Into the Underworld, a Weekend in Potosí

Cerro Rico, it is believed that this mountain has killed 8 million men since the 16th century
Church on the main square in Potosi
Church on the main square in Potosi

Our last post finished with us navigating our way through the narrow streets of Potosi in the random taxi we picked up in Sucre. We eventually found our hostel and checked in to a reasonable looking room with a private bathroom. We decided to go out quickly to explore the town however Jacqueline was feeling ill and stayed back for a nap whilst Alex, Esmee, Katinka and I went out. We quickly found the central plaza (10 de Noviembre) and although it was smaller than the one in Sucre, they certainly hadn’t skimped on the Christmas decorations as there were trees and fake snowmen, candles, a model Father Christmas and thousands of lights. We then explored the central market which was surprisingly large but half closed. In our attempts to escape the meat smell we walked down some stairs and found a section selling everything from dried pasta to electronics.

Ambushed by a tiny strangling grandma
Ambushed by a tiny strangling grandma

Esmee needed a watch so we walked into one of the watch shops and looked at all the various types locked away in glass cabinets. They looked expensive but we asked the owner what his cheapest watch was and were surprised to find one for £4. Although the shop keeper started off by talking to us in really loud, slow Spanish once he realised that I could speak some he quickly switched to much quieter and more rapid Spanish that I struggled to follow. He was obviously pleased to meet us and insisted on introducing us to his wife and mother who were also both in the shop. Despite the fact that I was struggling to understand him he told us that we was keen to visit England but couldn’t because of the Bolivian economy. Once Esmee had decided on a watch she asked if she could get a photo with the him and he was delighted at the request. Once Esmee had her photo Katinka was asked to get involved and finally his mother who must have been at least 70 and less than 5ft tall wanted a photo with me. Once I agreed she immediately jumped up and stood on her chair so that she was my height and promptly put me in what felt like a headlock although the picture shows that she was just giving me a kiss on the cheek, much to the amusement of everyone. Luckily a suitable photo was taken and she relented shortly before I was about to pass out from lack of oxygen (we were at 4100m altitude so I was already struggling).

Business in the market now concluded we made our way back towards the central square. On our way we found a building that took up an entire large block of the town called the Casa de la Moneda which is the museum of the mint. We’d read that this was one of the best museums in Bolivia so we stuck our heads in and found out that they were running a tour in English an hour later. After a stop back at the hostel we returned for the tour without Katinka but with Jacqueline. We weren’t really sure what to expect, but since it was described so glowingly in the guide books we thought we’d better check it out.

The tour started with a couple rooms of religious art which were interesting but nothing we hadn’t seen before. When we got onto the history of the mint the tour got interesting. It turns out that this sprawling complex was one of the few mints of the Spanish empire and, due to it’s size, the climate and the laziness of the administrators (the guide’s words, not mine) all of the minting machinery from the 1600s to the 1950s (when the last coins were minted) was preserved in its original location within the building. We started off by seeing the mule-driven original pressing machinery that was built in Spain, shipped to South America, carried by llamas up to the altiplano, and finally reassembled and used for over a hundred years to produce the majority of the coins for the Spanish empire. The machinery was vast and wooden and the last in the world as, although there were others in Peru, Mexico and Spain, they had all rotted away long ago. After this we saw the screw press used to stamp the coins, designed by Leonardo Da Vinci as well as the earlier hammer based versions. After seeing many examples of coins produced by these machines, we moved into the next room to find the steam based evolutions of the original machines and then finally the electric machines that were used until the 1950s when Bolivia stopped producing it’s own coins. What was incredible with everything in the museum was that it was all original and housed in a beautiful old colonial building. Potosi is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere so why would the largest mint in the Spanish empire be based here? The answer lies within Cerro Rico, the mountain on the edge of the town which we’d be exploring the next day.

After the museum we headed back to the hostel to drop off Jacqueline who was still not feeling well and was shattered after the walk around the museum. We picked up Katinka who was ready for dinner after her rest. We walked into the centre and found the Koala Cafe, a restaurant owned by the same people as our hostel, the Koala Den. They had an eclectic menu including one the best (and cheapest) veggie burgers that I’ve had in a very long time and a local beer called Potosína which, although very light in colour, was one of the better local beers that I’ve had in South America so far.

After dinner we walked back past the central square to find it packed with people. The earlier decorations had been joined by lots of food stalls selling food that varied from a “Hog Dog Sand Winch” (hotdog) to pizzas, fruit dipped in chocolate and candy canes. There were also now lots of people dressed up in costumes ready to pose for photos with visitors, these included the Grinch, Captain Jack Sparrow, Chewbacca, a Storm Trooper, and lots of Disney characters. We decided to sneakily buy the girls some candy canes for Christmas day when they weren’t looking and on our way put of the square we saw a man selling santa hats. We couldn’t discretely buy five santa hats so as soon as we got back to the hostel we feigned to Esmee and Katinka that we needed to go and buy some water and snuck back to the Plaza and bought one for each of us (it will make a good Christmas day photo). Getting back into the hostel with four Santa hats stuffed under my coat was not easy (Alex took one) but we didn’t bump into the girls and anyone else who saw me will have just presumed that I was carrying a rather healthy belly! I was shattered by that point so we went straight to bed.

