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Potosí Mines

The Mountain That Eats Men


View High Altitude Landscapes Tour - Bolivia, Chile & Argentina 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Looking in the mirror this morning, I can see that my eyes are lost in a sea of puffiness. I also have an extremely croaky voice, and feel like shit!

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Feeling the cold, I ended up with two blankets and a quilt on my bed overnight, as well as a top sheet. Having been brought up with just quilts, I have never understood the attraction of sheets and blankets, and I always seem to get myself into such a muddle with them, leaving various parts of me exposed, and the bed is always a total mess in the morning.

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Potosí Mine

Today’s itinerary has been slightly altered, as the original plan was to enter the mine as part of a group tour. I voiced my concerns to Juan about the low ceilings inside the tunnels, as walking along for any length of time while stooped would make my arthritis cause me considerable pain and discomfort. In addition to that, with my current chest infection, it would not be prudent to expose myself to the dust found inside those mines. Old superstitious beliefs suggest that allowing women in the mines would bring bad luck, yet another reason not to enter, as I would hate to be the cause of some awful disaster!

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Workers pushing a cart on the rails inside

I would, however, very much like to see the mines and meet the workers, so Juan has arranged for a private tour to the entrance, accompanied by Wilson, who will be our guide for the morning. Wildon is a miner himself, and as one of the few workers here who speak English, he is able to supplement his income by showing interested tourists his workplace.

These mines have fascinated me ever since I watched a BBC programme called The Mountain That Eats Men. It was a real eye-opener, and a sober realisation of how arduous these people’s lives are, and how privileged mine has been by comparison.

You can see the program in the YouTube video below, or alternatively, read the accompanying article here.
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If the link above doesn't work, try pasting this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHZS74Z9qlM

Silver was discovered by a native in the hill (now named Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill) in 1543, and was later exploited by the Spanish, becoming one of the largest silver mines in the world. More than 40,000 tons of silver were shipped out of the town, making the Spanish Empire one of the richest the world had ever seen. These mines once produced enough silver to bridge the Atlantic from Potosí in Bolivia to Madrid in Spain. During the procession of Corpus Christi in 1658 the city centre cobblestones were dug up and replaced with bars of silver in an ostentatious show of wealth.

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The Spanish conquistadors established a forced labour system called mita, a form of ‘taxation’ (more akin to slavery) in which the government drafted native Indians to work for the mines for one year every seven years. In addition to local indigenous mitayas (the name used to describe the conscripts), ca 30,000 African slaves were also brought to the city to work for the Spanish in the extraction of silver from Cerro Rico. Most of the African slaves were unable to cope with the altitude (4,300 metres above sea level – just over 14,000 feet) and the harsh conditions, and most suffered from serious health issues and early death. When the Spanish introduced the use of mercury (a toxic element) to purify the mineral in its raw form, it caused thousands of further deaths. Official figures say that 15,000 miners died, but other sources (including the BBC) estimate that the figure is nearer to 8 million.

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In 1952 the mines were nationalised, and by 1994 the government closed them down. Now the mines are run as a joint venture between 38 cooperatives. The 'Rich Hill', however, doesn't make its mineworkers wealthy, very few find enough metal to significantly advance their standard of living; the vast majority never rise out of poverty.

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Conditions have not improved greatly for the workers these days, health and safety is almost non-existent, as is government social service. The three dozen small-scale, often family-run, mining cooperatives that took over can rarely afford the safer modern technology used in larger mining operations. Cooperatives provide very basic health insurance and control funds raised from 'adventure tourists' – such as us - who take tours of the mines and visit the workers. It is not just the lack of safety and rock dust that threaten the miners' lives, dynamite leaves behind toxic gases after every explosion. Most of the miners are heavy smokers, as they believe that lining their lungs with tar protects them against the dust. Life expectancy for a miner is just 40.

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All the mine workers chew coca leaves, for protection against the altitude as well as giving them extra energy. Leaves of the coca plant (the same one that produces cocaine) are stuffed into the cheek and slowly chewed to release their juices (more on this later). Wilson tells us that not many miners wear a watch to work, they indistinctly know that once the leaves have lost their effect, the end of their shift is near.

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Workers chewing coca leaves - the guy on the left has a bag of them in his hands

Some 10,000 workers toil these mines now, in one of the 180 tunnels dug into the mountain; paying a concession to the government for the privilege. While the silver ore is almost exhausted these days, small amounts are still found, with the other important extractions being zinc, antimony, copper, and iron. The particular mine we are visiting currently has 400 prospectors.

