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The Land Down Under: The Silver Mines of The Cerro Rico

Map of Bolivia.
I've never been to Australia, wrestled crocodiles, hopped with kangaroos, or cuddled with koalas, but I've definitely been "Down Under." I decided to join a group of travelers on an exploration of las minas cooperativas (the cooperative mines). These are the silver mines where many Bolivians have found good fortune and tragedy. The mines are inside the Cerro Rico, the hills overlooking the city of Potosi, Bolivia.

Potosi, Bolivia, about 350 km southwest of La Paz, is not only the highest city in the world at 4070m, but also was once the largest, richest city in all of Latin America. Why? Because of la plata, (silver) something that has attracted miners for over 400 years and that I wanted to see as well.

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My Name is Chin Chin and I'll be your guide today
We had two guides, Chin Chin, 13, and Fernando. Chin Chin told us that Cerro Rico is known in Quechua as Sumaj Orcko, meaning the same in both languages: "Rich Mountain." Cajamarca, Peru, takes the cake for the largest mine in South America (take a look at Kevin's dispatch, "All that Glitters is not Gold") but Potosi is the world's most prolific silver mine.

As we make our descent into the mine, we learn that the layers of the earth are as intricate as the layers of how the mines are structured. The cooperative mines, which make up the first layer of mines, include approximately 30 separate working mines, where close to 80 labor union groups work. The unions are made up of many families with the youngest "ayudantes," helping their fathers (8-10 years old), moving to young men like Chin Chin (11-15), and then those with more experience (16 and older). Further below is a government-sponsored mine with more modern extraction techniques, housing for the miners, and a system of social security. However, higher above, the miners work only with hand tools, experience, and lots of luck.

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You get to keep 80% of all the silver you scrape out of this dirt.
No matter which mine you work in, every miner must pay 20% of whatever they earn back to the federal government, as the land and roads are government-owned and open to taxation. They can keep 80% as their profit, but this depends on the quality and quantity of what they extract. A typical minero (miner) can earn 300-400 bolivianos ($62.84) each month, but depending on suerte (luck) they might earn 1,000,000 bolivianos ($179,533) a month, or they might earn nada (nothing). The current exchange rate is 5.57 bolivianos to $1 US. Because of this dependence on luck, miners with the most experience are respected. The experienced miners know where to find not only the silver, but also the tin, zinc, and lead that the Cerro Rico yields. One tip we heard from an expert is that silver veins only run north-south. Because of this, the tunnels also run north-south.

We were ready to find the silver in any direction! In order to prepare for our journey "down under," we bought supplies of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol, sticks of dynamite, fuses, and flammable material for the headlamps. I asked if we could explode the dynamite ourselves but Fernando said no. Next, we had to make sure we had the right gear: chaquetas (jackets), botas (boots), cascos (hard hats), and lamparas (lamps). No way was I going into that unforgiving, scary hole in the earth without being fully prepared. Finally, we descended.

As you walk through the pitch-black passageways, breathing stale air, feeling your boots sink into mud and trying not to bang your head against rock outcroppings and timber beams, your mind can't help but wander on the dark history of the mines.

Since the first discovery of silver veins in the Cerro Rico in 1545, millions of laborers, many against their will, have hammered and chiseled their way six levels down, two kilometers deep into the earth's interior. Silver extracted from the mines helped fund the Spanish monarchy for 200 years, since Gonzalo Pizarro (Francisco's brother) came south from Cuzco to conquer Alto Peru (Bolivia). Not only did Potosi help fund Spain but it also contributed to the growth of most of Bolivia. For example, Alonso de Mendoza founded La Paz in 1548 because the Spaniards needed a stop on the silver road from Potosi to the Pacific coast. Almost all the Afro-Bolivian population, 80,000 people, are descendants of Africa and were forced to work in the mines. Today, Potosi has become a quieter town, but the legacy of the mines remains in the grand colonial architecture and churches that line the throughways.

