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Bolivia’s Cerro Rico – Risking my life inside the ‘mountain that eats men’

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The morning I was scheduled to go on a mine tour in Potosí, Jess asked me ‘Why do you have to do it?’, looking at me anxiously. I knew she wasn’t happy about me going into this mountain, especially after finding out that it can collapse anytime, and spending a couple of hours crawling through narrow muddy passageways in the worst conditions thinkable, and had no interest in experiencing the mine for herself.

However, I just had to know what it was really like inside this mine. We had read so much about Cerro Rico, the fabled mountain that helped the Spanish to get rich when they conquered South America in the 16th century, providing them with enough silver to build a bridge from Potosí to Madrid (figuratively, of course). Now, the silver is long gone, and Potosí, once one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the world, is now the poorest city in Bolivia.

potosi with cerro rico
Cerro Rico looming over Potosi

Why risk my life?

Reading about the dangers of the mine tours certainly didn’t leave me unaffected – possible accidents through explosions or trolleys gone lose, potential cave ins and exposure to silica dust, asbestos deposits, chemicals and gases, doesn’t sound like most people’s idea of a fun day out. But it wasn’t supposed to be fun anyway, it was supposed to be educational and eye-opening.

Miners continue to go into the mountain every day, even though there is no silver left, and the state-run enterprise closed down in the late 80s due to high losses and not enough profits. After that, the miners were desperate to keep working and formed cooperatives that, without state involvement, work for themselves and still extract enough minerals such as led, zinc and tin to make money off it. Apparently the mountain looks like a Swiss cheese on the inside now, with hundreds of tunnels running through it, which is why it is on the verge of collapse.

potosi cerro rico minesYou can read all about the horrendous conditions, but it is just not the same as seeing it with your own eyes, feeling the darkness of the tunnels, lit only by your headlamp, the smells of gas, the noise, the claustrophobically narrow tunnels.

So I booked myself a spot on a mine tour with GreenGo Tours, said to be one of the more responsible tour operators that don’t sensationalize the experience (until a couple of years ago, other tour companies allowed tourists to set off dynamite just for fun). It was only me, a couple from France and our guide Julio, who made our way up to Cerro Rico on this sunny Friday morning, hoping to learn more about the mine, the miners, their lives and working conditions.

potosi street with cerro rico view
The road leading up to Cerro Rico

Cigarettes and coca leaves: gifts for the miners

There is some controversy around these tours and if it is okay to watch the miners like some kind of zoo animals but I had read that they actually appreciate the tourists since they bring them gifts and distract them from their monotonous work for a while. It is obligatory to bring the miners some presents, which is why the tour starts at the so-called miners’ market. I pictured a big market where all the stalls offer something for the miners’ needs, but in the end this ‘market’ turned out to be one of many similar little shops along the road that leads up to the mine that sell things like rubber boots, head lamps, masks, juice, cigarettes, coca leaves, dynamite and gloves.

potosi coca leaves vendor
A coca vendor in the miner’s market

I asked Julio what they needed the most and he suggested juice, coca leaves and cigarettes. Especially the last two might seem a bit bizarre, but since the miners all work in cooperatives they have to provide their own gear and tools, which they often can’t afford from their little salary, and snacks are a luxury which they can’t justify.

We had changed into our protective gear and helmets in a nearby storage room and hopped on the next bus up to the mine – not without getting some funny looks by fellow passengers. I felt a bit silly in my gear, obviously not being a miner. The minute we walked into the area of Julio’s cooperative (he’s actually a member, and nobody but him can tour the tunnels of this particular co-op), the miners who were standing outside taking a break were cheering at him, offering him beer and joking around with him. It made me feel better to see that they seemed to truly like him and not just tolerate him.

potosi miners market
Miners market shop with alcohol, cigarettes and other necessities

Before we went into the mine, he told us a lot about the miners, their struggles and their lives. ‘Don’t ask them if they like working at the mine-’, he said, ‘don’t be stupid’. Obviously nobody enjoys spending 8 – 10 hours in the closely-spaced tunnels inside a dark mountain, but most of them don’t find any other work, and the mine pays pretty good compared to other jobs in Potosí (of which there aren’t many in the first place). They get 120 Bolivianos a day, around US$17.40, which adds up to US$4,500 a year – way above the average wage of US$1,503 in Potosí. You have to consider, however, that the miners are usually the sole providers for their families and that, after nearly 500 years, the mountain does not have many minerals left which means that the 15,000 men who are working in the mines will be out of work sooner or later.

