Cerro Rico mine, Potosi, Bolivia
27.11.2011 - 27.11.2011 0 °C
27th November 2011
I'm undecided about going down a mine in Potosi when I bump into Iwan and Jess (a couple I'd met in Buenos Aires) and we decide to do it together. I'm keen to understand what the mines are like, but am fully aware that in Bolivia, there are no safety measures at all. The mines are run as a co-operative effectively meaning they are a free for all.
We sign up and within an hour we're picked up from our hostel and taken to a house where we change into 'protective clothing'. This consists of a thin satin longsleeved jacket and trousers that don't feel very protective at all. We're then given a helmet with a small gas flame torch at the front. It connects to a small pack which sits on a canvas belt around the waist. We purchase handkerchiefs to cover our mouths and minimise the dust that we will inhale.
We enter Cerro Rico mine via a tunnel with rail tracks and keep walking at the same level for fifteen minutes or so. To begin with its not as terrible as I am expecting: the tunnel is quite wide and tall. A little further in we pass some shoddy wooden scaffolding that is holding up the roof. Jess and I exchange glances and I cant help but wonder how much longer the wood will hold out.
Green mould hangs on the wall and every now and then a white crusty layer of salt appears. The smell of toxic chemicals hangs in the air, becoming more pungent the deeper into the mine we go. We pause to check how everyone is and talk a little about what it is like working here. Before long we move off. This time we have to crawl eight metres down a shaft to the second level. The temperature rises a little, the tunnel gets a bit smaller and the smell becomes stronger. We go down again: level three. We stop at the carts to see how these work, and leave some presents for the miners: some sticks of dynamite and drinks. Then we descend again taking considerable care not to fall down a large open hole on our left. The dust increases and the pungent aroma of chemicals tastes sour on the tongue.
We pay a visit to Timo to pay our respect and offer some coca leaves. Life in the mine evolves around Timo - the devil, or down here - the god of the underworld. The miners regularly bring him offerings of coca leaves and alcohol and pray to the lord of the underworld to keep them safe in the mine. They believe this is hell and Timo should always be worshipped. Getting on the wrong side of Timo could prove fatal.
From here we walk along and exit the mine. It's a relief to get out into the open and breath fresh air again. I have a new found respect for miners - it really is hell down there. Later we find out that the average miner only lives for ten years after he enters a Bolivian mine. Many of the workers down here are young boys who have lost their fathers in the mine and have to support their family. Typically they will earn just four dollars a day... For more information watch the documentary "A Devil´s Miner".