It was night. A dark, unusual triangular shadow was visible on the horizon, only illuminated along its contour by hundreds of small lights, which in the distance resembled white Christmas lighting.
It was Cerro Rico, the famous peak towering over the Bolivian city of Potosi that supplied vast quantities of silver to fund Spain’s colonial empire back in the 16th century. Today, it is still an active mine; and a dangerously active one.
This is the reason I came to Potosi. I had heard tales of this mine and how dangerous it is, yet how easy it is for tourists to visit one of its mining tunnels to see first hand the working conditions of miners. I wanted to see this. I wanted to feel how it was to be inside a real, fully functional silver mine.
Understanding Potosi And Cerro Rico
It’s interesting to be in Potosi. Even though it has the biggest silver mine in Bolivia and one of the biggest in the world, this is a poor city that only reflects a fraction of its glorious past. In fact, back in the 16th century, Potosi gained status, importance, and size equivalent or bigger than 16th century London.
Still, as poor as it may be, Potosi conserves its strong traditions and charm that make this city a living cultural and social museum.
There’s beauty in its basic lifestyle, in its decaying architecture, in the traditionally dressed ladies wearing their two long braids under their 1920s Bowler hats.
In contrast, Cerro Rico stands on its side like an ugly shrinking mountain. Its striated yellow, gold, and orange face is evidence of its continuous mutilation for over five centuries.
The mountain still rises over 800 meters (2,600 feet) above Potosi’s stunning altitude of 4,092 meters (13,400 feet) above sea level, but it is said that since the beginning of its mining era, Cerro Rico has lost over 400 meters (1,300 feet) in height.
In fact, Cerro Rico, which is currently a UNESCO Heritage Site, has been declared a hazardous area due to its imminent danger of collapsing into itself. Over 100km (60 miles) of tunnels have turned this mountain into a giant ant hill and weakened its natural structure to sustain itself.
It is possible Cerro Rico might lose its UNESCO classification soon since the institution does not want a World Heritage Site to become a mass grave.
Preparing for Cerro Rico
Finding how to get inside Cerro Rico vas very easy. In fact, dozens of tour companies offer tours to the mine for as little as 70 Bolivianos ($10). Since I was with a group of friends who didn’t speak Spanish, we paid 100 Bolivianos ($14.50) to go with Greengo Tours – a recommended company that offered English tours.
Well, it turned out our tour was sketchier than I hoped. And trust me, I already knew how sketchy Bolivia can be.
It started with some disorganized preparation and a slow process to get us all in the proper gear to enter the mine – helmet, headlamp, full outfit, and Welly boots. I didn’t mind much the lack of organization. I was not surprised.
Once ready, we walked to the nearest mining shop to get a brief on how miners use dynamite and other details on how they survive in such harsh conditions. During the explanation, our guide asked us to buy dynamite and juice to donate to the miners.
My friends and I looked at each other a bit puzzled since the request sounded more compulsory than a genuine donation. We didn’t mind much, though, since where else do you get the opportunity to buy dynamite at $0.72 a stick! Seriously, $0.72 for a whole stick of dynamite!! We bought a few of them!
More shocking was to learn how easy it is for people to buy it and that kids can buy it too, just like a kid in the US can buy a loaf of bread. Seriously?! I’m surprised nothing has been blown in the city, yet.
We continued walking to a small stall where an old lady sold coca leaves, alcohol, and other basic products used both domestically and in the mine.
We were explained how miners chew the coca leaves to suppress their hunger since eating in the mine is rather unpleasant due to the amount of dust they might ingest. Also, how they use alcohol to pay respect to “El Tio” (the Uncle), the patron saint of the mine.
Again, we were asked to buy a series of items for the miners. This time we refused to do so since the practice started to look a bit shady to us.
Our problem was not the fact that we were buying these cheap items, but the ethics behind forcing us to do it and not mentioning beforehand that we were supposed to buy these things in addition to the tour price (which was the most expensive, by the way).
We felt dynamite and juice were more than fine based on the conditions and misinformation going on on our tour.
Entering The Mountain That Eats People
We quickly took a local bus that took us to the entrance of Cerro Rico. There, we walked for a few minutes until we reached the entrance of the tunnel we were about to explore.
Our guide told us to wait until a pair of miners came out of the mine running with their mining car full or silver ore. He said it was very important to make sure the tunnel was clear to enter. If we happened to get in the way of one of these cars, we would be the ones in danger since those cars have no brakes and are hard to stop.
Following his warning, we waited on the side of the muddy tracks until the miners exited. Our guide tapped a few times on a steel air pipe to signal that we were coming in. There was no reply from inside, so we were cleared to go in.
The entrance is a narrow tunnel over a hundred meters long, and it is probably the most dangerous part for a tourist since there’s nowhere to deviate or squeeze if you suddenly encounter a speeding mining car.
We slowly walked in the narrow, dark, muddy tunnel. It was humid, the air was thick, and the air pipes made a loud, unstoppable noise that made the environment even more intense. We were all walking in a single file, so if our guide gave one command, it would be passed individually along the line until it reached the last person.
About halfway through the tunnel, our guide starts shouting, “Go back! Go back! Fast! Fast! Fast!”
