Potosi -located at 4067m- is one of the highest cities in the world, and for 400 years from the 16th century, it was also the most populated city in the world. At its peak around 150 000 people lived there, twice as much as in Paris at the same period of time. But Potosi´s history is not a happy one. We had an opportunity to visit the silver mines and get a glimpse on how the Potosi miner makes his way through the tunnels to find the precious metal, silver.
Potosi, the richest city in the world
During its 400 years of glory Potosi´s riches were being exploited and the majestic Cerro Rico (rich mountain in spanish) was the main target. Cerro Rico as its name says, was full of silver, ridiculous amounts of silver, and the Spanish Conquistadores went bananas when they discovered it. It gave them the opportunity to finance their expansion in the world and make the Spanish empire the wealthiest empire of its time.
But as every story comes to an end, Potosi´s silver was almost totally emptied from Cerro Rico. Some people say that with the end of the silver in Potosi, came the end of the Spanish empire. But the biggest employer is still the mighty Cerro Rico. Today 15 000 miners still risk their lifes to find small pieces of silver ore, which through a complex process is refined to a powder containing up to 80% of pure silver.
The process to mine silver is a hard job. With coca leaves in their mounth, a zip of pure 96% sugar cane alcohol for the miner and some offer for pacha-mama (mother earth), the miners – only men- get ready for a 10-12h workday.
Entering the mine
At the entrance, the first thing you see is a constant flow of railway wagons full with rock and silver ore being pushed by miners out the mountain. Wow these guys are strong, running at full speed while pushing one wagon which weights about 2 tones! And this is only the beginning, we haven’t entered the mountain yet.
Finally, inside the tunnel. The tunnels under Cerro Rico are about 500km long and more is being dug out every day. I think about the music video from Rammstein, hier kommt die Sonne. The environment is like in the music video: sweaty miners with hammers, big mechanical drills and dynamite, destroying the mountain inch by inch hier kommt die Sonne (here comes the sun).
Miners god, Tio
Our guide, an ex-miner, stops next to a devil like figure. “This is the miners god”, he says. “His name is Tio and we are all going to pray to Tio, to wish us a safe visit in the mines“. Tio is an alcoholic chain smoker, so the best thing you can offer him is cigarettes and booze – offerings for good luck in life. Every miner lights therefor a cigarette and puts it in Tio’s mouth. “Now we are blessed“, says the guide.
I’m starting to think, holy shit this is what they belive in! No geologists work in the mine, the mining business is driven by different corporations and they decided they don’t need any help. This makes the safety very limited and every tunnel is blown up without any calculation. Just a few pieces of wood keeps the tunnel from falling a part.
The hunt for silver
“Vamos!” shouts our guide and we follow. What we see now is a small entry which finally leads us to the silver. Eh, where is the silver? The miner working in a tiny room shows us. “Look at this vaine, it goes from north to south. This is our silver!”
The drill starts, the room is filled with dust and it’s hard to breath. The miner is drilling a 40 cm hole where he will put the dynamite. He needs to drill eight of these holes. Put the dynamite and BOOM. Easy, right?
Finally the miner stops drilling, we are alive and the mountain didn’t collapse. We stop for a quick chat with the miner, he tells us that he is 35 years old and that he’s been working here for the last 20 years. “So how long will you be working today” I asked, curious to know. “I’m staying here 5 more hours, in total I will be under ground for 10 hours. My son is helping me this afternoon after school.” “What! How old is he?” we all asked, shocked. “The same age as when I started mining, 15 years old.” After gifting him some dynamite, we wish him the best and start our return journey.
After a 2 hour visit, we finally can see it, hier kommt die Sonne!
Make it happen – Potosi mine Tour:
Many agencies offer to bring you to the mine in Potosi, choose a serious one and don’t understimate the risks.