Back in time in the Silver Mines

Cerro Rico – The Silver Mine, Potossi

I could have torn up every unsatisfied memory, erased every written complaint, rewound and taken back any voiced disdain in my past about any previous job or working condition I thought myself “slaving away in”. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t complain about their work at least once ever now and the. But crawling across blasted rock, breathing life threatening mineral dust, dodging tonnes of rock pushed in metal wagons by young men with cheeks full of cocoa leaves is a humiliating slap in the face as to what “slaving away” to make a buck really could mean.

A bit of history if you will: in 1825 when Bolivia won over their independence, the mountain mines throughout the Bolivian Altiplano  were almost exhausted, having been extensively mined and exported to Europe under the Spanish empire since 1545. To exacerbate the bleakness of the once ridiculous natural richness of the Bolivian mountain, was the crash of silver prices leaving the once incredibly rich city of Potosi to quite literally continue digging into the dirt for a chance at “wealth”. Now Potosi is by no means a rich city, but you can see semblances of her old wealth simply from the city streets.

The Cerro Rico, [Rich Hill], is Potosi’s main mine and probably one of the cities biggest tourist attractions. The mountain of once unimaginable riches, now nicknamed the Mountain that Eats Men, towers over the city of Potosi, a looming icon of both bountiful wealth and abysmal suffering due to antiquated and appalling working conditions. She still yields tin, zinc, lead and silver, however our Koala guide (an ex-minor himself called Milton) reckons the mountain had 7 years left. You can imagine things get pretty desperate in her cold tunnels, digging ever deeper for the remaining mineral lines. Today there are around 12,000 workers who mine her everyday. Working for 100 – 150 bolivianos ($20 – $30 NZD) a day, or 27 bolivianos ($5.50NZD) per kilo of “good minerals” in working conditions that most I imagine would need to be tortured in order to submit into working here. Yet these men (men only) volunteer 7-9 hours a day, 6 days a week, in an environment where there is no sunlight, no food, and a toxic air that will kill you before you turn 55 ( and those are the lucky ones). Every month, around 14 men are killed in “accidents”. Give me a mundane desk job any day thanks!

Of course this is my easily offended, western precious perspective on things. For some minors this is a family a business, a lifestyle, a profession to be proud of. Yet still, the thought of working  in these mines, where things are probably as good as they ever were in 1545, I feel sick, and I feel humbled, and I want to buy these men all the soda water they could ever ask for.

Tour info: Potosi silver mines are a must do if you manage to make a stop in this high altitude Bolivian city! As part of the tour experience you are required to buy gifts for the minors to help them out with essentials that they don’t have to buy themselves. We took a tour with Koala tours who had a good price (110 bolivianos) and a good rating on line. The experience was very real, our guide Milton was super chill and a bit of a legend. We climbed mine shafts (legit need some balls for this one), met some of the characters who work in the Cerro Rico tunnels, and got to sit under a dynamite blast, counting the booms. I know two people who chose to back out early, but i guarantee if you keep calm and trust your guide you’ll be right as rain. Well…. as long as they don’t accidentally bomb between tunnels…anywho, i would recommend them!

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Entry to Lima

As far as a culture shock and change of scenery goes the city of Santiago has nothing on the city of Lima.
Leaving the airport was a step straight into a type of life I have never experienced before. Everywhere there were colour splattered, box shaped, half-finished buildings that could have been made of cardboard. Walls missing, windows with no glass, no roof or a second or third level that literally just stops halfway up the wall or staircase. The slums, my travel mate whispered under her breath.

Soon the urban scenery began to show occasional building materials more sturdy, brick here and there. Eventually the brick got more and the cardboard like exteriors less. But still they remained square and still kind of unfinished.
It’s fascinating and startling and colour blocked and intimidating and just when I start to really begin to over analyse the absolute square-ness and incomplete state of almost everything, we drive into an open highway and the misty shrouded ocean that meets the edge of Lima comes into view, wiping the thoughts away. En route to Miraflores there is a stark contrast between the first 25 minute of Lima and the next. You should check it out for yourself.

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