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Wilson shows off rocks - the stone on the left is marbled with silver

Another reason I felt unhappy about entering the interior of the mine, is that my lack of mobility could pose a real safety risk: in case I am not quick enough to get out of the way of the fast-moving carts being pushed along the tracks inside the tunnels. There are long stretches where the width does not allow you to step aside, and you need to be able to make it to a safe area as soon as you see the lights of the oncoming runners. Those carts have no breaks and they reach a fair old speed as they are being pushed along by the workers.

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The video below shows one trolley exiting while another waits to enter.


Cerro Rico, which is currently a UNESCO Heritage Site, has been declared a hazardous area due to its imminent danger of collapsing into itself (yet another excellent reason for staying outside!). Over 100km (60 miles) of tunnels have turned this mountain into a giant anthill and weakened its natural structure to sustain itself. Since the beginning of its mining era, Cerro Rico has reportedly lost over 400 meters (1,300 feet) in height. There are rumours that Cerro Rico might lose its UNESCO classification soon since the institution does not want one of its World Heritage Sites to become a mass grave.

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At this altitude, the sun is 20% stronger than it is at sea level, which means that it must be quite a shock to the miners coming from a pitch-black environment lit only by a helmet torch, to the bright sunlight outside. I notice that most of the workers come out with their heads bowed.

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Notice the right cheek of this man is bulging with cocoa leaves

♪♪♫ 16 tons and what do you get? ♪♪♫

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v

If the link doesn't work, try pasting this into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9kb4-wUAU4

I have always loved this song, and this version gives me goose pimples – not merely for the melodious harmony, intricate string work, and hauntingly deep voice penetrating my soul, but also for the disparity between the stark reality of the lives they are singing about and the romanticised setting and attire of the musicians. The same inequality that exists between the lives of the miners here at Potosí and my life. I regularly thank my lucky stars, and ask: “Why was I born so fortunate to have such a privileged life when others are born into unbelievable hardship, poverty, and oppression?” It all seems so unjust, and at times that privilege becomes almost guilt-inducing.

Miners' Village

As we are not entering the mine, Wilson takes us to the processing plant instead. But first, we go to the dedicated miners' village, where the streets are lined with retail outlets selling everything a mine worker might need.

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Selling timber for propping up the tunnels

I am feeling pretty rough by now, with the high altitude adding to the misery of my chest infection, so to save me from having to get in and out of the minibus, Wilson goes to the stores and brings items into the bus to explain them to us. I have met such kindness from everyone here in Bolivia.

Coca Leaves
Coca leaves can suppress hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. The hard stems are stripped off the leaves and discarded. The leaves are bundled up with yipta, which is used as an activator. Yipta, or llipta, are usually a mass formed by a mixture of lime and ash of quinoa or other native Andean plants. This enhances the extraction of alkaloids from the coca leaf. A small piece is broken off and mixed with the leaves before being inserted into the side of the mouth. The 'pulp' is then kept in the cheek and chewed/sucked for up to eight hours, or until it loses its effect.

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Coca leaves

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Yipta

We buy a couple of packets of coco laves to give as gifts to the workers, as well as two pairs of gloves to protect their hands in the workshop.

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Wilson shows us the components needed to make an explosion to loosen the rocks in the mines: dynamite, fuse wire, detonator, and ammonium nitrite powder.

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Ammonium nitrite

The fuse wire is attached to the detonator, which is inserted into the dynamite. If the rock is particularly hard, petrol or diesel is mixed with the nitrite powder. The standard one-metre long fuse wire will take four minutes from the activation to the bang – the workers then have to ensure they retreat to a safe distance, tapping the pipes as they go, in order to inform others of the impending explosion. They use a code similar to Morse, which indicates where the dynamite is placed and how long before the blast.

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Refinery

There are 43 separate refineries in Potosí, dealing with different minerals. We visit a private plant that processes silver and lead.

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The machinery here is old and very basic

A few samples of rocks are broken down into powder using a traditional grindstone.

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This is then sent to a laboratory to establish the quality of the content. The higher the quality, the greater the payment.

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The gifts of coca leaves are greatly appreciated by the workers

Before entering, Wilson insists we don the thickest and best masks we possess, and stresses – several times – that we MUST NOT touch anything inside, and if we accidentally do, DO NOT touch our eyes or mouth.

As soon as we walk through the door, I can see why Wilson kept reiterating that we should maintain a distance from any machinery: everything is covered in a grimy gunk that looks disgustingly grim.

