Bolivia is a very poor country. That was not always the case. Potosi was founded at the base of Cerro Rico, “rich mountain,” in 1546. It’s silver deposits made Potosi one of the wealthiest cities in the world, on par with Paris and London. Most of that wealth wound up in the hands of the Spanish. Today, silver comprises only 2% of the material mined. Tin, zinc, lead, and copper are now the majority of the haul.
Considering that we woke up to a covering of snow on our motorcycles, I was happy that we had a “Rest Day.” Keep in mind that this is mid to late summer in Bolivia and we’re experiencing snow.
Our rest day gave Gunter, Tadeusz, Chris, Jeff, and me the opportunity to tour one of the many mines still operating in Cerro Rico. Our first stop was at one of the miner’s supply “stores” to get suited up and to buy gifts for the miners we would be watching. This series of tiny kiosks serving the city’s miners have 3 tons of dynamite between them. Yes, real sticks of dynamite and their fuses can be bought by anyone. Most of our guys bought dynamite supplies as gifts. I stuck with coca leaves, which all the miners keep in their mouths to deal with the long, hard, monotonous days, and cookies as my gifts.
First we watched how the mined minerals were handled. Then it was time to enter the mine. We went through the same opening as do the miners. With all the recent rain, entering the mine had me feeling as though I were Alice tumbling into the rabbit’s hole. It did not, however, seem like I was headed to Wonderland. The chute was extremely steep and slippery. With visions of a broken hip or twisted ankle dancing in my head, I told our guide that I did not want to go further, that I would like to get out and wait outside while the others explored underground. He assured me that I had survived the worst part of the experience, so I continued.
We walked and crawled through the maze of tunnels developed during 400+ years. My helmet and neck muscles got a workout with all the low areas I hit. Wheel barrows, loaded by hand shovels, are used for transport in many areas. Rudimentary chutes and buckets on ropes with pullies transport ore to wheeled carts. The full carts, each weighing a ton, are rolled along a steel track using 3 men for the power. Over 10K men make their living in the mines of Cerro Rico each day.
It’s amazing how much of the work is done with hand shovels and strong backs. No respirators were to be seen and many miners did not even wear gloves. Entry level workers who do the transporting of the minerals earn only 80 Bolivianos, or $11 per day. Experienced miners don’t make that much more. No wonder they use a lot of coca leaves and their average life span is 47 years!
11-Feb Potosi Rest Day
No tags for this post.