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You could be doing this for 12 hours a day
Here in the depth of the mines, things are not as glamorous as the colonial architecture you see on land. Our group had to climb down ladders, swing down ropes, and stumble and trip across holes and mud puddles. We used the light of our lamparas to guide the way. We all started singing the theme song to the "Indiana Jones" movies, "tan de da-ta, tan de da..." In one of the tunnels, we came across two workers chipping away with hand tools, with whom we left a bag full of coca leaves. As Fernando explained, "The miners use coca because it helps them not feel tired, or hungry, or sick. They work in six-hour, or eight-hour, or 12-hour shifts, around the clock, 24 hours a day. Some of the young ones go to school in the mornings and work in the mines in the afternoons. But for all that time, they only chew coca leaves, they don't eat anything else, because it's mala suerte (bad luck) to eat anything for lunch." (Gosh, I know I would get hungry for a chocolate bar or something!)

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Don't forget to make an offering to El Tio, The Lord of silver
We continued to press our luck and descended down to a statue of El Tio (the Lord of Silver), where we stopped to make an offering. The miners leave piles of coca leaves and alcohol, and light cigarettes to put in Tio's mouth. He has horns, a wad of cocoa in his cheek, and the appearance of a devil, because they say "God is in the heavens, but here, underground, are devils." Mostly, these offerings are based on superstition, like the superstition, recently disavowed, that women working in the mines are mala suerte (bad luck). Fernando made an offering for more visitors to the mines, because our visits are a source of income for the cooperatives.

Along with the daily respects to El Tio, the miners also have festivals in honor of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Tata Ckacchu (Father of the Miners). These celebrations bring luck, safety, protection, and health to those who work inside. For instance, during the festival for Pachamama, llamas are slaughtered and their blood is smeared across the portals of the mine. This is a sacrifice in place of the lives of the miners. However, regardless of these offerings, conditions within the mines still remain acutely dangerous. The temperature drops below freezing at the highest altitude, more than 4200m, and reaches 45 degrees Celsius in the lowest levels of the mines. Furthermore, most miners die of diseases or accidents within 10 years of starting work in the mines. In other parts of Bolivia, there are legends that if you go deep within the natural underground caves, you might encounter a diablo (devil) who will hold your soul as ransom, causing you to die weeks or months later. A more scientific explanation for this might be the pockets of poisonous gases and chemicals found inside the earth, that when breathed in can prove to be fatal. Many miners in Potosi die of silicosis pneumonia, brought on by inhaling shards of rock and dust, as well as noxious gases.

After paying our respects to El Tio, we continued to pass other miners working, shoveling wheelbarrows full of mineral-rich earth and carting them to the surface, painstakingly chiseling out channels in the rock, manually lifting buckets of stones or using winches, and sweating in the damp, stale air.

"Cuidense la cabeza! Watch your head! Guardez la tete!" shouted Chin Chin as he called us up to the surface, where we greeted the sunlight and took deep breaths with gratitude. Some people bought mementos of rocks and quartz crystals found in the mines from small children who were scampering about.

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I prefer to see silver here than 2 kilometers below the ground
As luck would have it, we didn't find any rich lodes of silver within the mines. So, my Swiss friend, Par, his Japanese companion, Yuriko, and I decided to try on small silver rings in the city center. Made by hand, from the silver of the Potosi mines, these served as reminders of the grand history of Potosi and the difficult work today's miners face in search of buena suerte (good luck) within the Cerro Rico.

For more info, and some cool photos of the mountain and the town of Potosi, check out I Am Rich Potosi - The Mountain the Eats Men.


Team- "My Poetry Will Make Me Great": Behind the Words of Cesar Vallejo
Abeja and Kevin- The Food of the Gods: Our Poetry in Peru
Kavitha- Get Political, Go to Jail!
Kavitha- An American in the Alcatraz of Peru
Making A Difference - Helping Political Prisioners in Peru

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