Devil's Mine

To celebrate the end of the 2009 and the world as we know it, we descended into the depths of hell. Deep beneath the Earth's surface, we crawled, squirmed and crouched our way down three levels of the infamous mines of Potosí, once the world's biggest and richest, where millions of lives have been sacrificed since man's lust for silver first drove other poor souls under to dig it out.
Through narrow pitch dark claustrophobic tunnels, sheer rock above, beside and below us, through choking dust, oxygen-deficient air, abundant in treacherous gases, and of course the searing heat, we struggled our struggle, just to see what struggles other strugglers have to struggle everyday of their lives. Until they die.

No wonder our operator made us sign our lives away, freeing them from any responsibility should we suffer "any accident, injury or death". More miners die from cave-ins than through any other cause they helpfully pointed out. Oh well, that's alright then. Where do I sign? But sign it we did. There was no way we were going to miss this adventure!

Since the Spanish first began extracting silver from Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in 1545 to the time colonial rule ended in 1825, some eight million African slaves and Bolivians died from the frightful conditions here. In 1572 a law was passed requiring all workers to work 12 hour shifts. They remained underground for four months at a time, working, sleeping and eating in the mines. Their eyes were covered to prevent damage from the sunlight when they emerged from a "shift".

Today miners generally die 10 to 15 years after first entering the mines of silicosis pneumonia. It's inevitable after seven to 10 years but a cooperative medical plan offers a pension of $15 a month for miners who contract it, while they may retire once they lose 50 per cent of their lung capacity from it. Upon death, the widow can collect his pension.

Pedro Blanco started working in the mines at Cerro Rico when he was just 10 years old. (Illegal for those under 18 in Bolivia, but putting food on the table is a priority.) He escaped when he was 15, and now brings curious gringos down to the hell he used to work in.

After getting kitted out in boots, overalls and helmets, he brought us first to the Miners' Market which has all a miner could wish for and more. Boots, gloves, helmets, shovels, lamps, battery packs and... dynamite! We bought a ready made kit for B$20 (about €2), ready to explode, as a present for the miners. We got to see its full force later on. Anyone can walk in off the street and buy dynamite in Bolivia, even children - it's just like buying a carton of milk.
The dynamite is of varying quality apparently, and the quality of the rest of the equipment could only be described as shit. For these miners low prices take precedence over safety. Helmets go for next to nothing, their protection an equivalent level. We bought a couple of masks to help protect us from the dust and gases. They broke straight away. Lamps are imported from China. "Very bad quality," Pedro explained, "like everything made in China."

More important for the miners however, is "drinking alcohol", 96 per cent, also for sale. You can drink it from the bottle, as the miners do, or cheap mixers are conveniently available too. The miners usually chew coca leaves in between gulps of this stuff, continuing in such a manner until they pass out shortly afterwards. I was urged take a sip but a smell of this vile stuff was enough.

On the way to the mines we passed a miners' football match on the local "pitch", worse than some of the pitches in Ireland. A dog drank from a huge puddle in the middle of it while the game was in progress. We learned the miners from the Potosí cooperative beat their fierce rivals from another mine than morning. The players had gone straight to the match after working all day and the night before. Several of the players were still there, absolutely goutered. I could only imagine their state later on (New Year's Eve).

Tracks coming from a hole in the side of the mountain marked the entrance to the mine. We went in. With trepidation. Soon the outside world never existed at all. Completely dark save for the beams from our headlamps, the tunnel's rough hewn walls seemed to close in all around us, enveloping us into the very mountain itself. The passage was narrow as we followed the tracks in, and the uneven ceiling was so low it forced us to crouch. I banged my head off the rock above a number of times. Thankfully the headlamp survived - I wouldn't want to find myself alone in the dark depths of the mountain.
We went on and on, single file, piercing the darkness with beams from our headlamps, ducking and crouching all the while. The air was hard to breathe, dusty and unpalatable, and the heat was rising. Still we went on. 300 metres or so inside we stopped for breath. What breath we could breathe - the dust was making it difficult, while the altitude wasn't helping either. We were 4,250 metres above sea level at this stage, despite being 200 metres or more below ground. Jenny wisely decided at this stage to turn back while she still could. Conditions were only going to deteriorate. We, like fools, continued on.