The next morning we were due to be up early for the main attraction of Potosí, the mines in Cerro Rico. As we got up though it quickly became clear that Katinka and Jacqueline were still suffering and Alex was also not feeling well. Since a tour of the mine involves spending over two hours crawling around underground the three who weren’t feeling great decided not to go, leaving only Esmee and I. The guide collected us and we made our way to the warehouse to be fitted with our mining equipment.

Before I talk about the tour itself though I want to say a little about Cerro Rico…..

Although the Spanish never found El Dorado what they did find is Cerro Rico, a mountain containing a huge concentration of silver, zinc, tin and other minerals. It has now been mined for over 500 years and over that time has apparently lost 1000m in height. The one mountain contains 480 mines of which 180 are still in operation. Even though they think that mining may have to stop in as little as 20 years it still employs 10,000 miners. In the last 500 years they believe that enough silver has been extracted from Cerro Rico to build a bridge all the way from South America to Spain. However mining has taken a heavy toll on the people of Bolivia. Apparently somewhere between 8 and 9 million people have been killed by the mine due to accidents or poor working conditions since the 16th century. Silicosis is still a huge problem and ensures that the average lifespan of a miner is only 50 years. Although conditions and working hours are better than they used to be they are still pretty atrocious and probably not much better than Victorian coal mines in England. Boys as young as 14 work in the mines often because after the death of their father from accidents or Silicosis, it is the only way to support their family. There is little other employment in Potosí and the miners regularly petition the government to build factories so that the locals have an alternative once the mines are finally closed, most recently going on strike for a month but so far with apparently no effect.

Pre-armed with a little of this information we never expected a trip down the mines to be fun, but it is an opportunity to experience a little of the history of the area and the conditions the miners face. We’d also selected a socially conscious tour that is run by ex-miners and donates a portion of its profits to the welfare of the miners and their widows.

Dynamite and Coca leaves ready, now off to the mine!
Dynamite and Coca leaves ready, now off to the mine!

At the warehouse we were given wellies, over-trousers, a jacket, a helmet and finally a head lamp with a cable that ran down to a battery pack strapped to a rubber belt tied around our waists. We then piled back into the van and headed to our first stop, the miners market. We got off the bus and walked into a store selling mining supplies. As soon as we’d all crammed into the store the guide picked up a pile of sticks of dynamite and threw one of them at each of us. Of course the first person was surprised and dropped theirs much to our horror, but it didn’t explode. The guide explained that dynamite is safe up to around 100 degrees Celsius and demonstrated that it wouldn’t explode on impact by throwing another stick at the floor. Now somewhat relieved we watched as he showed us the standard 3 minute fuse that the miners use and a bag of ammonium nitrate that is packed around the dynamite to give it a little extra punch. These three things together are known as completo (a complete kit for blowing things up) and anyone can just walk into the shop and buy them. A completo kit of one stick of dynamite, one length of fuse and a bag of ammonium nitrate costs £2.20 and we’re were advised to buy them as gifts for the miners. We were also shown the 96% alcohol that the miners drink (often while mining, what a great combination) and then led up to where we could buy a bag of coca leaves for the miners for 50p.

Extracting metal from ore
Extracting metal from ore

After the market our next stop was the processing plant where the miners bring their extracted ore. We were led inside and shown the initial machine that is used to break up the rocks into a powder, and then the machines where the powder is combined with cyanide and other chemicals to separate the metal and stone. This is called the float process because the metal comes to the surface and is skimmed off the top and left to dry to become a metal powder. Bolivia apparently don’t have their own smelting capabilities, so much of this raw material is then shipped off to China where much of the resulting metals end up in the electronics industry. In fact it is quite possible that the computer or mobile phone that you are reading this on contains metals originally extracted by hand by the miners of Potosí.

Once we’d seen the processing it was time to visit the mine. The bus drove us up to about 4400m (300m above the town) and we got off into what looked like a small settlement, but is actually the administration buildings of the Co-op that runs the mine we were about to enter. The mine entrances are not hard to spot as they had rails for the minecarts coming out of them. We were assured that our mine was still in use, but the rails and carts were often in such a poor condition that it is a wonder that they are of any use at all.