The cooperative we visited has over 400 members and Julio assured us that there are no children working in the mines anymore, one of the things that was always a big complaint about the mine. He told us that many of the miners don’t want their sons having to work in the mine when they are old enough and one miner told us later that when his 16-year old son failed his school year, he brought him to the mine for a month during his summer break to show him what would await him should he fail high school. The next year, his son studied like crazy and swore never to set foot in the mine again.

potosi cerro rico mine

Inside the mine: close to a panic attack

The minute we entered the tunnel into the mine, I got really scared. It was darker than I had imagined – conditions in Cerro Rico are said to be about 50 years behind modern mining technology, which means there are no lights in the tunnels for example, and the trolleys used to bring rocks and dirt out of the mine seem to be from the 19th century. We also couldn’t walk standing straight up at all. Julio told us that we had to run for the first 300 meters because of the trolleys that use this way to exit the tunnel – and sure enough the first cart came running at us not long after entering the mine! The four of us jumped into a little nook and I was praying that the trolley wouldn’t hit us.

potosi cerro rico mine workersIt passed us with only millimeters to spare and Julio was ready to move on when I thought to myself ‘I can’t do this. I have to turn around.’ I was breathing heavily, the air was so thin that I was basically wheezing. But Julio had already disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, the French couple in toe, and so I followed them, feeling a panic come up inside of me that I’ve never experienced before. We were rushing deeper and deeper into the mountain and I remembered the article I had just read about a crater that had opened near the summit of the mountain a couple of years ago, and geologists warning that more collapses and implosions would follow in other parts of Cerro Rico. I was so scared that I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

The trolleys, filled with rocks and debris that are discharged outside of the mine, weigh 700 pounds and need to be pushed by three people – and can easily get out of control because they don’t have breaks. Trolley accidents are actually among the most common in the mine. When the next trolley passed us, the three young guys who pushed it asked if we had juice. I quickly took one of the 2-liter bottles that I bought out of my backpack and Julio threw it on the trolley.

potosi cerro rico mine cartsNot all of the miners had time to talk, but the ones who were on a break were as interested in us as we were in them, wanting to know where we were from, if we had kids, what we did for a living. We were only at our second stop when Julio disappeared into one of the tunnels off the main passageway, and I finally started to calm down a bit. I was still extremely tense, terrified that the mountain might collapse at any time, and had a hard time breathing due to the stuffy, thick and dusty air.

Julio returned and told us that Ernesto, the miner he went to talk to, was in the middle of setting up two sticks of dynamite and we would be hearing an explosion shortly. Now I was even more scared, and ready to leave – if I only knew which of the three completely black tunnels was the way out. Ernesto came running down the tunnel and right after he sat down with us, we heard the two explosions go off nearby, while I cowered in a corner covering my ears with my hands. No smoke cloud came out of the tunnel though (I had expected getting covered in dust), and the miner had time before going back down there to stay for a chat and to refill his bag of coca leaves from the 1 pound bag we had bought. Most of the miners we saw inside the mine had a bunch of coca leaves stuffed in his cheeks, making it look as if they had a tennis ball inside their mouth. Coca helps to reduce hunger, and keeps them awake during their long shifts in the darkness.

potosi coca leavesErnesto’s job was simply burrowing into tiny crevices and placing dynamite. He was one of the smaller miners, which allowed him to do this job. Most of the miners specialize in one type of work: the younger ones usually fill the rocks and debris into the trolleys, others excavate, others are in charge of making new tunnels.

