With your eyes open and the light of the torches extinguished, you find yourself surrounded by the darkest shade of black that you have ever experienced.
You could be anywhere, but the sharpness of this smothering darkness makes you conscious that this is definitely not the colour of night time, nor any other darkness that you have experienced before.
This is blackness where no light can penetrate nor ever will. It is blackness found only deep inside the ground.
Trekking into the depths – and the dangers – of Cerro Rico
We are in the Rosario mine, one of 170 interconnected mines which tunnel through the imposing 4700m Cerro Rico mountain, or Rich Mountain, in Potosí, Bolivia. Although its history of conquest and death is still unknown to many outside of South America, 15,000 miners continue to work in unimaginably brutal conditions.
Since 1545, residents of Potosí have had little choice but to excavate the earth looking for the precious minerals and metal which first brought the Spanish to the area and ensured the initial growth (and most likely ultimate death) of the city – silver.
Ex-miners now run tours deep into the mountain. Although only accessing some of the safer routes, they provide a stark and very tangible insight into the toil and danger endured daily. Before the tour you sign a disclaimer indicating that you enter at your own risk, and are aware that the most prevalent cause of death each year within the mines is being trapped by rock falls.
Upon entering, it is difficult to forget the weight of the millions of tonnes of rock and earth pressing down upon you, as only a series of wooden pillars seem to separate the roof from the ground below.
Merely passing through the many tunnels to view some of the working areas in the mine is a lesson in the brutal working conditions that the men face daily. We clamber through compact gaps in the rock, our welly boots providing little in the form of grip as we grasp at outcrops with shaking fingers, pincer rocks with knees and generally use any available limb to pull ourselves upwards. Dust disperses into clouds from the ground beneath our feet, dancing in the faint light of our head torches as it chokingly enters our noses and mouths.
Following this scramble, we seat ourselves beside a section of rock face recently mined, imagining the workers chipping away in patient expectation and optimism. Our sweat and heavy breathing bears testament to the hardship of merely arriving here, let alone then working a 10, 12 or even 24 hour shift.
Forced labour in the “mountain that eats men”
We are instructed to extinguish our head torches, and we sit in silence in the pervading darkness, suddenly conscious and respectful of the millions of lives which have been lost here over the past five centuries.
The story of Cerro Rico is one with which few outside of the continent are familiar. When the Spanish conquistadores originally discovered the bounty buried deep within the mountain, they forced millions of indigenous people and African slaves to work and live in the mines. This labour took the form of long shifts of up to 20 hours, with many workers not being allowed to leave the mine for periods of months or even years.
The miners – with some reverence – now refer to the Cerro Rico as where “the men eat the mountain, and the mountain eats the men”.
Protected El Tio – and abandoned by God
During our visit, we see no miners working. It is Sunday, and the previous afternoon was a day dedicated to celebrating Pachamama or Mother Earth. During this religious festival, miners and their families made offerings of llamas – whose blood can be seen spattering the buildings around the mine’s entrance – to request protection and good fortune in their work.
The llama meat was barbecued for the feast, before they buried the heads, bones and intestines in the ground as an offering to Pachamama – and a request for protection against the perils of their job. These celebrations were mixed heavily with beer and 95% alcohol and have left many in bed for the day.
Yet Pachamama is not the only force that they believe to affect their luck in the mines. One of our first stops is to visit El Tio, the devil-like spirit who presides over this underground world – a world which the miners believe has been abandoned by Pachamama and God. Formed from mud and earth, this almost life-size statue of a horned man is believed to bring luck and successful mining, so miners must pay their respects in the form of coca leaves, alcohol or tobacco left at the statue’s feet.
The gruesome hulk of the creature appears out of the darkness, and it is understandable why it is held in such fear and reverence by those who pass their days within its territory.
The realities of daily life working in Cerro Rico
Our guide, Ronald, is informative and cheerful. An ex-miner, he paid his dues of two years toiling in the depths of the earth alongside his father when he was 17, yet says he had “the good fortune” to find this job and so escape a life in the mines.
I don’t dare ask about his father. Ronald points out that miners can expect to live between 45 and 55 years before succumbing to the fate of the mines: silicosis from the dust which settles in their lungs. I wonder whether Ronald’s father also had the good fortune to escape the toil of the mines, or whether that escape only came with the finality of death.
