My wife, Lori, and I ended up in the city of Potosi on the last part of our Bolivian vacation. After considering various things to do around the city, we selected the “mine tour” option. The city is over 200 miles south of the capital city of La Paz. At 13,400 feet of elevation, it’s one of the world’s highest cities. And, as we found out, it’s dominated by a big mountain named Cerro Rico, which has been mined regularly for silver since the Spaniards were the rulers.
We arrived knowing little about the city. We were on a side trip from La Paz and were most interested in visiting nearby Sucre, the country’s colonial capital and educational center. Potosi’, or Potosi for short, was conveniently situated on the train/bus loop we took, so we opted to spend a couple of days there en route. Since most things in the immediate area seemed to revolve around the mine, 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. He offered to take us up and into the mountain (Cerro Rico), where we would be able to experience things on the inside from his unique and personal miner perspective. We probably didn’t assess the risks adequately before making the deal. But we felt good about him and confident of his intentions. And we liked the idea that he’d pick us up in his car the following morning at 8:00 and would get us back to the hotel by 5:00. If all else failed, we felt like it would at least make for a fun and educational day. So we hired him to be our guide for the day.
As scheduled, we were standing outside our hotel the following morning when Juan- the man/guide in question, showed up. As Lori and I got into his old mini-van, we greeted each other. He soon explained that we’d be making a few stops for supplies in town but would be up to the mine and headed inside by mid-morning.
He spoke no English, but I spoke a little Spanish. And so, I translated for Lori as he drove and talked. He wasted little time with small talk and immediately explained how the mine dominated the area and had done so for generations. He said that currently, the mountain was owned and controlled by three different entities. First, a prominent commercial company held the top third and was doing surface mining up there. He knew little of that operation besides that the company was from the U.S. Then, there was a large section in the middle run by the state government where the miners wore uniforms. In addition to their orange coveralls, those miners received weekly paychecks as well as a pension once they got too old or sick to mine.
Finally, there was the bottom part of the mountain, which was where we were going. The men working in that part were hoping to strike it rich but only made money based on what they took from the mine. It was run as a local co-op and known as the “Collectivo.” Most people working inside the co-op mine spent their days engaged in the tedium of making enough money to care for the people depending on them. Some days, each Collectivo miner made only pennies, but 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. Some years earlier, he related, Guillermo had found a massive nugget of some sort of precious metal. And he was now living the life of royalty, driving a Suburban and living in La Paz. After pondering the tale, I realized I was probably confusing it with one from the California Gold Rush (without the Suburban or La Paz factoids).
Nonetheless, in the cooperative part of the mine, there was no entity paying for any mining-related expenses and certainly no long-term 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 effectively dealt with such things. To that end, Juan told us that whatever we could do to lower any of the individual miner’s costs would be appreciated. So, we agreed to do our part and provide needed mining supplies to the miners in exchange for our opportunity to see the operation up close.
We drove only a few blocks from our hotel before we pulled 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 and legally available all over Bolivia. I’d had plenty of tea and had put a few leaves in my mouth in the past. But I’d never really experienced any unusual feeling or urge to do anything such as laboring harder, so I wasn’t sure what the hype was about.
But then, he reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a small clump of something else, and said, “goma” (gum).
He explained 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, which causes it to do its thing. He continued his explanation by saying that the Spaniards encouraged the local miners to chew coca while working in the old days. That was because it acted as an appetite suppressant (meaning the bosses didn’t have to worry about providing lunch) and, at the same time, caused the laborers to work harder and faster. In the Spanish miner owner’s view, it made the workers more productive. And now, that tradition continued in the Collectivo part of the mine (and probably elsewhere) as each person did whatever they could to get more work and production out of their day.
We made a few turns on various streets, and I noted that we were at least going toward the mountain, which loomed large directly out in front of us. We finally seemed to be making good progress toward the mountain when Juan decelerated, whipped up to the curb, and stopped again. He got out and walked over to a young woman at a sidewalk booth 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 walked back to the car and got in.
Once settled into the driver’s seat, he turned and set the mystery bag on the back floorboard next to Lori. And then casually 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 much about the stability of the explosives, and driving around with it in his car seemed to be something he did all the time. So, I said and did nothing except remark about the cost of wine in the stores. But then, for some reason, as we drove on toward the mountain, the whole idea of car safety inspections came to mind. And I quickly concluded that the one for his car must’ve been current.
I was careful not to distract him while he drove on through the outskirts of the city. Once out of town, we went up a dirt road onto the mountain’s lower slopes. He stopped in the middle of a big rustic parking lot where most all outgoing paths appeared to lead to the same black hole of a 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.
He stopped about 20 or 30 feet outside the entrance and said he wanted to show us something. We’d become a bit overwhelmed by all we saw by then. There was already a lot going on around us that defied any reasonable explanation that our Central Texas/Colorado minds could conjure up.