The horrible working conditions in the mine

The working conditions are so obsolete that the excavators still use hammers and iron chisel to break through the rock. No oxygen is being pumped in, the rails and trolleys have never been renewed. There are no health and safety regulations in place whatsoever, which is why most of the miners don’t even wear masks and thus breathe in gas and dust all day long. The minerals and raw metals that are found are brought out of the mine in shoulder bags weighing up to 80 pounds (36 kg). The conditions in the mines have been horrible since the 16th century when the Spanish conquerors used local Quechua people as slaves, forcing them to work inside the mines for days without leaving, and thousands of slaves and miners have lost their lives inside the mountain, which is why Bolivians call Cerro Rico La montaña que come hombres – the mountain that eats men. If the miners don’t die in a trolley accident, a cave-in or an explosion gone wrong, they are likely to die from the long-term consequences of working in the mines; usually lung diseases caused by breathing in poisonous gases on a daily basis for many years.

Cerro Rico Mine PotosiWe met one last group of younger miners before we made our way back out of the mountain. They joked and laughed with Julio for a while and were curious about us. When one of them asked if we had juice, and there was no bottle left because I had given my two bottles already away, I felt guilty instantly. These guys had been in the mine since 8am and were sweating, their clothes sticking to their skin. The inside of the mountain is actually hotter than the outside, up to 40C in deeper tunnels. I handed over the small bottle of water I had brought for myself, knowing I would be out of the mountain soon, while they still had at least 4 more hours left inside, and were already dehydrated and tired.

I was so relieved when Julio announced that it was time to leave, I almost burst into tears of joy. We hurried back out along the tracks, hoping that no trolley would come while we were on them. When the light of the end of tunnel finally came insight, I ran faster, holding my helmet with my hands as it continued to hit the low ceiling. Outside, the bright sunlight was almost blinding, and it took me a few minutes to catch my breath and to realize that I survived the mine.

potosi cerro rico mine daniThis mine visit was by no means a pleasant experience, and I have to admit that I was surprised about how much I panicked inside the mountain – I am usually not claustrophobic – and how trapped and scared I felt the entire time. Knowing that these men spend 60 or 70 hours every week inside Cerro Rico is something I can’t wrap my head around.

I am still glad that I went, got to meet some of the miners and saw how hard working in a mine is – especially in this one which is so far behind modern mining techniques. It definitely was an eye-opening experience and made me appreciate minerals like zinc and led so much more, being aware of how hard it is to extract them.

If you go:

If you are in any way claustrophobic, this tour isn’t for you.

cerro rico silver mine potosiThe mine tour is an experience you will never forget and that will probably change your perspective on your own life. It is supposed to be an educational an informative experience, not a spectacle. Choose the company you go with carefully – I opted for Greengo Tours because it is run by an actual former miner (most companies claim their tours are run by former miners, which isn’t true in many cases) who is a member of the cooperative he shows visitors and makes sure visitors understand that this is an actual working mine, not a tourist attraction. Greengo charges BOB130; plus an additional BOB50 – 100 for you to spend on presents for the miners (it is entirely up to you how much you want to spend, but you have to bring something).

Don’t visit the mine on a Sunday – this is the one day when the mine is actually not working. However, some tour agencies still offer Sunday tours to make a profit.potosi cerro rico mountainBuy a mouth mask – None of us had one, but it was so dusty inside the mine that I wished I had one.

If you bring your camera, bring a plastic bag for it, or it will be covered in dust after the tour.

How do you feel about tours like this one – human zoo or educational? Share in the comments below!

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Tags : boliviapotosi

37 Comments

    1. Stef – thanks so much!! I still think about the mines a lot, it was such a haunting experience.. I can’t get over the fact that this is what these men do every single day.

  1. Great description of your own experience. I did the same tour (although with a different company) and agreed that this is not really a touristy thing.

    Although I was not scared at any moment (probably a combination of personal insights, the route we took, no dynamite on the way, etc), definitively this is not for the claustrophobic.

