We eat the mountain…and the mountain eats us.
— David, a mine guide and former miner in Potosi, echoes a decades-old sentiment about the city's lifeblood, its world-famous silver mines.
It was late morning and the sun was bright, the sky crystal at 13,400 feet in Potosi, Bolivia. We were being tended to by a group of schoolgirls dressed as nurses at a hygiene fair; they sought to teach us the methods and benefits of properly washing our hands.
The mood: uplifting and hopeful.
Contrast this with just the day before.
Profuse sweat and claustrophobia advanced as we crawled through tunnels well over 500 meters underground. Even with damp masks and bandannas covering our faces, we could barely breathe for all the dust and chemicals swirling from a nearby dynamite explosion just minutes before.
There, in the darkness of the Cerro Rico mine, a 12-year old boy was four hours into his shift. He had ten more hours to go.
The Miner’s Life
In the 500 years of Potosi's mining history, things haven't changed much for the average miner — the boy we met included. He was waiting, sweating; he wore a pained, exhausted look on his face. Practically, his day had just begun.
To make it through the workday, he filled his cheeks with large wads of coca leaves and chewed them as life force. The coca would lend him energy and curb his hunger, but it was clear it wouldn't fully counteract the stifling heat and lack of oxygen in the tunnels.
Although miners no longer die by the millions from mercury contact as they once did under Spanish colonialists, they virtually all die young — usually between 35 and 45 — of silicosis (black lung). David, our guide and a former miner himself, explained: “Nothing can be done once you have this [silicosis]. Even the best hospitals in Europe can do nothing to cure it. We know we're going to die young, so we want to make the best of what we have and enjoy life. This is why the festivals and celebrations here are so important to us. We give everything we have.”
Why live through such difficulty only to guarantee an early death? Miners are a proud group; they work hard and honorably in order to provide for their families. They'll take a gift of coca leaves, soda, or dynamite from tourists on mine tours, but they don't want our pity. They are motivated by the dream of striking it rich. Some work for private companies for a small salary, but most choose to work in cooperatives. Their hopes of finding valuable new veins of minerals and sharing directly in the fortune of their find are what keep them going day after day.
Our guide continued:
There was once a miner earning only $80 per month. One day he found a vein of silver. Today he is a millionaire and owns a football (soccer) team. The man we met outside? He owns 33 cars; he found a vein. After new veins of zinc were found in 2007, the Hummer population in Potosi increased by fifteen.
If you work as a truck driver or teacher, or in the factories you can earn about $150 per month. Police technically earn $150 per month also, but with all the bribes they get, it's much more. Same with politicians — they earn the most. But we all can’t be policemen or politicians. So, being a miner is the next best thing to support our families. There is always the chance to become rich if you work hard enough.
There simply aren't many employment options in a place like Potosi.
Question: If your father was a miner and died of silicosis at the age 40, who will provide for your family?
Answer: The eldest son, 12 years old.
Potosi Above Ground, Brighter
The following day, we took an early morning stroll around Potosi’s old colonial downtown. Hints of the city's former grandeur stood in its churches and homes — Potosi was once the richest and largest city in the world, besting places like Paris and London. Cerro Rico mountain – the one we'd been deep inside the day before — looms over a city now diminished.
During our walk, we intersected a group of Bolivian women and schoolchildren marching, advocating an end to domestic violence. Mixed and indigenous locals carried colorful banners and symbolic coffins. Now this was interesting and different. We followed them to the main square where the march merged into a hygiene fair run by teachers and children from local schools.
After watching us with curiosity, a group of young girls mustered the confidence to invite us to their booth for a lesson. One by one, each girl stood tall and recited her segment: the importance of cleaning and disinfecting one’s hands, how to prevent dengue and yellow fever, and why clean water is a necessity for a healthy community.
Their body language and the confidence and pride that resonated in their voices gave us a lift.
Upon leaving, a group of boys from another school surrounded us. When they found out we were from the United States, we were barraged with a series of questions for over 30 minutes: “What is the White House like? Have you met Barack Obama? Do you know Michael Jackson?”
In this interlude, hope sprang eternal.
The kids at the hygiene fair – for all the maturity of the messages they delivered — were still allowed to be kids. How different their lives are from the 12-year-old miner we'd met the day before. And how different the lives of working kids are from the childhoods we have known.
Where were you when you were twelve?
Photo Slideshow: Mines and Streets of Potosi, Bolivia
If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the photo set here.
Taking a Potosi Mine Tour and Tour Ethics
As with any tour that features a real-time view of difficult circumstances and human suffering, tour detractors argue that the experience amounts to paying to watch people suffer.
We believe the value of the experience (for you, the miners, your readers, etc.) depends on how you approach the tour. If you are going to view the miners as you would animals in a zoo, then we advise you not to go. If, on the other hand, you understand that the people you'll meet underground are human and their lives are made of decisions as serious as the ones you believe you face (more perhaps?), then the tour will be worthwhile. You'll have an opportunity to see and feel the mines firsthand in a way that no film or video experience can deliver. It may affect you profoundly.
Potosi Mine Tour Recommendations
- Watch the film Devil's Miner, a terrific, heart-tugging documentary told almost exclusively in the voice of a young boy who works in the mines. If you plan to take a Potosi mine tour, we recommend doing the tour first, then watching the film. Both of your experiences will be the better for it.
- Potosi mine tour operator: We opted to go with Koala Tours. Given his level of English, our guide was able to answer our barrage of questions about life in Potosi and in the mines. Cost: 100 Bs ($14.50). Many guesthouses also offer tours for a bit cheaper, but just make sure your tour company has a good safety record and contributes something to the miners they visit.
- Dealing With Altitude: Potosi is supposedly the highest city in the world at 13,400 feet (4090 meters) above sea level. To battle altitude sickness, we suggest moving slowly, drinking lots of water, and chewing coca leaves. If you still feel bad, consider taking Diamox (altitude sickness medicine).
- Accommodation: We stayed at Hostal La Casona in Potosi. 80 Bs ($12) per night for a double room with shared bathroom. They have free wi-fi internet. On par with most places in Bolivia, the breakfast is mediocre. Address: Chuquisaca 460
- Transport: You can get to Potosi by bus from almost any spot in Bolivia. Guesthouses will sell bus tickets for select times, but we found that it was just as easy to go to the bus station fifteen minutes before departure time, buy the ticket ourselves and use the savings to buy snacks for the ride.