The Mine in Potosi’

Exploring the Cerro Rico mine.

A Bridge to Somewhere

For whatever reason, we ended up in Potosi’, Bolivia on that particular part of our vacation and were looking for interesting things to do and ended up selecting the “mine tour” option. The city is several hundred miles south of La Paz, sits at around 13,400 feet (making it one of the highest cities in the world) and is completely dominated by the mountain, Cerro Potosi’, which has been mined regularly for silver, since back in the days of the Spanish heyday.

We arrived in the city knowing that there was a big silver mining mountain nearby and not much else. We were on a side trip from La Paz and were actually most interested in visiting Sucre- the traditional capital and educational center of the country. Potosi’, or Potosi for short, was conveniently situated on the train/bus loop that we took, so we opted to spend a couple of days there en route. Most things in the immediate area seemed to revolve around mining, so choosing to delve deeper into that local industry, made perfect sense.

While out on the town the evening before the day in question, a nice young local man somehow picked us out of the crowd and offered to take us up and actually into the mountain (Cerro Potosi’). Since he was at least partly a miner, we’d get to experience things on the inside from his unique and personal perspective. We were intrigued and took him up on the offer. Looking back now, we probably didn’t fully assess the risks before making the deal, but felt good about him and his intentions and liked the idea that he’d pick us up in his car at 8 am and get us back to the hotel by 5. If all else failed, we felt like it would at least make for an interesting day.

We were standing outside our hotel the next morning at 8, when Juan- the man/guide in question, showed up. We greeted each other as Lori (my wife) and I got into his old mini-van. He soon explained that we’d be making a few supply stops in town while on our way up to the mine, but would be there and headed into it by mid-morning. He was short and wiry, probably in his 30’s and I could tell that he was likely Quechua or from some other indigenous background because of his fine facial features and general light build.

He spoke no English, but I spoke a little Spanish and so, he just described what was happening as he drove along and I translated for Lori. I thought it was nice how he wasted little time with small talk as he launched right into an explanation of how the mine dominated everything in the area and had done so for generations. He said that the mountain was currently owned or controlled by three different entities. First, a big commercial company owned the top and was doing some surface mining up there. He knew little of that operation other than the company was from the U.S. Then, there was a large section run by the state and where the miners wore uniforms. In addition to the orange coveralls, those miners received weekly paychecks, regardless of what they actually produced, and received a pension of sorts once they got too old or sick to mine.

Lastly, there was whole rest of the mountain, which was where we were going. That area occupied much of the lower section of the mountain and was being mined by various unaffiliated individuals, all hoping to strike it rich, but only making money based on what they took out and it was that group that he was involved with. It was a co-op of sorts, known locally as the “Collectivo”. There was no real hierarchy of anyone taking charge and most of the people working the co-op mine actually spent their days engaged in the critical tedium of making enough money to take care of the people depending on them to do so. Some days, each Collectivo miner made only pennies, although there were times when it was more………. and always, there were hopes of hitting the big one. He told the story, which I kept swearing I’d heard before, about Guillermo Maranche, who’d found a tremendous nugget of some sort and was now living the life of royalty and driving a Suburban. Shortly after hearing him tell the tale, I realized that I was probably confusing the Guillermo story with one from the California Gold Rush (without the Suburban) which I’d read or heard before.

In the cooperative part of the mine, there was no entity paying for any mining related expenses such as safety and there was certainly no sort of long term health plan, safety net or fallback position for old age or dealing with the possibility of a Silicosis onslaught. Or at least, I should say, there wasn’t a workable hierarchy in place that was effectively dealing with such things. So, our guide told us that whatever we could do at that particular moment to essentially lower any of the individual miner’s costs, would provide a direct and immediate benefit to each one of them, and ultimately all who relied on what they earned.

We drove only a few blocks, before pulling over at a small store. Juan said he’d be right back as he hopped out, headed in through the front door, and almost simultaneously popped right back out, with a plastic bag full of something.

“Coca”, he said as he got back into driving position and cranked up the car. “The miners can work faster and longer if they chew coca leaves”, he said.

