Descending into the mines

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, November 12, 2007

We arrived in Potosi on a Sunday morning.  After acquiring a hotel, we discovered that nothing in the town was open.  So no tours of the mines today.  It was hard enough to find a restaurant. 

Later we came across a parade.  The guy at the restaurant told me it was put on by shopkeepers.  They were strange shopkeepers.  Very interesting costumes and a pretty nice beat though.  They danced around town all day.  We saw them later in the evening as well. 

So we passed a relaxing day in Potosi.

The next day I signed up for a tour of the mines while Erin decided to pass.  We met our tour guide at around 9 in the morning and drove to a deposit where we dressed up in ridiculous clothes (see picture).  Then we drove up to the mountain.

Potosi is considered the second highest city in the world at just under 4000 meters.  The other one is in Peru.  They like extremes in Bolivia.  Originally Potosi was a small native settlement that mined the nearby Cerro Rico for silver.  Then the Spanish arrived.  It's hard to travel in South America and defend the Spanish.  At first the locals didn't tell the Spanish about their sacred mountain.  But one day someone let it slip.  The Spanish founded the city of Potosi and brought black slaves to mine the silver.  But that didn't work because they kept dying.  So instead they started recruiting the Indians.  They lasted a little longer.

Under Spanish rule, 35% of the population was collected and put to work in the mines.  Catholicism was used to ill effect here.  There are 32 churches in the city.  All sacred places, including the temple on the summit of the mountain, were torn down and replaced by crosses.  The Spanish told the people that they could not worship their gods.  As punishment they were put to work in the mines.

Potosi was full of veins of pure silver.  It grew to a huge city and financed the Spanish empire during it's expansion.  Thousands of people died.  The life expectancy for people working in the mines is around 10 years.  There are no safety regulations.  It is difficult and dangerous work. 

In order to control the miners, the Spanish created statues of Spanish overlords and placed them around and in the mines.  They said that if the miners did not work hard, the mountain would take lives as punishment.  These statues later turned into the mountain god, el tio.  El tio means uncle in Spanish, but apparently came from the word for god, dios.  The natives had no d sound in their language, only t.  Every Friday the miners give el tio coca leaves, pure alcohol, and cigarettes as an offering.  In return they hope to find good minerals.

There aren't many silver veins left in the mountain anymore.  Only small veins of a mix of various minerals.  The miners pay to use the mines, but have to provide all of their equipment and tools themselves.  They sell the minerals they collect to refineries in town.  As the veins dry up, they must go deeper and deeper into the mines.

Our first stop is the miner's market, where we purchase cigarettes, 96% alcohol, and dynamite packages for the miners.  Miners eat here in the morning and evening, but during they day they subsist only on coca leaves.  We drive up to a viewpoint overlooking Potosi.  Then we enter the mines.

There are only four of us in the group.  We descend from the first level to the second.  It involves a tricky hand placement and a scramble down a very sketchy ladder.  As we walk through the tunnels our guide would say, "watch out for the hole to your left."  It was a very deep hole.  We meet a few miners and distribute the gifts we have brought for them.  All we see of one is his booted feet dangling from the ceiling.  There is a museum down here in the darkness with eerie mannequins that are illuminated with our lamps.  We pay our respects to el tio and I try the alcohol. 

We pass another tio and the guide explains that there are hundreds of them.  When a miner is near death, he is allowed to construct his own in the mine where he worked.  He offers advice and good luck, as long as respects are paid every Friday.  He will mine the mountain forever.  "This one is named Carlos," our guide explains. 

We emerge into the sunlight.  Everyone wanted to blow the dynamite as promised on the agency brochures, but our guide tells us that it is no longer allowed.  Very disappointing.  Don't come to Potosi hoping for the explosive experience anymore folks. 

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