I visited the old colonial town of Potosi. During 17th century it was probably the most prosperous city in the world. This is mainly because of Cerro de Potosi hill, which was practically made of Silver. Spain came and established Potosi as a mining town in 1546 and was a major source of Spanish wealth. And for the next 300 years about 60,000 metric ton of silver were extracted from it. It is said that it can build a bridge of silver to link Bolivia to Spain.
Today the city had lost its luster with most of the once beautiful colonial houses almost falling apart. A small grant was received for restoration when it was name a Unesco World Heritage site. Although the hill now stands about 800 meters shorter and basically depleted of silver, mining continues to be the main industry.
Touring the silver mine is now a popular tourist attraction in Potosi. It gives the city a supplement income as the now honeycomb hill only produces low-grade silver, tin, and zinc.
The tour began with fitting us with mining costume. Each was given an impermeable suit, a construction hat, a head torch, and rubber boots. After we headed to the miners market. This is the first stop of every miner before going to work as it carries everything they need, from water, coco leaves, hard hat, phone cards, gloves, cigarettes, dynamite, you name it. We were here to buy gifts to bring the miners and the devil god they worship.
Tio, the devil god is the only interesting part in this tour that is in a fun way. Every mine has its own idol, which has been there since the 16th century. They believe they are at the mercy of Tio being inside the earth, so in order to appease him, they offer coco leaves, alcohol, cigarettes, and installed him with a big erection.
For what I thought would be a cool experience of going inside an active mine, turned out to be a really sad experience. We learned that an average mine worker only lived to be 40, that is if he is lucky enough not to be killed by accident. The working condition, as we witnessed, seems to have little improvement since the 16th century. The ceiling is low, the floor is slippery and wet, and everything is moved and lifted by manual labor. The main reason of short life though is that they contract a lung disease, mal de mina, because the air they breath are contaminated with poisonous metallic particles.
On the other hand, it is admirable to see the workers attitude towards work. As they are paid by the amount of minerals they extracted, they work non-stop. Miners chew on coco leaves so they can work the whole day without getting hungry. They don’t eat within the 8 hours they work. We didn’t encounter any miner on break the whole period we were there. They also don’t look beaten or depressed. Our guide, who used to be a miner, told us that they have accepted their faith getting into this line of work. Live Full. Die Young.
It helps them if you visit the mine as part of the fee goes to the Corporacion Minera de Bolivia. And while miners used to reject the idea of having spectators while they work, I think now they welcome. Tourists bring little gifts and serves as diversion from a monotonous day of work.