Today we finally got around to taking the tour of the Cerro Rico mines. Various folks on the road had said that this was simultaneously a horrific and an essential experience to have. Other folks had said that you didn't know Potosi until you knew the mines, so we put all excuses aside and went for it.
I was game for it, but slightly anxious due to my faint knowledge of the 470-year history of the mines and the number of people (estimated at 8 million) who had perished inside the great Cerro Rico mountain during the colonial period of Spanish rule. Today around 25 miners a year die in accidents within these mines (compare that to 45 a year in all of the USA for all mines nationwide). And many more die from post-mine complications such as lung disease.
Our tour began at 8:45AM. We were led from the hostel up to a waiting bus, which whisked us up to the foot of the massive, imposing Cerro Rico, home of all the storied riches of Potosi.
There the tour company had a staging area where we were all to change into "miner's kit" consisting of gum boots, over trousers, jacket, hardhat, and web belt with battery for the headlamp. Then it was off to the miner's market, where our guide, Efraim, proceeded to throw sticks of dynamite at us, hold the sticks over an open flame, hold them in his mouth, and generally try to reassure us that without the requisite detonators and fuses, the dynamite was relatively safe.
So we all bought "gift bags" of dynamite+detonator+fuse together with a 2L bottle of soft drink, to give to the miners we encountered along the way. We were also encouraged to by big bags of coca leaves, at 5 Bolivianos a go, partly to help us through the mines, but partly to give out handfuls to miners as gifts.
Next stop was the processing plants, where the extracted rock from the mines was separated into silver, zinc, lead, and waste product. In a good load the waste product was only 85%, and that wasn't so common these days. The processing plants were mud huts with real Rube Goldberg devices separating out the various minerals through use of different chemical solvents – including several open tanks full to the brim with liquid cyanide, which was splashing out onto the floor every once in a while. We saw the extracted product, which didn't look like much, but I suppose it's enough to keep 120 families, and 5000 miners working in appalling conditions.
Finally it was D-Day, H-Hour, and we made our way slowly up the side of Cerro Rico to the entrance of the Candelaria mine, which has been in use since Conquistador days. Just as we were about to enter the mine, a motorised mine car train shot out of the entrance and missed us by inches. We entered, excited and nervous.
What followed was an incursion into the mines that took us 800m into the mountain and 55m down from the entrance – 4 levels. The passageways varied from spacious near the entrance to downright cramped – on several occasions we were on hands and knees and even then our backs were scraping the ceiling. And the passageways by which you made your descents and ascents were often little more than slanted tunnels, which due to the helmets and headlamps getting in the way, often meant you couldn't really see more than a few feet ahead of you. Dust filled the air, and rubble from those above you cascaded down around you. Soon you were filthy, hands caked in dust and grime, and you wondered if it were worth it to use your precious water for cleanliness rather than thirst. All the while, lungs bursting from the closeness of the air, the dust, and the all-pervading altitude – the entrance to Candelaria being around 4300m up – the highest I had ever been.
But this was all part of the experience, and any self-pity any of us might have indulged in was completely erased by the knowledge – and regular reminders – that generations of Potosians -almost all Quechuas – had spent the majority of their adolescent and adult lives in these very trying conditions.
We met a number of miners, from a 14-year-old boy to a 45-year-old veteran who had been working the mines since age 10. He was definitely at the upper end of the age range of the miners, as most of his contemporaries would have retired by then, either voluntarily or through the onset of lung disease. These were gruff fellows, but became friendly after a gift of dynamite and cola.
Our last stop was to pay a visit to Tio ("Uncle") also known as El Diablo, though in a "Lord of the Underground" sense rather than a Prince of Evil sense. This was a life-sized, clay figure wearing miner's gumboots, with an open mouth in which cigarettes could be placed, and an immense phallus – in this case broken, one hopes not as an omen. Every Friday and on special occasions, offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and other mining necessities are placed on and around the icon. Every mine in Cerro Rico has at least one, if not more of these icons. I offered a few coca leaves, just to be on the safe side. I seem to have made it back, so I guess it can't have hurted.
We have bought our bus tickets to Uyuni tomorrow, as apparently have the entire rest of this hostel. With luck this means we should be able to start a 4-day tour of the Uyuni salt flats and the coloured lakes on Friday, finishing Monday. Then for me it is looking like a large trek up back through Oruro, La Paz, and then onto Peru. My whole planned itinerary has been turned on its arse: rather than 2 weeks in Bolivia and 4 in Peru, it looks to end up the other way round. I'll be lucky to get Cuzco and Macchu Picchu in before I have to head for Lima and my flight back to Buenos Aires.