One of the people traveling with me looked at me as we came out of the mine and said “this is all put on for tourists isn’t it?” And it is easy to see how he could have made such a mistake. Coming from a world of health and safety standards and regulations, the sheer state of the worker’s conditions within the narrowly caved tunnels in Potosi, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico seem to unbelievable, to absurd, to be a part of modern real life.
Miners from the nearby city of Potosi, the highest city in the world, work these 400 year old cloister-phobic tunnels today nearly the exact same way that they did when they first opened up.
have to haul their 20-plus kilogram bags of crude materials up the shafts of the tunnels on their backs; there are no elevators or tunnel trains here in Cerro Rico.
This city of Potosi has as history a cruel as the mines themselves. The city was once the size of Paris, rich off of the contents of the mines, and off the pained backs of the people they exploited to gain them. When the prices of tin dropped worldwide, the town’s people found themselves sitting in a pile of rubble, literally. The historical rollercoaster ride sent this town through a spiral, and turned the once vibrant city into a ghost town. Today, the town is still rough, and requires some proverbial polishing before you can really begin to identify its charm and character.
There are over a thousand mines in the area, most of which are dedicated to tilling the rock walls and hard and arid soil
for silver. The vast majority of the mines fall miles below the safety standards of any conventional belief. The roofs of the tunnels are held up by twigs and rotted tree trunks. They are sometimes tacked together by somewhat more resistant boards of moulding ply-wood. The walls are raw and exposed, and there is no form of ventilation to suck the dangerous air out from the occupied burrows of the mines. Dynamite explosions are far from isolated and protected, and many go off without any warning to the other people wandering and working in the mines. The occurrence of an explosion is only notified to other workers by the shuttering of the already loose metallic walls. It is easy to see, but painful when trying to understand, that in the mines around Potosi, Bolivia there are around four of five deaths a month.
The men who work the mines, and yes the mine work is exclusively left for men here in Cerro Rico, must be brave, or desperate. The men look as if they have aged at double pace. I ask a man his age, and he responds that he is twenty-five. “That’s the same age as me,” I think to myself, “he looks like he’s in his mid-forties at least.” He tells me that he’s been
working in the mine for ten years, and that he will work them until he dies, or until the mines wear dry of wealth.
Cerro Rico itself has also felt the wear of this cruel industry. It once stood tall and proud at height of well over 5000m above sea level, but has had nearly a half a kilometre of its peak shredded over the years of exposure. Its once red glow shone proudly as it stood guard over its prized city, but its colour has seemed to fade.
As grim as it all may sound, Potosi, and its mountain guard, still holds a value. The city, though dusty and grey still contains an elegant charm with tall colonial buildings and narrow and obviously unplanned cobbled streets. Although rough around the edges the people of the city show a miners strength and pride. To some, this city might be seen as a wasteland of stolen resources and exploited people. But to others this is a town of resilience. When this town could have easily crumbled and folded itself into a wasteland of crime and poverty, it has instead decided to fight, and will continue to fight.
A visit to Bolivia’s Cerro Rico will spit you back into a different time and place. It will leave you questioning and wondering, but it will also leave you wanting to discover. There is something to this city that draws the curious child out in visitors, something we should all aspire to do more often.