The City of Potosi, a UNESCO world heritage site is the highest city in the world 4090m and home to one worlds most mind blowing tourist attractions Cerro de Potosí. Sometimes referred to as the Cerro Rico meaning ‘rich mountain’ in Spanish is a silver mine with an amazing story.
According to official records, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico between 1556 and 1783. During this period Potosi was an extremely wealthy place, (there is still a saying, valer un potosí, “to be worth a potosí” (that is, “a fortune”). At one point, the city of Potosi was more populous than both London and Paris.
Originally the Spanish lead by Francisco de Toledo forced Indians through he Spaniards used the Inca mita (mandatory public service) system, they died by the thousands, from the brutal labor and mercury poisoning. As more and more of the indigenous labour died the in 1608 the Spanish requested the importation of 1500 to 2000 African slaves per year. An estimated total of 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí throughout the colonial era. African slaves were also forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda as acémilas humanas (human mules). Mules would die after couple of months pushing the mills, they replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves.
After 1800 the silver in the mines ran out, making tin the main product leading to a slow economic decline. Even so the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. The poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), mean the miners have a very short life expectancy, most of them dying of silicosis pneumonia around 40 years of age. It is estimated that, in the past years of indigenous labour, roughly 8 million Indians died and whilst there still potential to earn much more money mining than at other available jobs the supply of people willing to work in the mines will continue.
The Tour of Potosi Mines
The tour begins by purchasing gifts for the miners from the miners market. Its a custom to give presents to the miners. We bought coca leaves, hand-rolled cigarettes, soda, crackers, dynamite, and 96% alcohol, we got to try the alcohol which surprisingly didn’t taste that much stronger or different to vodka.
As part of the tour we were provided with some snazzy bright red and yellow overalls. As you enter the mines you can clearly see the stains from the llama blood. As you walk through the mines passage ways you do need to have your wits about you, there are pretty large holes on both sides which our guide kindly alerted us to.
The first miner we met was creating a hole using a pole and a hammer to put dymnamite int, He’d was in his fifties and had been working tin the mines for 29 years, living much longer than most. We all had a go at the hammering and made pretty much no impression on the rock. We then met some miners who were carrying wheelbarrows out of the mine, they had to carry out 10 tonnes (120 barrows) in a day, I had a push of one the barrows, it was riiddiculously heavy, i manage only a few meters!
The miners work with a big wad of coca leaves between their cheek and teeth. The coca helps energize them and suppresses their hunger, stopping to go to the toilet is out of the question due to loss of time, so is eating and drinking during your shift.
Being a bit clostraphobic i was a little aprehensive about the crawling around the small and dark tunnels but it wasnt as bad as I thought, but was still pretty intense. The other couple on the tour turned back as be ventured in to the deeper and more narrow passages that dated back to the colonial times.