The entrance to the underworld
The entrance to the underworld

We entered the mine via an entrance that was about 2m by 2m and waterlogged. Within 50m the ceiling had dropped and we were walking with a constant stoop. We carried on walking for about 20 minutes and as we got deeper the stone supported entrance gave way to wooden props, many of which were cracked and broken (see photo below). The ceiling went up and down so that occasionally we could walk fully upright, but for much of the time we were either slightly or very stooped and constantly trying not to bang our heads on the ceiling. Eventually we came to a stop and the guide explained that the mine was spread out over many levels. We were about to climb up one level, the path up would be very narrow and steep but once we got to the top it would open out again. We started climbing up and sure enough the path closed in from all sides until we were scrambling up nearly on our knees with very little room to manoeuvre. I have never been pot holing but I imagine that it is something like this. Suddenly the Israeli guy in front of me stopped and said that the way in front was too narrow to continue. I couldn’t see round him and neither could I understand how he’d missed where the guy in front of him had just gone. I suddenly started to wonder whether we’d missed a turning and whether the three of us at the back of the group were now lost in the mine. Luckily those thoughts didn’t last long as when I turned around I could see that above our heads another path led back the way we’d just come. I could make out lights along that route so I quickly climbed up and sure enough 20m along the tunnel the rest of the group were waiting for us. We had now reached the second level and the path opened out again, not quite as wide as the first level but there were a few places where we could stand up. We made our way along this level, stopping to look at some of the mineral deposits on the way. We were now in areas that were still mined so often cavities opened above our heads and we could see vertical cylinders that had been drilled above us ready to accept dynamite.

Climbing up a level in one of the roomier bits of the mine
Climbing up a level in one of the roomier bits of the mine

After a while the guide told us that we were about to climb up another level. The entrance to this one looked even smaller than the first but after we jumped up into a narrow tunnel that seemed to have very little grip, it proved to be no worse than the first. Again once we reached the top the new level opened out a bit but this time it was more distinctly more haphazard with occasional drops off one side where it collided with other tunnels and almost nowhere where we were able to stand up. The exception being areas that were actively mined where there were huge blast holes. We didn’t go as far on this level, but we eventually reached a rope that disappeared above us up the rock face. Our final job was to climb this rope up one more level. It looked difficult but as I climbed up I realised that there were easy places to put your feet and was even able to pose for a photo that Esmee took from the top (the girls always went up first behind the guide). We all reached the top and scrabbled along a narrow ledge to a small opening where we could sit down while the guide gave us some more history and information on the mine. Part of this involved us turning off our headlamps to see just how dark it is without them (totally). Once we’d finished we started to head back out of the mine the same way that we came starting with the descent of the rope. Throughout the tour the mine was very dusty and obvious not good for our lungs. We’d all bought disposable masks at the miners market however the guide told us to only use them when it was really dusty. The extra effort required to breath through them at 4400m above sea level means if you use them for the whole tour you’ll just starve yourself of oxygen. That said the masks weren’t even as good as the cheap DIY ones that you get in B&Q. The only way to stop air going round it was the hold it onto your face, sealing the edges. This is impossible while walking so every time we stopped I clamped it on and did my best to catch my breath through it.

El Tio, the demon god of the underworld
El Tio, the demon god of the underworld

On the way back out we stopped to see El Tío. This involved a crawl off the main tunnel on hands and knees until we came to a statue in the entrance of a tunnel of a devil-like creature. Red with black horns it was about the size of a human, with a mouth stuffed with cigarettes and between his legs a large erect phallus. The locals believe that while Pachamama rules above ground El Tío (the uncle) rules below the ground and as a result he is covered with offerings of coca leaves. Seeing this effigy emerge out of the black was not a pleasant sight, and I was quite pleased that after this we were due to head straight out of the mine. The walk back out along the first level seemed to take even longer and when I finally saw light at the end of the tunnel I was genuinely relieved. I have never been so pleased to see daylight and breath clean air again.

Although this was a fascinating experience and I’m very glad we did it, I’ll be very happy not to repeat it. I’m also slightly glad that Alex couldn’t come in the end, as I don’t think she would have enjoyed it and it was such a difficult experience that if she had struggled in the mine I’m not sure how much I would have been able to do to look after her.

Relieved to escape alive
Relieved to escape alive

After emerging from the mine we went back to the warehouse to drop off our gear and then back to the hostel. We found the girls chilling out. Alex and Jacqueline had spent the morning watching a movie and although they were all still feeling rough they were ready to move on. Before we could get the bus though Esmee and I had to eat as we were starving from the morning’s tour, so we went to the market and bought fruit, yoghurt and bread and had an improvised lunch. We were keen to get on the road so we found a taxi that was just about big enough for our bags and us and headed to the bus station. When we arrived we were immediately accosted by two women desperate to sell us bus tickets. I told them to hold on while we got our bags out of the taxi and paid the driver, and our reluctance to immediately purchase bus tickets was interpreted as a bargaining tactic and we were immediately offered a 15% discount on the ticket. We picked the lady who was offering the bus leaving the soonest and bought our tickets. As it happened the bus was about to leave so we climbed aboard and we were on our way very quickly. The bus wound its way through the mountains and as we progressed towards Uyuni the scenery slowly became more desert like. The sun went down with a beautiful red sunset and soon enough we were pulling into Uyuni with hopes for a great tour starting the next morning.

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

Leave a Reply