any other city in Andean Bolivia.
My Date with Tito – the Devil
Tourism has taken off here in Potosi. As well as its museums, beautiful spanish architecture and its cool location, 4090m above sea level, you can now become a miner for a few hours too. It is a debatable subject, sending tourists into mines where there is regular collapses and dangerous dust floating in the tunnels of air, not a good idea? Well backpacking is all about doing the crazy stuff you won’t find in a Thomas Cook holiday brochure. So I went to find the best company to take me into the bowels of mother earth and a meeting with feared Tito.
Big Deal Tours
There was many options but I decided to go with Big Deal Tours, click here for their website. They had been recommended by other travellers, got a write up in the Lonely Planet and some good reviews on the net. They were also a bit more pricier than other companies but in this case I was willing to buy a bit more safety and reputation. It was a good choice too, the guys are all ex-miners with most of their families still working in the pits. Their goal is to get as many of their family out and into the safer job of tourism, and it pays too! Tour booked, B$150 and a promised duration of 5 hours, and of course a meeting with Tito.
The Miners Market
The first stop on our tour was at the miners market. This is the place where miners start their day, or end it. It sells all the equipment they might need, the number one best seller being coca leaves! There is plenty of places to get a filling bowl of soup and a small area where ladies with their long platted hair and array of hats cut and chop up slabs of meat and carcasses.
We were here to buy a few gifts for any miners we meet along the way. We were told not to buy alcohol or tobacco, the latter not a great mix when so many miners die of silicosis in their lungs. The shopping list was obviously coca leaves, then soft drinks and colouring books for the miners children. This didn’t cost much at all and we also got an introduction to the dynamite you can freely purchase here too. Our guide Pedro enjoyed his dynamite talk and kept people on their toes when he started tossing it for people to catch. He said “don’t worry, it needs a fuse.” He then put the fuse in and tossed it again. There was an uneasy group giggle, but we had faith in him, surely he wouldn’t risk blowing us all up. In one last demonstration he held the naked flame of his cigarette lighter on the stick of dynamite, he said “see, very safe.”
Getting on the Gear
A big part of safety concerns, even for miners themselves, is having the right safety equipment. There is no current regulations that are law, so us tourists are taking the risk. We continued on them to Big Deal’s main property where they had all the gear for us to don. The list was;
- Miners Light
- Wellington boots
- Basic Dust Mask
We were ready, as ready as we’ll ever be. I was a little uneasy with just having a simple mask, especially as the number one killer now with the miners is silicosis, and the average age they get that is in their forties. I now thought Dawn’s choice of not coming along may have been a good one! I was joined by my mate Claire though, her fella Phil had also declined to join, he has history dealing with miners clams for compensation in the UK, all relating to silicosis! We are crazy! Let’s go Claire!
Onward to Cerro Rico
After a quick stop at one of the mineral processing plants where we learned how different minerals were extracted tom their rocky covering we drove up to the massive mountain.
Cerro Rico rises another 700m higher than the city below, to 4782m above sea level. It used to be a lot bigger before the mining started too. Its baron look and red and orange glow were quite a sight. We stopped for some photos of the view and also looking back was a great vantage point over the city too.
The air was getting thinner now, deep breaths and let that oxygen flow, I thought what the hell was the air like in the mines? Better or worse? As long as there was some oxygen I’ll be fine though!
The Un-nerving Entrance
So we were standing outside the entrance, knowing over 8 million souls had entered and never came back out was a little creepy, hopefully all would be well today, at least for the next three hours or so. The mine is still in use but being Sunday it was quieter than usual, which i a good thing, less carts going up and down the primitive rail tracks that are common place on historical docks about mines in the UK. They are still 100 years behind here.
We slipped our masks over our faces, flicked our helmet lights on and delved into the darkness. It was eery and the hissing noises of the air hoses in some places were deafening but also a constant one throughout. Beams shakily held up sections and in some places collapses were evident, or even a future likely possibility! At first we walked full upright, the mine giving a clearance of at least 2 meters, but it soon became a little tighter.
Pedro would stop every so often and point out lines, or veins of minerals in the chamber ceiling, this is what the miners are looking for. The rich veins can hold some great wealth, especially when silver is located, but it is few and far between. He also said people working in the mine are of good health nowadays and no children work in the mines. I think due to its size and stories I’ve heard and things I have read children in some instances still do work in the mines. We didn’t see any but we did come across a young guy, think he was seventeen, that is young enough for me. He was carrying 40kg bags of minerals up three vertical ladders. It was hot and dusty. I didn’t see any masks worn either by the miners, surely the threat of silicosis I thought would at least scare them into using good quality masks.
It was evident to how dangerous the train carriages were. There is no brakes on these and obviously the tunnels do go at a gradient, so at times we had to jump to the side and let a ‘bucket’ on wheels though and going into the mine they were so fast, the miners even just riding them. It was also good to see this, my great granddad died in the mines in Wales, being hit by a runaway one, my mum said he was one in a million and was sadly missed by many for being such a kind person.
Another group of miners we met were chiseling holes into the walls of their mine ready for dynamite to be blasted later on that afternoon. It was tough work, again in guid conditions and the constant clink of the lump hammer hitting the chisel was a sound that will remind me of this experience every time I hear it. The tunnels now were very small, I was having to bend over quite far and Pedro the guide was setting a fast pace, it was hot, air thin and I was hoping these sections weren’t too long to traverse. I was out of puff!
Our Ascent to Tito
Finally, it was time to meet Tito himself, and kinda in the flesh. First it was a tough ascent though, three flights of vertical wooden ladders through three vertical shafts. It was quite a distance, maybe ech flight being 5m, at this altitude with thin air it was super tough. I was first and didn’t want to hold the grew up so I flew up. It nearly killed me and only just managed to get my leg onto a firm footing at the top with the helping hand of a miner. I should have taken my time, the rest of the group took much longer, why did I nearly kill myself, think Tito was getting excited at the prospect though. So, the rest of the group made it and Pedro ushered us into a dark tunnel nearby, only high enough for us to sit and this was where Tito resides. Wow he was big, and yes very devil like in features, big muscular body, horns and I was taken aback by his huge erect penis he was holding in the fist of his hand! The meaning of fertility with mother earth Pedro explained. There was evidence of many gifts and Tito obviously liked cigarettes too, he had about twenty half smoked ones hanging out of his mouth. Coca leaves were scattered everywhere and party popper string seemed popular too.
Pedro went through why Tito was so important to the miners and how they respect him and what he is capable of. We went though a little offering too. Pedro, who had nearly went through a couple of hundred grams of coca leaves himself in just over two hours, his cheek bulging like a hamster, offered the remaining leaves he had and then materialised a small bottle of the lethal 95% alcohol. It was tradition to give Tito some, and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) actually, before you drink. Well Pedro took a swig, pulled a distorted face and passed it to me. I had already suffered recently with a dicky stomach so I simply wet my lips and that was enough, it was burning pure alcohol. Other took proper drinks and again, distorted faces were the picture of the day! The understanding of Tito and Pacha Mama complete it was time to search for the day light and leave the darkness of these historical mines.
I made it Out!
So I survived, no collapses and no other dodgy situations thankfully. Dawn was pleased to see me, I think, and another experience to savour. Definitely Potosi is worth at least a couple of nights, and the mines is a different experience that I’m glad I did.
A brilliant insight into the mines is covered in a 2006 documentary, ‘The Devil’s Miner’. This is about a young boy and his unfortunate circumstances where he has to work in the mines to support his family and his schooling. It is well worth a look. Check out the website http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/devilsminer/mountain.html