Day 84: Into hell and back

Miner pushing trolley through the tunnel

It is hard to imagine that Potosi used to be Latin America’s largest and wealthiest city, having once upon a time financed the Spanish empire for over 2 centuries. Potosi’s nearby Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) was historically mined for its silver, a commodity plundered during the Spanish conquest on the back of forced labour. A painful past, 8 million slaves lost their lives under brutal working conditions in the mines. Although pure silver has now depleted, the pain continues today as miners plow the mountain’s other minerals, no longer in the name of imperialism, but merely for a living.

It is said that Potosi’s streets were once paved in silver – not surprising given that Cerro Rico yielded over half the world’s production of this precious metal. Potosi’s grandeur past may be long forgotten, but its history remains a sobering reminder of humanity’s inhumanity. Despite the potential risks (especially in a developing country), we decided a visit to the underworld was not to be missed. After all, this is one of the only places in the world you could enter a working mine to witness the tough conditions that miners face everyday.

It was dark and damp. We’ve been to the bat caves in Guatemala and the salt cathedral in Colombia, but this underground experience was completely different. It wasn’t your average sightseeing activity. It was real. It was raw. Walking through tunnels with backs arched, stomping in shin-high muddy waters, dodging aside from trolleys full of rock, climbing down shafts and squeezing through crevices… the only thoughts in the back of my head were news reports of Chinese mines caving in and how miners were trapped for days… please, please don’t happen today.

Hanging out with a miner

The tunnels twisted and turned deep into the mountain and we spent about 2 hours in a couple different shafts as the miners went about their daily grind. This was hell, and Tio the devil was their god. Watching them work in such harsh conditions made me feel like a wuss. This was manual labour at its manliest. Imagine 10 hours a day in darkness, dirt, grit and dust, shoving and heaving in poorly ventilated environments, carrying dynamite with the risk of ending your life as a suicide bomber…

It was an experience, one where I was grateful to see daylight again…

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7 Comments

  1. Kenrick says:

    Amazing!

  2. Kenrick says:

    This is like in the Bolivian Andes right?? Read about this before! Don't they have some hell worshiping mater in those mines too??

  3. Rafzana says:

    Wow, unbelievable what harsh conditions people have to work in! Really sounds like hell!

  4. Rafzana says:

    Wow, unbelievable what harsh conditions people have to work in! It really sounds like hell!

  5. Leslie says:

    Wow what an experience!

  6. 山 him says:

    Kenrick: Yeah this is in the Andes! they worship the devil.. which was introduced by the Spanish to instill fear amongst slaves. To this day the tradition/culture of devil worship continues in hopes that the devil will not take their lives or reward them with striking big on minerals. Really interesting stuff.

  7. Anonymous says:

    that is crazy PAUL!!

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