If the Death Road turned out to be nowhere near as scary as I’d been expecting, my next big excursion turned out to far more.
Potosi was once the biggest and richest city in the whole of the Americas – and at one point even bigger than Madrid, the imperial capital, and all because of one thing: silver. The city is the highest city in the world, and owes its existence and its fortune to the hill that dominates the city’s skyline.
Legend has it that one night a local Quechua llama herder ended up spending the night on the hill, and lit a fire to keep himself warm. He was soon surprised to see a shiny molten metal trickle out of the fire – he’d accidentally stumbled on the richest seam of silver ever discovered. It’s now thought that the Inca had long known of the hill’s riches, but kept it secret from the Spaniards. Which was probably a wise thing – as soon as the colonisers found out, they soon began a massive mining operation in the newly named Cerro Rico (rich hill), that helped fund the Spanish Empire for centuries – apparently still in Spanish today, the phrase ‘valer un Potosi’ means ‘to be worth a fortune’.
Working in the Cerro Rico would have been a particularly horrible experience – for a start, with the mines being at well over 4,000m, the low oxygen makes altitude sickness a constant threat. Aside from that natural effect, the conditions in the mines themselves were pretty awful – constant dust inhalation caused silicosis, the techniques for extracting the silver caused mercury poisoning, and there was much potential for mining accidents. Some estimate that as many as 8 million indigenous people have died in the five hundred or so years of mining, a truly horrifying figure.
The silver is mostly exhausted today, but the mine continues to operate, mostly producing zinc and tin, and it’s possible to visit them as a tourist. We signed up for a tour with Koala Tours, a company owned and operated by former miners, and that provides an additional source of income for one of the mining cooperatives.
After an early start to get kitted up, we headed down to the miners’ market to get gifts for the miners – coca leaves (to be chewed to help cope with the low oxygen levels), 95% proof alcohol (used as an offering to ‘El Tio’ – aka the devil, who ‘owns’ the mine), dynamite, and soft drinks.
From the moment we entered the mine, it soon became clear it was going to be a pretty claustrophobic experience – even the main passageway was narrow, and with a low ceiling, and choked with dust. From there we travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, with the air getting thinner, the temperature warmer, and the tunnels narrower. At some points they were so small we couldn’t even crawl, instead we had to lie down and pull ourselves along with our elbows.
Even a couple of hours in there was pretty unbearable – and after meeting the miners and seeing the conditions that they work in, it’s quite incredible to think that these men spend years of their lives down there, all hoping to strike it rich by finding an as yet undiscovered seem of silver. Every time the guide stopped us to check everyone was OK, we all smiled and answered in the affirmative – but on the way out all admitted to each other that actually all of us had been suffering a bit.
Final excitement of the day was the chance to hold a lit stick of dynamite (don’t worry, I’m not that mad, it had a pretty long fuse), before getting to see it blow up a little section of the mountain in the distance. Still, claustrophobic and scary as the whole experience was, getting a chance to see such an interesting piece of history, and to see the rather terrifying conditions the miners work in was well worth it, and I’m glad I did it.
Although now I’ve done it, wild horses wouldn’t manage to drag me back in to do it a second time.
You can see all my photos of Potosi here