The Potosi mine tour at Cerro Rico was the most shocking and dangerous experience of my entire trip so far. Charlie and I booked a 2:00pm tour Monday morning. Our guide showed up with a mouth full of coca leaves and led us a couple blocks down where we changed into yellow jumpers and rubber boots. Then we all hopped in a micro bus and rode up to the miner´s market on the edge of town. There we each spent about $1.50 on gifts for the miners (coca leaves, juice, and crackers).
Half an hour later we pulled up at one of 500 mine entrances and geared up. The guide strapped helmets and spotlights with battery packs to us. She spoke broken English and rapidly explained that if anyone got scared she would lead them out. At that we went in.
There are over 16,000 miners in Potosi and they have an average lifespan of ten years after they start working. Most of the deaths are from black lung disease, but plenty more are the result of on the job accidents. I had no idea what I was in for.
The first couple hundred yards of mine were build by the Spanish over 400 years ago... back when they enslaved the Bolivians and sent them into the mines for six months at a time without surfacing. The walls and ceiling were built up with bricks that arched at the top overhead. The height was probably 5.5 feet. Under us were two rails leading in and six inches deep water. My boots leaked instantly, and the overwhelming smell of piss in the water made it even better. We continued on through the visible dust in the air as the ceiling kept creeping lower.
At some points there were wooden braces overhead, others no. Some of the braces were split in half under the pressure from overhead; we stooped right under them. Along side us the entire way were pipes with air hissing out every few hundred feet. They tied rags around the leaks to slow them. The mine kept getting smaller and smaller until we were crouched almost on our hands and knees working our way in. It was getting hotter too, and the air was thick.
About a quarter mile in we came to our first miners. Two guys shoveling debris into buckets. When they filled the bucket it was pulled up to the surface via a shoot and then dropped back down empty. They had mouths full of coca leaves and weren´t very interested in our company. When they had finished with the debris they sat down and unwound staring at the ground.
After five minutes of the gringos taking picture of them they were back to work. From deeper in the mine we heard a rumble. It was the next load of debris being carted in. 2.5 tons of rock being hauled in an Indiana Jones style mine cart by three Bolivians. They ram it against the broken rails all day long shirtless and breathing in dust six days a week. They pulled up, rocked the cart back and fourth, and eventually toppled the load onto the floor for the shovelers to take care of. Then they accepted a juice and some coca leaves and trudged back with the cart. We followed them.
Even further down we came to the end of the tour, probably a half mile deep in total. It was easily 90F degrees and the guide wouldn´t let us stay there long. We hung around just long enough to get a glimpse of the actual work being done. Four Bolivians with pick axes chipping away at a silver vein and shoving the debris down a ramp into the carts... as they have been for the last 400 years. They were thirsty and we all handed over our gifts.
With that we turned around and started stumbling back out. Every so often another cart would come by accompanied by three groaning bodies. On the way we went down another shaft to visit the God of the miners. It was a devilish statue that the Spanish set up for them. I didn´t pay much attention to the guide´s speech due to the shock of what I had witnessed. A half mile of four foot ceilings to get to the entrance and we were out.
I asked Charlie´s opinion as an Australian miner. He was dumbfounded. He said they stopped mining like that 200 years ago in the modern world. ´They don´t dig holes as far as they can anymore, they just move the whole damn hill´. They´ve been tunneling Cerro Rico for 400 years and Charlie reckons a real mining company could make it disappear in under three months. The miners follow tiny veins all day long for $14 a day killing themselves. The big companies would just rip the entire hill apart and pull out the good bits later. Charlie was obviously disturbed by the hazards too. According to him, one gas pocket, one earth tremor, or one falling rock could have killed us all in there.
It´s incredible that people still crawl around in these shafts and die in droves here given the technology that´s available. Cerro Rico is a miner´s co-op by name, but apparently the people at top still rake in the real money. The Bolivian government won´t allow foreign investment. The current president is the nation´s first indigenous leader. It sounds romantic, but the fact that he has 2.5 years of education and is chummy with Castro and Chavez is a little unsettling. According to Nora, our hotel owner, the country is heading towards a communist dictatorship rapidly. I'm not sure about that, but one look at the Potosi mines, and you can tell that something is wrong here. Someday it will turn around, but a lot of miners will die in the meantime.
Today Charlie and I arrived in Uyuni. We got a peak at the salt flats on the way in and they were amazing. White expanse as far as the eye can see. The road from Potosi was 70% paved, a perfect ratio for a day´s ride. The countryside looked like Arizona for some reason. I´m still scratching my head about that. Tomorrow we embark on a three day tour of Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding national parks. We are in a Land Cruiser with two new friends from the mine tour. Alleric from South Africa and his wife Gina from England who both live in Australia. Charlie originally met them in Mexico and now five months later we crossed paths agian. It should be a good time, and then we´re high tailing it for the border. We might skip Atacama for now. More dirt roads make me cringe thinking of my suspension. Plus I had a real steak last night and now I´ve got blood thirst.
Gas shouldn´t be so much a worry now; Charlie and I each bought a 5 liter jug that we keep in our panniers full of fuel. An extra 50 miles range is a substantial buffer.