    Dany – just as constructive feedback, it would be great if you can put metric measures alongside the pounds – is hard to follow for all us non-US residents.

    1. I am surprised that you weren’t scared at all during the tour! It was the first time in my life that I felt claustrophobic. Our guide told us he usually goes down to another level during the tour but none of us was too keen on that, and I am happy we didn’t go any deeper than we did!

      P.S. Appreciate your feedback about the metric measures – will add them right now 🙂

  2. This was kind of hard to read but I agree with other commenters. It is well written and help people like me to get a peek into the life of these miners. Earlier ,I was commenting in another article about how bloggers (and I have to include myself) tend to neglect the human aspect of travel. I applaud you for taking the time to go and actually talk with miners and visit their workplace (if it can be called like that). I know it was not easy but you have given us insight into the real life of people living on that part of the world.
    Ruth recently posted..Sunset Cliffs in San Diego

    1. Thanks, Ruth! It was definitely an experience that left a mark on me, and I don’t think I can ever complain about anything in my life anymore knowing what these guys endure on a daily basis!

  3. Amazing article. Looking at the pictures I can see these people aren’t valuing their lives highly. They are simply face to face with death everyday, it seems. If you are working in one of those mines you wouldn’t be much concerned about being killed by smoking. I must say I wouldn’t dare to take the tour.

    1. Thank you! I guess that’s right what you said about the smoking, but on the other hand it probably makes the lung diseases they’re likely to get even worse 🙁

  4. It is so incredibly sad that the miners have to work under such horrendous conditions. Did your guide mean that there are no children working in his particular part of the mine, because there are definitely still a lot of children working in the mines. There are a few NGOs who help those children actually, so that’s why I know. Anyway, you are brave for going in. I am still not sure if I am going to go, not because I think it is a zoo, because I don’t think it is, but because of the security. I will keep you posted. 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Surviving The World’s Most Dangerous Road

    1. He meant that there were no children working in the entire mine and I want to believe him! You’ll have to tell me if you end up going and how you feel about it. Potosi is worth a visit anyway, even if you don’t go on a mine tour.

  5. I’m so glad that you were able to go on a tour of such a place and share it with people. I find that the more people know about such atrocious conditions in the world, the better it is for the people involved. It is our responsibility as travellers and responsible citizens of the world to spread the word, so to speak. Ignorance is bliss, but it is definitely not useful to people who have to suffer in silence in such conditions. Thanks for sharing your experience!
    BrownVagabonder recently posted..Our Quest To Get Good Seats On The Minibus

  6. Excellent write-up Dani and quite an experience indeed! Not meant to “parrot” you or something, but thanks for taking me along! I quite felt like being in the mine myself and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should like it or not… 😉 Brave you!
    In general I’m in two minds about these kind of travel experiences since it might be a fine line between human zoo and educational approach. I think a lot depends on the responsible persons for such a tour and you throw in quite a few thoughts toward it while writing. I quite like the idea of “give and take” in terms of the things you brought along for the workers and I really think these things make a difference for them.
    Bottom line: I consider such tourist attractions thousand times better than let’s say Tubing in Laos… 🙂
    So yes, thanks again for the really interesting article!
    Oliver recently posted..Celebrating tranquillity

    1. Oliver, I appreciate your comment 🙂 I think helping the miners by visiting them and bringing them some gifts is definitely better than tubing in Laos 😉

    1. Freya, thank you! I feel like the story of these miners needs to be told. I couldn’t forget about it after I had heard it for the first time and even though there is not much we can do about the conditions in the mine, I feel like it can change your perspective on things (esp. your own job and working conditions).

  7. OMG wow what a great post. I couldn’t stop reading it. I seriously had my hand over my mouth thinking OMG. I seriously don’t know if I could do this. I know I will be visiting soon, but yeah this is insane. I am so angry at the working conditions these people have to work in to make a living. I’m sitting here at my desk as I write this and am thinking wow I am so blessed and lucky to not have to be doing anything like that. Thanks for sharing this.
    Jaime recently posted..I have been home a year and it still feels like it was all a dream.