Coca tea and coca leaves are widely available all over Bolivia, and I’d had plenty of the tea and put a few leaves in my mouth in the past and had never really experienced any sort of unusual feeling or urge to do anything such as mining harder, so wasn’t sure what all of the hype was about.

But then, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small clump of something else, and said, “gum”.

He then went on to explain how a person puts a wad of leaves into their mouth along with a small piece of activator, or gum, and then simply chews on it or lets it sit in the mouth and ultimately it does it’s thing. In the old days, he went on, the Spaniards encouraged the local slave/miners to chew coca while working in the mine because it acted as an appetite suppressant (meaning the mine management didn’t have to worry about providing lunch) and, at the same time, caused theminers to work harder and faster. In the Spanish miner owner view, it simply made them more productive. And now, the tradition continued in the collectivo part of the mine (and probably elsewhere in the mines) as each person did whatever they could to get more work out of their day.

We made a few turns on various streets and I noted that we were at least headed in the direction of the mountain, which loomed large and directly out in front of us. We were finally seeming to make good progress in the right direction, when Juan decelerated and then whipped up to the curb and stopped once again. He got out and walked over to a young woman with a booth of sorts set up on the sidewalk and who was selling sticks of something that came out of wooden boxes. I watched as he picked out six of whatever they were and handed her some Bolivianos. She sacked them up, gave him the bag and he simply walked back to the car and got in.

Once he was settled back into the driver’s seat, he turned and set the mystery bag in the back floor board next to Lori and non-chalantly said “Dynamite, We use a lot of it up there”.

I probably should’ve been concerned about having it in the car, but I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot about the stability of the explosive in such a case and besides, driving around with it in the car seemed to be something he did all of the time. And since he was a guide, I assumed we were safe. And almost at the same instant, for some reason, the whole idea of car safety inspections came to mind and I quickly arrived at the conclusion that the car’s must’ve been current. For the moment, I felt safe.

I will say, that I was careful not to distract him while he drove us on through the outskirts of the city and then up a dirt road right onto the lower slopes of Cerro Rico, which is what the mountain is called locally. He stopped in the middle of a big rustic sort of parking lot where most all outgoing paths appeared to lead to the same black hole of an obvious mine entrance. He parked next to an old banged up Chevy pickup. Lori and I grabbed our daypacks as we got out, he loaded the coca and dynamite into an old grocery bag and the three of us walked toward the hole, with him chattering all the while.

He stopped about 20 or 30 feet from the entrance and said he wanted to show us something. We were a bit overwhelmed by all we were seeing- there was just so much going on around us that defied any sort of explanation or comprehension that our Central Texas/Colorado minds could conjure up.

He said we’d be joined by a few others, and just at about that time two apparent American men got out of a car down below and began walking our way.

“There”, he motioned. “There, they are”.

While Juan and I watched them walking toward us, Lori began exploring the dirt and rock piles of what appeared to be mine tailings. The whole landscape had an almost eerie lunar quality, but I noted that at least there was a mostly rock-pile free flattish basin just below us that seemed to be somewhat forgiving in it’s chaos. Just as I was noting that there was a sort of crater quality to where we were and that the three of us appeared to be on a small ridge along its edge, I looked across and saw Lori walking out onto an undercut ledge of sorts. Juan saw it at the same time and we both yelled, stopping her dead in her tracks, sending her in abrupt retreat. At that point, both Lori and I began to realize that the whole area probably wasn’t a good place for wandering or exploring.

It was just as well that neither us, nor the two men who eventually joined up with us, realized that the whole landscape out in front of the entrance was likely a sinkhole of some sort caused by centuries of mining and the resulting “honeycombing”. At that point, we just didn’t need to be thinking about instability of any sorts. Our ignorance of the situation was bolstered by the dynamite demonstration out in the middle of the nearby basin and so, we approached the six foot tall entrance into the innards of the mountain full of excitement and wonder as to what the tour guide had in store next along with a certain amount of apprehension.

