In the mines

Tuesday, December 20th 2005

Early on the first day of Bolivia's new era, I got a bus to Potosí, a city two and a half miles above sea level, at the foot of a hill containing such extraordinary quantities of mineral wealth that the city was once the largest and richest in South America, and in Don Quixote, Cervantes used the 'riches of Potosí' to signify incalculable fortune. The hill is called Cerro Rico (the Rich Hill), and it towers over the town. The sun was shining but the streets were wet as I walked slowly and breathlessly to a hostel. I was definitely getting slightly more used to the altitude, but for some reason in Potosí I got nosebleeds every time I sneezed.

The main thing I wanted to do here was have a look around the mines, and so early one morning I picked a random company of the several that offer tours, and headed off to Cerro Rico. It was just me and a Japanese traveller on the tour, which was conducted only in Spanish. Luckily we both spoke it, and I was having a good day and understood pretty much everything. We started by heading to the miner's market to buy some gifts for the miners we'd meet - coca leaves, 96% proof alcohol, and dynamite. While we were there a violent hailstorm started. We got a bus up to the mine entrance in wild conditions, and headed underground.

Cerro Rico must be about as much mine shaft as rock these days. We entered a mine called La Poderosa, and headed deep into the mountain. The shaft was narrow and low, so that I had to stoop, and it was dry and quite cool. This was clearly no hi-tech mining operation, and as we headed deeper we could see that conditions were primitive. People passed us wheeling barrows full of rock, and when we met miners, they were digging into hand-cut pits. We donated our coca leaves and alcohol, and talked a bit to the miners. One, Don Julian, had worked in the mines for 15 years and was one of the oldest miners at 49. Another, Don Paulino, had been in the job for nine years. Apparently, the average life expectancy for a miner is just 40 years. The typical wage is between 200 and 550 Bolivianos a week - equivalent to £15 - £40 at the time I was there.

The mines are no place for a claustrophobe. At times we had to crawl through particularly narrow tunnels, and just once I got suddenly spooked out by the thought that I was deep underground with no idea of the way out, in a tunnel I couldn't even stand up in. We visited one of the most fascinating parts of the mine, a shrine to El Tío. El Tío is the miner's god, and each shaft has a shrine to him. His image owes much to European depictions of the devil - he is horned and normally painted red. He also is clearly indigenous, with a wodge of coca leaves in his cheek. Miners make daily offerings to him, and believe that he will ensure that their dig is prosperous. We left offerings too, so that El Tío would look kindly on our invasion of his turf.

I asked the guide about earthquakes. If one were to strike here, I wouldn't be surprised if the entire hill fell in on itself. But the guide claimed that this part of Bolivia was completely tectonically stable. We were far from volcanoes, and no earthquakes had ever happened here. The day Potosí experienced one would be the day the world ended, apparently. I hoped he was right as we slowly made our way back to the surface, via a different shaft to the one we'd entered by. When we finally emerged into fresh air and sunshine it was hard to believe what a different world lay beneath our feet. Children were selling chunks of brightly coloured minerals, and I bought a couple before we got a bus back down into town.

That evening I experience a true Bolivian wonder: api. I don't know what it is made of, but it's a thick purple drink served hot, and at 4000m above sea level, on a bitterly cold rainy night, it's incredible. I sat in a cafe, chatting to some other travellers I'd met, drinking api and playing cards until they closed. I was planning to make an early start in the morning, having found out that there was some sort of bus strike happening and that onward movement might be difficult.

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