Silver mines of Potosi

(continuer en français) – Published: December 16, 2020

A visit to the silver mines is a must during a stay in Potosi. There are many other mines in Bolivia, but none of them are so easy to visit and one wonders whether they are still in operation for tourism purposes.

The merits of the visit are often debated, with some travellers preferring to forego it out of respect for the unfortunate miners who deserve better than to be considered as a show. Sometimes this reluctance is more or less confused with the fear of claustrophobia. This opinion is perfectly respectable, as is the decision to enter the mines, following one of the many guides, often a former miner who has found a less dangerous means of existence there.

Officially the state-owned mine is closed. Since then, about forty cooperatives continue to operate in the inside of the Cerro Rico, which dominates Potosi. The cooperators share any profits, without actually working themselves. As soon as an exploitable seam is discovered, they hire low-cost staff to do the work. There is hardly any silver left, but mainly tin and lead.

In preparation for the visit, it is necessary to go through the dressing room to put on a protective suit, boots and a helmet with a headlamp. Then gifts for the miners, bags of coca leaves, 96-degree alcohol, home-made cigarettes and drinks must be bought. There is a small kiosk covered with plastic sheeting where miners and visitors can buy supplies.

Before starting their long shift underground, the miners gather in small groups, chewing coca leaves that gradually form a ball that deforms the cheek of a large bump. It will be chewed for a long time to obtain the energiser that will keep them in inhuman conditions. There is also an old woman serving a quick meal that seems to be well appreciated.

The time has come to enter the mine. At the entrance a noisy compressor sends air inside through a large plastic pipe. The perimeter of the entrance is beautifully constructed, giving the impression of a masonry structure. It is only a facade, from the first few metres underground, the walls hold on by themselves, a few rare and expensive wooden planks barely reinforce the precariousness of the whole. Soon, the white point of the entrance disappears to leave only the light of the headlamps.

As my guide explains to me how the operations work in a narrower passage, we suddenly hear the rumble of an approaching wagon. We then have to hurry back to find a wider spot and squeeze against the rock. The wagon passed in front of us, the miners hardly noticed us, pushing blindly, they would be quite unable to stop their heavy load.

It is hot, the air is loaded with dust, the floor is uneven with mud puddles, the ceiling of variable height sometimes requires bowing. Galleries run along the sides, several are closed by a barred door, one serves as a reserve for dynamite. To reach the galleries above or below, it is necessary to crawl through holes equipped with rudimentary ladders.

At the end of a gallery, we see a series of holes into which the dynamite will be introduced, a fuse extends from one of them. Once the fuses are lit, the miners have only a few minutes to take shelter, as far away as possible. After the explosion, the rubble will be evacuated into the wagons.

On several instances my guide engages in conversation with the miners, a moment to give them the few gifts bought at the entrance. In particular, she mentions the rumours of a strike to force the cooperators to ensure better conditions for their staff. Accidents, illness or retirement are not covered and everyone relies on luck or the protection of the gods.

I sense that they are reluctant to accept her arguments. Their aim is to accumulate a little money and then to move on to something else, such as a shop or a taxi. Some succeed, keeping the dream of the followers alive, others fall before and fuel the vision of hell attached to the mines, not without reason. Although it is a far cry from the forced labour of the Indians or the African slaves of the past, conditions remain difficult for ridiculous wages.

On the way back to the exit, at the end of a dead-end corridor, there is a statue of the Tio, the god that the superstitious miners invoke to stimulate their luck. It is customary to make some offerings to him.

Visiting a mine therefore does not leave anyone indifferent and stirs up a mix of emotions and feelings, it creates pity and humility. Taking advantage of this favourable psychological state, a teenager sells mineral samples in the dazzling light of the exit. He explains that this allows him to escape from the mine for the time being, if this were to become insufficient, he would have to go in his turn.

Other wagons arrive, they are dumped on different heaps depending on the partners. This rubble will then be crushed and sorted in dilapidated facilities on the mountainside, until a concentration of ore is obtained that can be packaged in standard bags that will be marketed.

Cerro Rico has been drilled on all sides for almost 500 years. Thousands of galleries are dangerously intertwined. Many have lost their lives, a few have made their fortunes, hell and dreams in one place.

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15 comments

  1. This is fascinating and evokes so many conflicting emotions. You’re brave to enter the tunnels so many imminent dangers! A true traveler (you) sees not just the popular and beautiful places in the world, but also the less glamorous as a way of understanding what life is really like for people all over the world. Thank you for taking us there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is absolutely horrific! I had read about Potosi before but I thought it had been closed down many years ago. To think that in this day and age we still virtually enslave men to work in these conditions is painful. I’m glad you visited though and can write about it so that we know conditions like these still endure.

    Liked by 1 person

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