While still out in the sunlight and after a short discussion regarding the lama blood painted on the entrance, invitations to a lama feast to be held later that day, and a discussion about how all of the miners were good Catholics up on top, but down below believed in the power of El Tio, we headed in. The bigger entrance quickly squeezed down into a shaft about 4 feet wide and less than six feet tall. It’d obviously been built for the local indigenous miners who are typically on the short side. A timber framework was in place which appeared to be supporting the tunnel in some way. The timbers looked as though they might’ve been in place since the days when the mining began, which kept me speculating about various ugly things as I kept calculating how long that had been and wondering about what wood rot looked like from the inside. One of the other men in our group was on the large side and as he traveled through the shaft in front of us, kept coming very close to banging into the beams which only added to my increasing stability concerns.

Thankfully, we each did have a helmet on along with a light. The light really helped as we got to the first big “room” of sorts several hundred yards in and had to step across a biggish and bottomless chasm. Jackhammers were working close by and once above the rockpile where the work was going on, we came to an opening into a smaller room of sorts where two men were banging away at the solid rock with an antique looking hammer connected to a hose which snaked off around a corner. We stopped, watched them work, they gave us a few insights into their day’s toils, Juan gave them an offering of coca leaves and we moved on, all shaking our heads in agreement to something.

After crossing over another hole, this second one a bit less tricky, we came into an even larger main room with shafts headed off in various directions. The ceiling was perhaps 30 feet tall and we could hear muted machine sounds and voices coming in from what seemed to be all directions. The temperature was on the cool side and I could feel the high humidity which made the air feel even chillier than it probably was. Miners moved in and out and back and forth paying us little heed as they intently focused on their task at hand.

We walked on across the room and just as we came to a mine ladder of sorts which we knew we were obviously going to ascend, we passed a man lighting up a cigarette and candle and I noted that he was wearing a very bright purple, nylon shelled, heavy coat. At the top of the ladder, we stepped up into a new shaft, with a side room that soon opened up onto one side. We turned, entered the room and Juan asked us all to find a spot and get comfortable anywhere on the far side of the El Tio idol formed from the local clay/dirt, which, while only 36 inches or so tall, dominated most of the space.

Once situated, our guide began to explain that we were now in the world of El Tio and that there were certain things done to appease him. As he was pouring the grain alcohol on the statue’s head and sticking cigarettes in its mouth and elsewhere, he explained how the miners were careful to set off all of the dynamite charges at noon each day, which also happened to be a convenient time to have lunch outside or change out their coca wads. Just as he was beginning to expand on his thought, a very obvious smell of burning plastic along with some sort of distant yelling infiltrated our space and he got up and simply ran out of the room. Significantly, he had picked up an assistant along the way, who did stay with us, but had no answers as to what was going on. After a few silent moments, Juan reappeared. He asked our pardon in Spanish, but then began engaging the other man in Quechua or some language that I didn’t understand.

I wanted to translate something, but had nothing to offer. And then, he uttered some very direct Spanish. It was a word I understood, “Vamanos”.

Both of our guides motioned us to the door and said we should move quickly. Still not exactly sure what was going on, we began to follow Juan as he backtracked his way toward the entrance. The smell and confusion seemed to be growing all the time. Near the bottom of the ladder, the purple coat sat on the ground (without the miner attached) and was in flames. Our two other group members controlled their hysteria as we crossed over the hole and picked our way down through the boulders, but when the dynamite explosions started going off behind us they simply began screaming.

I was wondering if it was the lunch hour, but didn’t have time to look at my watch as Juan kept imploring us to hurry. We crossed the other hole way quicker than we had the first time around and entered the homestretch ahead of the dust cloud, which I was certain was also headed for the exit. Our cohorts continued screaming and babbling, but once back out into the daylight, they began to get their breathing under control and were soon walking down to the parking area to their waiting shuttle.

We all had little say to each other besides good-bye. From their body language, I could tell they were simply ready to get back to their hotel.

As for us, on our drive back to the hotel, Juan didn’t mention much about whatever it was that had gone on in the mine, but did invite us to the lama feast planned for later that day. He had a plan– we could go back to the hotel, clean-up and he could pick us up at 6 and get us back by 9. We thanked him, but declined. A part of us wanted to know what it’d be like, but another just needed some time to absorb the most recent chain of events.

Entrance into Batopilas Mine

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.