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Raw material comes in from a chute, then travels up on the conveyor belt.

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Minerals and garbage are separated through a chemical reaction using a flotation system.

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The resultant sludge is then spread on the ground to dry out before being exported.

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95% silver, zinc, and lead

While I am sure it would have been an eye-opening experience the be able to enter the belly of the Mountain That Eats Men, I find this place absolutely fascinating. Juan agrees, and thinks he will try and include the factory on future tours.

Lunch at Hotel Santa Teresa

The portions here in Bolivia are enormous compared with what we eat at home, and often the set lunch menu consists of four courses, such as here.

To start, there is a salad bar, from which I only choose a bread roll, one of their local sweet potatoes, and some vegetable tempura.

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This is followed by a soup known as Ajiaco, which Juan describes as “eggs and vegetables”.

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The main course is Asado Borracho, a beef dish that translates to ‘drunken beef’ in English, featuring pan-fried steak slices cooked in a beer broth. The dish is tasty, and I love mashed potatoes, which is an added bonus.

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Dessert is a warm syrupy pudding with desiccated coconut. It is smooth and easy to digest, but I completely forget to take a photo.

The restaurant only has water 'con gas', and as I cannot bear sparkling water, I have some homemade lemonade (non-fizzy) instead.

La Casa de la Moneda

All I want to do after lunch is stay in bed, so David goes to the Money Museum with Juan. As per my request, David kindly takes many photos for me, but as I am not there to make notes, I have scant details of what the images represent.

The museum is found in the Mint building from 1773.

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These huge horse-driven machines were used to roll the silver to the width required for the coining.

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Other equipment was operated by slaves

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Steam-powered machines replaced the wooden contraptions in the 19th century.

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The last coins were minted here in 1953.

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Stamp for imprinting coins

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Illustration showing how the coins were stamped

It wasn't just coins that were produced by the silver from these mines, of course, and a number of other items are displayed.

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As well as rocks and minerals.
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The museum also features some rather eerie mummies that were found in a nearby graveyard when it was being built upon. As a result of the cold and dry conditions, they are remarkably well preserved.

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By the time David returns to the hotel (with some much-needed bottles of non-sparkling water), I feel a little better (I think).

Dinner

The restaurant is still out of 'flat' water – I guess 'con gas' is more popular over here. I also notice that almost every piece of crockery is chipped in some way.

Tonight we order from the a la carte menu rather than one of their fixed menus, and the waiter informs us the food will take half an hour. That is no problem for me.

Hal an hour comes and goes. No sign of food. When we arrived, we were the only guests in the restaurant, now two more tables have been filled with diners (five more in total).

After one hour, the bread, plus salt and pepper containers, arrive. Ten minutes later, a small dish (chipped) with hot sauce. This looks promising. Eventually, one hour 25 minutes after ordering, the food finally arrives.

Pollo a la naranja – chicken in an orange juice with cognac, served with rice and potatoes. It is very nice, and not too big, so I am able to finish the meat, at least.

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David orders a Chicken Surpreme (which we would call Maryland Chicken in the UK) – chicken, apple and banana, all breaded and deep fried. It is served with a piece of tinned peach, but no potatoes or other accompaniments. Hmm.

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We try the local beer too.

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As always, we are very grateful to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us - based on this group tour.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:22 Archived in Bolivia Tagged cerveza tunnels hotel museum bolivia potosí mummies south_america silver explosion slavery altitude mint mita dynamite mercury slaves bbc coins cerro_rico coca_leaves gloves santa_teresa casa_de_la_moneda undiscovered_destinations minerals cooperatives silver_mine high_altitude chest_infection potosine potosine_beer sheets_and_blankets potosi_mine the_mountain_that_eats_men spanish_conquistadors conscripts african_slaves rich_hill life_expectancy unseco 16_tons yipta llipta fuse_wire ammonium_nitrate detonator refinery grindstone conveyor_belt chemical_reaction flotation_system asado_borracho ajiaco money_museum coin_press coin_stamp steam_powered agua_sin_gas hotel_santa_teresa

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Comments

I'm glad you were just about well enough to see the mine having wanted to for so long. It all sounds really fascinating but like you I think I'd pass on the chance to go inside!

by ToonSarah

I think that would be sensible, to be honest, as I am not sure how safe it is, nor how keen the insurance company would be to pay out should something go wrong.

by Grete Howard

this brings back memories from my trip to Potosi, it was nice to read about your experience!

by Ils1976

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