As we prepared for whatever he was planning to show us, he mentioned that a few others would be joining. And within only minutes, 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 nearby dirt and rock piles of what appeared to be mine tailings. The whole landscape had an almost eerie lunar quality. Then, suddenly, I saw Lori walk out onto an undercut ledge. Juan saw it almost simultaneously, and we both yelled, stopping her dead in her tracks and sending her in a fast retreat. At that point, Lori and I realized that the whole area wasn’t a good place for wandering or exploring.
It was just as well that none of us tourists recognized that the landscape surrounding the entrance was part of an enormous sinkhole. At that point, we didn’t need any more concerns. Especially considering that we hadn’t even gone inside the mine yet.
At that point, Juan returned to what he wanted to show us and performed a dynamite demonstration in the middle of a small nearby basin. Then, after the dust settled and our adrenalin calmed, we finally approached the six-foot-tall entrance into the innards of the mountain. Considering all that had already happened, even then, we were still full of excitement and wonder as to what else the tour guide had in store.
After a short discussion about lama sacrifices and the blood painted on the rock above the entrance, we headed in. The mine opening quickly squeezed into a shaft about four feet wide and less than six feet tall. Obviously, it had been built for the local indigenous miners, who are typically relatively short. Still, we made it work by moving in a perpetually bent-over position.
A timber framework probably installed during the Spanish era somehow supported the tunnel. Though old, most hand-hewn beams looked solid enough, although they caused me to speculate about cave-ins as I calculated how long they’d been there. And related to that, I started wondering what wood rot looked like from the inside. One of the other tourist men in our group was on the large side. As he traveled through the shaft in front of us, he kept coming very close to banging into the beams. And that only added further to my increasing stability concerns as I began to wonder about things like redundancy.
Thankfully, we each had on a helmet with a light. The light helped significantly as we entered a big “room” several hundred yards in and had to step across a giant, seemingly bottomless dark chasm. Jackhammers worked close by. Once above the pile of debris they created, we came to an opening into a smaller room. Nearby, two men banged away at the solid rock with an antique-looking air hammer. We stopped, watched them work, and they gave us a few insights into their day’s toils. Then, Juan gave them an offering of coca leaves and a couple of sticks of dynamite, and we moved on, each of us shaking our heads in agreement about something unknown.
After crossing over another hole, this second one a bit less tricky, we came into an even larger room with shafts headed off in various directions. The ceiling was perhaps 30 feet tall, and we heard muted machine sounds and voices coming in from what seemed to be all directions. The temperature was cool, and I could feel the high humidity, making the air feel even chillier than it was. Miners moved in and out and back and forth and paid us little heed as they intently focused on their task.
We walked across the room, and just as we came to a “rustic” mine ladder, which I realized we were going to ascend, we passed a man lighting a cigarette and candle. And I noted that he was wearing a bright purple, nylon-shelled, heavy coat. We climbed the ladder as expected, and once we reached the top, we stepped into a new shaft, with a side room opening up off one side. We turned and entered the room, and Juan asked us to find a spot and get comfortable for a few moments. He told us that anywhere on the far side of the El Tio idol (formed from the local clay/dirt) would be okay.
Once situated, our guide explained that we were now in the world of El Tio and that certain things were done to appease him. To that end, he poured grain alcohol on the statue’s head and stuck cigarettes in its mouth. Then, as he lit them, he explained how the miners set off their dynamite charges at noon each day, which was a convenient time for them to eat lunch and change out their coca wads. Just as he was beginning to expand his thought, a pronounced smell of burning plastic and some sort of distant yelling infiltrated our space. He immediately stood up and then just ran out of the room. Significantly, he had picked up an assistant along the way. That young man did, at least, stay with us but had no answers as to what was going on. Then, after a few silent moments, Juan reappeared. He begged our pardon in Spanish but quickly began engaging the other man in Quechua or some language I didn’t understand.
I wanted to translate something but had nothing to offer. But then, he uttered some straightforward Spanish. It was a word I understood,
“Vamanos,” he commanded.
Both 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 in flames. Thankfully, the miner was not attached. Our two other group members were semi-controlling their hysteria as we crossed over the hole and picked our way down through the boulders. But they began screaming when the dynamite explosions started going off behind us.
I wondered 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 second hole faster than we had on the way in. We managed to enter the homestretch ahead of the dust cloud, which was suddenly racing us to the exit. Our cohorts continued screaming and babbling. Once back outside and into the daylight, the two began to breathe more normally. They were soon walking down to the parking area to their waiting shuttle. We all had little to say to each other besides goodbye. I could tell they were ready to return to their hotel and just left it at that.
Juan didn’t talk about whatever it was that happened in the mine while driving us back to the hotel. But he did invite us to a lama feast and sacrifice that some friends were having later that day. He had a plan– we could go back to the hotel, clean up, and he would pick us up at 6:00 and get us back by 9:00 pm. We thanked him but declined. Part of me was curious to know what lama meat tasted like, but another just needed some time to absorb the current set of events. At that moment, I learned the value of letting things soak in for a while before reacting.