Ronald seems unaffected by the silent menace embodied by the mine, making frequent jokes about having lost the way back to the entrance, or asking us how we like his ‘second home’. The closest we come to him acknowledging reality is when he talks about his need for coca leaves – which he spends the greater part of the four hour tour chewing. They help to alleviate the burning sensation that he feels in his lungs when he enters the mine. Although having escaped the hard labour that others continue, working as a guide still leaves him victim to the perils of the mine and the ultimate fate of any miner. Clearly his current salary and the fact he now only spends half of each day in the mine is compensation enough.
The money that Cerro Rico continues to offer is what ensures a steady stream of young men, some mere boys, arriving to work at the mine. Whilst average wages peak at 1500 BOB in Potosí itself (which is roughly minimum wage in the rest of Bolivia), miners can earn anywhere between 3000 BOB and 5000 BOB per month, depending on the quality of the minerals they are able to extract.
But the women who work outside the mine separating the minerals – many of whom are widows of deceased miners – show how everything must come at a price. With the deaths of their husbands, women teetering on the edge of dire poverty must also become part of the workings of the mine. Their young sons are sacrificed too, destined to follow the same paths as their fathers.
The future of the mine – and Potosí
While the fate of the miners is secure, the future of the mine is not. Estimates suggest that it has around 10 or 20 years of minerals left to be extracted. Abandoned once by the Spanish when the mountain’s riches began to be depleted, it seems unlikely that Potosí would cope with this final closure.
The legacy of its colonial history and its struggles are evident down every street that you walk: impressive colonial architecture adorns the many churches and once grandiose houses scattered across the city, ones now standing shoulder-to-shoulder besides unfinished buildings of brick, mud and tin.
Colonial affluence, most of which has fallen into disrepair, contrasts directly with modern poverty.
The city’s inhabitants are painfully aware of their inability to cope with the closure of the mine. When I arrive from Sucre, miners and workers from other professions in Potosí have built blockades around the city, preventing vehicles from entering. They are petitioning for government investment in the form of factories or other industry which would help them to survive the devastating loss of the mines. These losses would affect all inhabitants of the city, as everyone relies upon the bounty of Cerro Rico in differing degrees.
When I speak to Ronald about the protests, he is positive about the chances of their success. History doesn’t echo his optimism. They have been petitioning the government since 2010. There is no indication that anything is likely to change.
As we wind our way back through the labyrinth of passageways and at times, are forced to crawl along the rocky ground beneath us, a blast of cool air dissipates some of the overwhelming heat and sulphurous smells of the mine. We are finally making our way out. Ronald takes to the back and I lead us through the final 500m, as we laboriously move closer towards the growing circle of light that is the entrance.
Breaths come more easily, and my muscles relax from the relief of finally leaving this dark and oppressive underground world. I cannot even fathom the idea of returning to the mine, day after day to toil in these dangerous and ultimately fatal conditions, nor what will happen to the miners, their families and the thousands of other Potosí residents when Cerro Rico finally loses its riches.
Planning Your Trip: How to visit Cerro Rico, Potosí
Taking a tour into Cerro Rico
I certainly had my concerns about “poverty tourism” before taking the tour of Cerro Rico, however this was quelled by the fact that most of the tours are led by ex-miners which means that a least a proportion of what you pay goes towards supporting them and their families.
I visited with Koala Tours and paid 120 BOB for the tour, which was only a small group of six of us and although we did have to crawl through small holes in the rock, I did feel safe at all times.
Where to stay in Potosí, Bolivia
I stayed in a single room in Apart Hotel Turquesa which was not only supremely comfortable but within each walking distance of the bus station. It was a short hike up one of Potosí’s fairly impressive hills to get to the main part of town, but doing this every day certainly helped with the acclimation!
Rooms start from 180 BOB/$26 USD per night.
Before you go
The history of Potosí – both colonial and modern – is fascinating if difficult to stomach. I watched the film The Devil’s Miner before arriving in the city, a film that follows two brothers, aged 12 and 14 years old, as they work in the mines.
It’s harrowing and enlightening in equal measures and leaves far more questions left open than answered, but it’s essential viewing if you plan on visiting the mines or just this historic, decaying city.