Since I was the last in line I could not hear his shouts, but the message was immediately passed along until it reached me.
Completely confused by my friend telling me to run outside, I simply react, “seriously?”
Yes!!! Go back, fast!!” she replied.
I start running out, not knowing why or what was happening. Behind me, all I could hear for a few seconds was, “run faster!!”
I was running as fast as I could without tripping with the rails and its cross timber. It was all flooded with mud and dark, so I could barely see where I was stepping on except for the spot lit by my headlamp.
“Stop, stop, stop!” I hear a few seconds after our death run.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
I get no reply. There was silence for about 5 seconds until I’m told again to run.
“Fuck this, I’m leaving this tunnel until I’m told what ‘s going on,” I end up saying to myself.
Once we were all out, we looked at our scared faces wondering what was happening. Shortly after our guide comes out asking why we ran all the way out. We simply looked at him like, “didn’t you just tell us to run out?”
He explained to us that a mining car was coming fast, and somehow his tapping was not received by the miners. He wanted us to run back and get into a spot where we could squeeze out of the way, but he failed to explain that.
We were pissed at him. We understood that his English was not that good, but when you’re dealing with other people’s lives in a dangerous environment, you must be clear with your instructions.
After some hesitation by some in the group to re-enter the mine, we all agreed to go back in only if he was clear with every detail. In hindsight, he was far from being clear or a good guide, but we went back in knowing that was a high possibility.
Once the tunnel-of-our-possible-death was cleared, we all relaxed a bit, but only a bit.
As we walked further in the air became harder to breathe. I could see how some of the wooden beams were already broken and collapsed due to the mountain’s weight. I just remembered reading the mountain was in danger of collapsing, so I hope that it would not collapse while I was still in there.
As we crossed paths with some miners, we would randomly hand them a stick of dynamite or juice. They would greet us with gratitude and continue onwards with their job.
The miners looked dust gray, their skin was dry, and their hands were coarse due to hard labor. Miners here still work as they did centuries ago, with picks and shovels.
The conditions haven’t improved much either. Each year, over 30 miners die here, according to official figures. But because of the transient and informal labor system, the death toll could be much higher.
We entered a room adorned with a messed up statue and a seating area. It was a shrine for El Tio. The statue, now covered with hundreds of prayer ribbons, alcohol, and cigarettes; once used to show a human body with a devil’s head and an erect penis.
Miners come here to pray for good fortune finding silver and surviving another day at work. They smoke and leave the cigarette in the devil’s mouth; drink a sip of alcohol and pour some on its hands, legs, and penis to gain the strength for the day; and throw coca leaves on top of it for luck.
After spending some time with El Tio, we continued forward and squeezed through some narrower tunnels until we encountered two miners taking a break – or so it looked.
I speak fluent Spanish, so I could communicate well with them. By this point, I stopped paying attention to our rather-bad-guide, so I sat next to one of the miners to chat with him.
He reeked as if he hadn’t showered for days. He was drunk. Way drunk. After listening to his incoherent slurs and answering that all my female friends already had boyfriends (those guys are horny dogs), I went on to ask him why was he there, “chilling.”
He said they just blasted four dynamites but only heard three detonations. They believed the fourth one was still live and were waiting for it to explode before moving out.
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not – based on his drunk status. I looked at the guide, who apparently didn’t know anything to see if he overheard our conversation. He didn’t.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I tell my friends who clearly didn’t understand my conversation and let them know there’s a live dynamite ready to explode at any moment? Should I not say anything and not scare them? They were already anxious to get out. Clearly, a dynamite warning would not have made things easier.
I went for the latter. If these miners are here waiting, we “should be safe.”
The miner and I continued our chat and jumped between incoherent topics every few minutes.
It was time to leave. I had not heard the blast yet. Since I had some doubts about the veracity of the missing dynamite, I simply followed my guide’s order and followed the group towards the exit.
I’ll never know what happened to that fourth dynamite or if it even existed, but it certainly added an extra level of danger to our tour (as if we needed any more danger).
As bad and dangerous as the tour might have been, I’m glad I got to experience it. The miner’s life is hell; a hell not many people get to see, experience or even slightly comprehend. I felt sorry at moments. I wondered why do they have to do this. Why not do something else?
But, as I’ve learned through my travel experiences, sometimes this is the only thing they have to survive, so they simply have to endure it for as long as they can.
I didn’t get upset with the mine or miners about the mishaps that happened on the tour. In the end, we are intruding their environment – a dangerous working space. Our guide, on the other hand, that’s another story…
While I had a rather unpleasant experience with Greengo Tours, they seem to be one of the best companies in Potosi. I know of other bloggers who had a wonderful experience with them.
Have in mind that in addition to the tour price, you might spend some money on buying dynamite (fun!), juice, and other supplies to donate to the miners.
Tours last for about 4 hours and are run one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Each tour company visits a different tunnel.
Alternatively, Viator has some mine tours you can book online, but aside from being more expensive, I can’t say whether they are better and safer.
If you want to go cheap and don’t need an English tour, you can pay as little as 70 Bolivianos ($10). English tours can be found as cheap as 80 Bolivianos ($11.50). Just walk around the city and haggle prices.
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