Cerro Rico Mine Tour: literally descending into hell

Potosi Travel Blog

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As the other 4 in our room still lay sleeping peacefully, I kept awaking in sheer terror.  Today was the day we were supposed to do the mine tour.  We had spoken with other who had been on it, that said it was hard to breath and in places you had to crawl.  With mining accidents happening recently in the well regulated US, this was absolutely terrifying to me.  Before the rest awoke, I had decided not to go, but ultimately got drug into going.  We loaded up into one of the minibuses and of course there was too many of us.  We met up with another bus and Eric and I had to unload, but this bus was even more overcrowded.  We wound our way through the maze-like streets, our bus shuddering and puffing up the hills as if it wasn´t acclimatized to the elevation either.  We stopped in front of an old, dilapitated building which I was sure couldn´t be the office where we were getting our protective clothing.  We were with Koala Tours, supposedly the most professional and safe tour group.  We stepped inside what looked like an abandoned building, with piles of dirt and clay on the floor where some of the bricks had broken and crumbled.  We were led into a dusty room with no ceiling, just a tarp that was only secured in 3 corners.  At this point our gear was being passed out which included greenish/gray waterproof pants, a front velcro shirt, rubber books, a hard hat, and a headlamp with a bright orange battery pack that beldted around our waist.  During this time, on of the guids came into the room wearing only a stuffed red speedo and a gas mask, to let us know that it would be very hot inside the mine.  My mind was not at rest.  The building, the buses, and the unprofessional behavior made this seem more and more like a terrible mistake.  We then proceeded up the hill to the miners market, which consisted of shanty like booths, where the miners buy their supplies, such as dinomite, ect.  Our guide brought us to one of these stores and explained to us what everything was used for and which of them would make good presents for the miners.  Since it was a weekday, a completo for $2 was our best option.  The completo consisted of a stick of Bolivian made dinomite (way better than the argentine or chilean stuff supposedly), diesel soaked ammonium nitrate (yes, Oklahoma City bombing..), a fuse, and a blasting cap.  If it would have been Friday, the best gift would have been 96% cane alcohol.  The miners (another superstitious bunch) believe that in order to get pure minerals, they should drink pure alcohol.  We all had a capful, which felt like fire, melting all the way down to our bellies, and made us gasp for air.  Our guide, who was a miner from age 10-15, took a large swig as if it were water on a very hot day.  For most, Friday is the end of the work week and this is a day of celebrating.  Thinking back to the 2:30 am Friday night arrival, we saw several hardened looking men staggering around the streets.  As I looked around the little shack we were standing in, I realized I was standing inside a bomb, waiting to go off.  Now we were off to find the miners some coca leaves, which was basically expected payment, not a present.  We walked up the steep little hill towards the more open market where the coca leaves were.  We had banana shakes froma  street vendor and bought some saltenas, which we ended up feeding to a dog.  The market had everthing from batteries to sheep heads.  We loaded back up, this time into a cab, since the buses were so full.  Monique (girl from Atlanta) noticed Eric and I´s dust masks and insisted the cab driver stopped so she could get one, but he wouldn´t.  She kept complaining until Eric gave her his own mask.  After the miners market, we visited the mineral processing plant where the contents taken from the mine are crushed , washed, and separated out.  First, the large rocks are crushed into smaller pieced, then they are put into a tank that has large steel balls in it that would further pulverize the rocks.  The dust was then washed with water and several chemicals including copper sulfate and sodium cyanide.  The small dislapitated building was very loug, with the sounds of water sloshing around in the many washing pooks, belts whirring, and the sounds of rocks crunching.  The walkways were uneven, made of random pieces of wood that were nailed together.  They moved when you stepped on them.  Upstairs is where the chemicals are stored and measured out to be released into tubes that flow into the washing pools below.  So up we went tot he entrance of the candaleria mine, the workplace of about 50 of the mountains 12,000 miners, with an estimated 1,000 child laborers, the youngest being 8.  Although child labor is supposedly illegal in Bolivia, there is nobody to regulate it, despite the mountain being owned by the Bolivian government.  Cooperatives are formed, which pay the government for mining rights, but within the cooperatives are hierarchies.  Only the leaders pay taxes on the goods reaped, but in return, they are the only ones receiving "benefits".  Sadly, these benefits are only receieved when the miner gets a diagnosis of 60-70% silicosis of the lungs:  a death sentence.  The payment only amounts to 1500 Bolivianos a month, less than $200.  The average life expectancy once one enters the mine is 10-20 years, yet most of our guides don´t like to talk about it, as most of them either had family or still do have family working in the mines.  An estimated 8 million people have died in these mines over the past 500 years, which on average is 16,000 people per year, 43 people per day.  The last death ocurred 4 months prior to our visit, and supposedly only 1 tourist has died.  Inside the mine, the miners predominantly speak Quechwa, but our guides spoke english, spanish, and quechwa as they had learned english from the tourists and not sure where they had learned spanish.  Inside the mine, the miners worship Tio, which is their devil, and have shrines built to him, where they deposit cigarettes (only ones with filters), coca, and other items as homage.  Life in the mines is hell, so they pray to the devil to keep themselves safe in his domain.  The entrance of the mine was probably 5 feet tall, as I am 5´6 and had to duck.  Rails came out of the mine where carts with 2 men pushing them would come barrelling out into the light.  Before we entered, we had to wait for a few to come by as there isn´t much room for one to dodge the carts.  As we entered, the air becamehot and thick, yet it was still hard to get enough oxygen.  The ground was uneven and completely submerged in 2-3 inches of water.  Overhead massive cables are bundled, transversing from one side of the cave to the other.  We were warned no to touch them (or anything for that matter) because they were carrying electricity and we could be electricuted.  It was about this time, 20-30 meters inside, that I decided I couldn´t do it.  As the guide took me back, he stopped and got behind me and told me to go as fast as I could because another cart was coming.  I felt like I was in Indian Jones.  He took me up to the bus, where I sat for 3 hours, listening to the dynamite blasts below, feeling them shake the bus, and trying to quiet the thoughts in my head.  One other girl joined me later.  3 hours later, the groups started coming out, Erics group being the last.  Everyone was dirty and their weren´t too many excited looks on peoples faces.  Most said it was traumatic and they wouldn´t go back in, even if you paid them.  The best comment I heard about the ordeal was "it was an experience".  We then watched our guides light sticks of dynamite, wrapped in diesel soaked ammonium nitrate and detonate them off the side of the road leading to the mine.  We packed back into the buses and went back to the shanty to return our clothing.  Once back at the hostel, we decided to stay 1 more night.  Justin and Dan headed off to Sucre without us.
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photo by: Biedjee