The Job from Hell

In the cooperative mines on Cerro Rico, all work is done with mostly primitive tools and underground temperatures vary from below freezing – the altitude is more than 4200m – to a stifling 115°F (46°C) on the 4th and 5th levels. Miners, exposed to all sorts of noxious chemicals and gases, normally die of silicosis pneumonia within 10 to 15 years of entering the mines.

Women are admitted to many cooperative mines, but only five are allowed to be in the mine’s interior at any one time. This is because quite a few miners still hang on to the superstition that women underground invite bad luck although, in many cases, the taboo applies only to miners’ wives, whose presence in the mines would invite jealousy from Pachamama (Mother Earth). At any rate, lots of Quechua women are consigned to stay right outside the mines, picking through the tailings to glean small amounts of minerals that may have been missed.

Since cooperative mines are owned by the miners themselves, they must produce the goods in order to scrape a living. The majority of the work is done by hand with explosives and tools they must purchase themselves, including the acetylene lamps used to detect pockets of deadly carbon monoxide gas.

Miners prepare for their workday by socializing and chewing coca for several hours, beginning work at about 10am. They work until lunch at 2pm, when they rest and chew more coca. For those who don’t spend the night working, the day usually ends at 7pm. On the weekend, each miner (or a group of miners) sells their week’s production to the buyer for as high a price as they can negotiate.

When miners first enter the mine, they offer propitiation at the shrine of the miners’ god Tata Kaj’chu, who they hope will afford them protection in the harsh underground world. Deeper in the mine, visitors will undoubtedly see a devilish figure occupying a small niche somewhere along the passageways. As most of the miners believe in a god in heaven, they deduce that there must also be a devil beneath the earth in a place where it’s hot and uncomfortable. Since hell (according to the traditional description of the place) must not be far from the environment in which they work, they reason that the devil himself must own the minerals they’re dynamiting and digging out of the earth. In order to appease this character, whom they call Tío (Uncle) or Supay – never Diablo – they set up a little ceramic figurine in a place of honor.

On Friday nights a cha’lla (offering) is made to invoke Supay's goodwill and protection. A little alcohol is poured on the ground before the statue, lit cigarettes are placed in his mouth and coca leaves are laid out within easy reach. Once formalities have been dispensed with, the miners smoke, chew coca and proceed to drink themselves unconscious. While this is all taken very seriously, it also provides a bit of diversion from an extremely harsh existence. It’s interesting that offerings to Jesus Christ are only made at the point where the miners can first see the outside daylight.

In most cooperative operations there is a minimal medical plan in case of accidents or silicosis (which is inevitable after seven to 10 years working underground) and a pension of about US$15 a month for those so incapacitated. Once a miner has lost 50% of his lung capacity to silicosis, he may retire, if he so wishes. In case of death, a miner’s widow and children collect this pension.

Cooperative Mines

A visit to the cooperative mines will almost certainly be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have in Bolivia, providing an opportunity to witness working conditions that are among the most grueling imaginable. We urge you not to underestimate the dangers involved in going into the mines and to consider the voyeuristic factor involved in seeing other people’s suffering. You may be left stunned and/or ill.

Dozens of Potosí operators offer guided tours through the mines. The best guides tend to be ex-miners, who know the conditions and are friendly with the men at work. The safety standards are hit-and-miss; you really are going down at your own risk.

Mine visits aren’t easy and the low ceilings and steep, muddy passageways are best visited in your worst clothes. You’ll feel both cold and hot at times, there will likely be a bit of crawling and shimmying through narrow shafts, and the altitude can be extremely taxing – cases of acute mountain sickness (AMS) following a tour have been reported. On some tours, you’ll end up walking 3km or 4km inside the mountain. You’ll be exposed to noxious chemicals and gases, including silica dust (the cause of silicosis), arsenic gas and acetylene vapors, as well as asbestos deposits. Anyone with doubts or medical problems should avoid going. The plus side is that you can speak with the friendly miners, who will share their insights and opinions about their difficult lot. The miners are proud of their work in such tough conditions and generally happy for visitors to observe their toil.

Tours begin with a visit to the miners’ market at Plaza el Calvario, where miners stock up on acetylene rocks, dynamite, cigarettes and other essentials. You’d be very unpopular if you didn’t supply a handful of coca leaves, cigarettes, juice, soda, or pens and notebooks (for their children) – luxuries for which the miners’ meager earnings are scarcely sufficient. Photography is permitted. Avoid taking plastic bags into the mine; accumulation of garbage is a problem.

The tours then generally visit an ingenio (smelter), before heading up to Cerro Rico itself (Candelaria, Santa Rita, Rosario and Santa Rosita are the most commonly visited sections). Note that it's illegal for tour companies to give demonstrations of dynamite explosions, which destabilize the mountain and potentially threaten lives. Ask your tour company vendor if a dynamite explosion is included. If they say yes, choose another operator. It is unlikely to be the only corner they are cutting.

Tours run in the morning or afternoon and last from four to five hours. The standard charge is between B$100 and B$150 per person; slightly lower rates may be available during the low season. This price includes a guide, transportation from town and equipment (pants, jacket, helmet, boots and lamp). Note the claim that '15% of profits donated to miners' is a well-known marketing scam; all companies pay the same fee for entry into the mines and it is considerably less than 15%. If you want to help the miners, choose a company run by miners. Wear sturdy clothing, carry plenty of water and have a handkerchief/headscarf handy to filter some of the noxious substances you’ll encounter. There is less activity in the mines on Sundays.