    1. Thanks so much, Jaime! It was insane, I am not going to lie :-/ Not even sure if I’d recommend going into the mountain to anyone. Way too scared that something might happen!!

    1. Drunken tour guides seem to be a problem throughout Bolivia!! Luckily our guide wasn’t drunk. We had to drink a shot of 90% alcohol before entering the mine though, to honor the ‘tio’, who looks after everyone who enters the mines.

  8. I did this tour in 2008. It was certainly an experience. I had been reluctant to do it, due to being scared how horrible it would be inside. Thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined and I coped just fine. I was, however, disappointed, when we didn’t get to set off our own dynamite beforehand like we were promised! Although it sounds liked tourists are not allowed to do that anymore anyway which can only be a good thing.
    Sharon recently posted..The amazing experience of attending a cricket test match in the West Indies

    1. Sharon – I am surprised that your tour wasn’t as bad as you thought. People usually say the opposite after going into the mine 🙂

    1. Ari – Humbling is the right way to describe this experience. It definitely changed my perspective and I also thought: I can never ever complain about my job again. Still thinking about the miners all the time!

  9. I can’t imagine what daily life down there must be like. I do suffer with anxiety and the thought of going down there fills me with dread. We’re doing a caving tour in Waitomo New Zealand tomorrow, a super safe underground expedition, and I’m rather nervous. You’re so brave Dani! Great post highlighting the history and reality of the Cerro Rico.

  10. We booked our mine tour through Koala Den for 100 bolivianos and it was an incredible experience. We felt very safe all the way through as you have 2 ex-miners as guides for the group to help you get around and also so that you can leave at any time if you wish.

    We were given protective clothing, boots and a helmet and head torch before going to the miners’ market to buy presents for the miners. We got to try 96% alcohol (!) and were shown the correct way to chew cocoa leaves with added sweetener. Our guides were very informative about the miners and their work. We also saw the silver being processed from the original minerals which was interesting.

    We spent 2 hours down in the mines and descended 30m. It was very intense as some of the tunnels are low or narrow and the working conditions are awful. However, it was an eye opening experience that is not to be missed. Tours run in English and Spanish.

  11. Great post, felt like I was right there with you when reading it!

    I also did a tour of the mine a couple of months ago with Big Deal Tours. I quite liked that the tour company is run by current and ex-miners.

    It really was both an insightful and humbling experience. Though have to say, it wasn’t too difficult an experience for me given I’m only 5 foot lol! Jokes aside, I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to work day in, day out in those conditions.

    Did you manage to see ‘The Devils Miner’ while you were in Sucre? Was such a powerful look into the lives of miners and the children who also work at the mines.
    Brigid recently posted..Sucre Spanish School

    1. Thanks so much, Brigid! I did watch The Devil’s Miner in Sucre, at the Joyride Cafe 🙂 Our guide in the mine told us though that the movie was totally staged and they just paid a random kid from Potosi $200 to play the main part. Not sure if that’s true?! He said that the locals were pretty mad when the film crew came in and didn’t pay any of the people in the movie a lot or gave back to the community in other ways. That left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth…

      1. Oh dear, I had no idea! If that’s true that is terrible. Will definitely have to research more about the film before I recommend it to others in future…thanks for the heads up!
        Brigid recently posted..Internet Speeds

  12. My wife and I will be visiting Potosi next month with a tour company. We will be visiting the miners, but I am sure that the visit will be outside the mine( thank God!!). We are all senior citizens, so the tour agency would not risk us in the bowels of the mine. You are certainly courageous! Your story-telling was riveting. Thanks for being the ” guinea pig” to give the rest of us a first hand picture.

    1. Ned – I think staying outside of the mine is a sensible idea 😀 It was one of the most claustrophobic experiences of my life. I hope you’ll enjoy your trip – Potosi is a lovely town.

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