In and out of Cerro Rico

Potosí is a place quite out of the ordinary. First, it’s the highest city in the world at 4090 metres. Second, this city was once the largest in all of the Americas, and even exceeded London and Paris at some point. The reason for all were the famous Potosí silver mines located inside Cerro Rico – the Rich Mountain. Enormous amounts of silver were mined there and served as the main source of income for the Spanish empire for several centuries. The silver was carried on the backs of mules to Lima and from there the imperial galleons took it over the Atlantic to Spain. The arrival or delay of these galleons were decisive for empire’s finances. The numerous wars led by the empire were financed by Potosí silver. The characteristically conical Cerro Rico looks over Potosí. They say that over the centuries of mining it has gradually lost several hundred metres in altitude.

The view over Potosí from the bottom of Cerro Rico:

Bolivia recently declared Cerro Rico its national treasure and certain limitations are being imposed on mining. Although the mines are to a great extent exhausted, the miners still work there and vigorously protest the government’s intervention. It is possible to visit the mines with an excursion. I chose an agency run by former miners themselves. On this pic you can see the group with which we came to Cerro Rico. For unknown reasons the group was then divided into two. As a result I had a guide all to myself. His name was Nelson, he is the third person on the photo. It was quite incredible to walk inside the mountain with Nelson as he had worked there for twenty years, knew every corner and was full of enthusiasm to tell about it all. So we walked briskly, visited a number of mines that normally are not visited on a tour and spoke to a number of Nelson’s miner friends.

The excursion starts from the miners’ shop. This is the dynamite, freely sold in Bolivia, the cost is 16 bolivianos (about 2 euros). The miners use it inside the mines to blow up internal sections of the mountain.

And the other essential substances for miners – coca leaves and cigarettes. The miners chew coca leaves non-stop, as it helps sustain the necessary haemoglobin level at this altitude. During the day they don’t have lunch at all, coca leaves is their main source of strength.

Before entering the mountain, we also visited one of the processing plants where the metals are separated from waste. The acidic smell and work conditions at this plant reminded me of conditions on the Silmet factory which I happened to visit years ago, when I was still working in Estonia. That factory, located in Sillamäe, produces pure blocks of rare earth metals from ore brought from various places in China and Brazil. There too the hellish smell reigned and the people working there looked like they had been drinking acid (which in a sense they had).

A characteristic slogan on the wall of the plant – “Forbidden to drink during work”. In the miners’ shop we were immediately offered some 96-percent alcohol of the brand “Buen gusto” (“Good taste”). To me the taste was anything but good, but obviously the miners have a different view. The alcohol costs virtually nothing and Nelson explained that alcoholism is a major issue.

Afterwards we entered the mountain. There are about 180 mines inside it, located on many levels, many of them interconnected. It is possible to enter the mountain from one side and to exit from the other, never getting to the surface, and we did just that. About 3 kilometres in narrow tunnels with low ceilings, some as low as 1 metre, at an altitude of 4300 metres. Most of the way you walk stooping, and anyway inevitably hit the ceiling with your helmeted head time and again. It takes several hours. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. And yet I felt fear at one point when we had to change levels and so had to climb several almost vertical ladders inside a narrow vertical tunnel. At that moment I started losing my breath, probably simply from physical exertion at an altitude, and yet in this extremely closed environment it felt quite scary. I had it very easy overall though – some people in the second group had real health issues.

One of the passages inside the mountain. Tio means Uncle in Spanish.

Historians estimate that about 8 million people died working inside the mountain and from the effects of working there. In the colonial times most Indians in the surrounding territories were covered by the system of forced labour (“mita”). Every peasant once in 7 years had to spend 6 months working inside the mountain. My guide said that they had no right to go outside during that time and had trouble even counting time, as the passage of day and night eluded them. Their labour was the real price of the silver brought to the Spanish king for his wars.

Chemicals penetrating the ceilings of mines. Nelson insisted I should not touch them, which never really crossed my mind anyway.

More stalactites, dripping water:

The miners believe in Jesus Christ, but for them he rules the outside world. The nether world is ruled by another ruler, referred to as Tio. Tio is imagined in a way similar to the Devil, although the possible etymology of the world is from Dio (God) in Spanish, softened by the Indians unused to the hard D. Inside the mountain there are countless statues of Tio. One of them shown to me by Nelson:

Sitting next to Tio, Nelson opened a can of Buen Gusto alcohol and poured twice to Tio and twice to the Earth-Pachamama. The women are not allowed to work inside the mines, to avoid Pachamama becoming jealous. Then he drunk it two times, and offered to me to do the same.

But the most fascinating point came when Nelson switched off the lamps on our helmets and suddenly we were surrounded by total darkness without a tiniest trace of light. Deep inside the mountain we were listening to an almost absolute silence. Nelson put some alcohol on his fingers and suddenly lit them with a lighter. The finger caught fire and from this fire he lit a cigarette. He extinguished the fire and for while we sat there in darkness, where the only visible point was the red end of the cigarette. It is possible to smoke inside these mines as there are no methane deposits, contrary to other mines in other parts of the world. On the other hand in abandoned mines sometimes another gas, acetylene, is gathered. A lost miner can be suffocated by this gas. In its presence the cigarette smoke goes low close to the ground, which is a sign to move away quickly. I then asked Nelson to put some alcohol to my fingers too and lit them. Looks pretty flashy.

Cerro Rico inevitably reminds you of Erebor, the Mountain that held the countless treasures of the gnomes in Tolkien’s Hobbit and which the gnomes had to wrestle back from the Smog Dragon with the help of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf.

It also reminded me strongly of the tunnels cut by the ancient builders inside the thick rock in the City of David in Jerusalem, in order for the city folk to have a secret access route to water in case of a siege. Inside those tunnels too one feels like being hidden in the centre of the earth, kilometres away from sunlight.

In this picture the miners take the empty flak from the mine. On the day of my visit there were not as many miners as usual. Nelson explained that the day before the local football team played and lost, which led to many drinking too much.

The mines are controlled by the miner cooperatives, although in reality each vein is under control of a particular miner, a cooperative member. Before becoming a member, a newcomer has to work for 3 years for another miner, each year growing in degree of independence. Miners’ fortune depends a lot on pure luck – veins inside the mountain are very different, some are thin and barely allow to survive, others may turn out unexpectedly rich – pure silver for metres on end – and then its owner becomes a rich man. One such miner controls a network of hotels and transport companies in Potosí today, thanks to a vein that struck rich.

Miners inherit their craft. On this pic the younger boy is 13. Nelson himself started working in mines when he was 8 and worked there 21 years. The status of a miner is prestigious. I could hardly believe when Nelson said quite seriously that “miner’s life is good, but short”. Their life expectation is 40 years, and most important reason is silicosis, the lung disease that develops due to constant inhaling of tiny particles. As miners work in essence as independents, most of them do not spend money on security measures, such as face masks. And the dynamite is cheap in Bolivia…

I also visited the Potosí town’s main tourist attraction, Casa Nacional de la Moneda. It is a mint that produced Spanish royal coins for a couple of centuries. A huge and proud building gives you a feeling of the importance of Potosí of old. Back then it was one of the most cosmopolite cities in the world, which gathered adventure seekers and career people from the whole empire. Also lots of slaves were brought here, including black slaves from Africa. As the death rate among them was very high, no black people remain here.

The main court of Casa, in which the symbol of Potosí, a strange mask, is located.

The mask was installed in 19th century and its original intent is forgotten. In a way its ironic stare reflects the fascinating history of this city – which appeared on the back of the slaves and from the huge wealth nearby, but was forgotten by the world once the silver run out.

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