We crawled on through an ever-narrower passageway and there we met Tío. Tío is an effigy of the devil, but the miners never refer to him as such. A crude stone statue shows him in all his glory, two horns on his bearded head, and a giant one below too, testicles hanging just below. The giant penis symbolises the fertility of the mines. Unfortunately it had suffered some sort of mishap. I presume it won't be long before it's reattached Bobbitt-style and his glory is restored once again.

The mines themselves fit most descriptions of hell, dark, underground, unbearably hot, so the miners naturally presume that the very minerals and metals they are extracting belong to the devil himself. For this reason they make offerings to Tío, usually alcohol, coca leaves or cigarettes, to appease him and to ask him for safety and good fortune.

He was surrounded by said offerings when we arrived. We sat down beside him, happy to take a break, and Pedro produced a can of beer. He opened it and poured some on the ground, asking Tío for his blessings, for a safe visit, happy travels for me etc. He then took a big gulp and passed it on. I too poured some on the ground and made my own wishes before drinking.

Pedro explained that the men work on groups. They basically start digging, and if they find something, if they hit a patch, it's theirs. No one else dares go in or take anything from their find.
"It's their home. Nobody goes in without asking," he explained. "This tunnel is the main road, and every group digs off its own part, where nobody can go in unless they're invited. Every miner respects that."
The miners don't earn a wage but depend on what they find to provide them with an income. Some are lucky; some have become very rich. Most are not though, finding just enough to scrape a meagre living. Some go weeks without finding anything at all. They have to borrow to stay in the hunt. "Many miners are in prison. They weren't able to pay back what they owed. Some have lost their houses, everything," Pedro pointed out.

He explained that his father worked for 40 years without finding anything big. (How he lived so long without contracting the dreaded silicosis pneumonia beats me.)
Every day when he came home his mother would ask him: "Did you have luck? Did you find a seam?" but the answer was invariably "no".
When Pedro himself started, she asked him the same thing everyday.
Again, the answer was always "no".
Now she tells her friends Pedro did indeed find a seam, "a rich seam of gringitos".

Minerals and metals like silver are always found running from north to south. ("I don't know," Pedro replies when I ask him why. "We just dig it out.") So miners dig from east to west to find them.
Seams are vertical too, so despite the increased risk of cave-ins, and although they're not allowed, they dig up and down too.
"It's very dangerous. They're supposed to go to the next level below, 20 metres down, and find the seam from there. But they say they need the money. What can you do?"

Experienced miners, usually the leaders in the miner hierarchy and the ones who take the lion's share from any finds, can tell what minerals or elements are in the rock as soon as they see it. Not Pedro though. Probably why he's a tour guide now.

We move on. The tunnel gets narrower and narrower. The dust is incredible. Despite my shitty mask I can feel it at the back of my throat. The beam from my headlamp shows it floating in clouds before my eyes, white and treacherous.
The problem is acerbated by the lack of oxygen; over 4km up and deep inside a mountain, the lungs gasp for whatever air they can get, dust, carcinogenics and all. Jenny was right to head back when she did.

"Now we go down," Pedro announces. The tunnel snakes under through a hole in the ground. Again, rough uneven surfaces hewn from the rock. I crawl through, hands and knees. I have to keep going, have to keep crawling. The passage is too narrow to turn back. The dust is choking and despite crawling I hit my head off the roof again and again. I just can't help it.

Eventually we make it down to the third level, 65 metres from where we started. A rickety old wooden ladder brings us down to where more tracks ran off into the darkness.

Suddenly we hear rumbling. I've no idea what it is. Lights burst through from another tunnel, glistening off the metal tracks below. Miners! One saunters through, drunk as a skunk. "Oye!" he salutes us before stumbling on down the dark tunnel.
Behind him come two more, pulling a trolley laden with rocks by ropes slung over the shoulders, sweat glistening on their foreheads, teeth gritted, with two more miners behind, pushing the trolley with all their might, sweating and gritting as well.
They all greet us good-naturedly and are very happy with the dynamite we bought. After exchanging pleasantries they go one way, we the other.

The tunnel at this level isn't much better than then ones above. Pipes carrying air from outside run along the length of the jagged walls. Wooden beams hold up the ceiling in places. Most are cracked or broken, not instilling confidence in case of rock fall or cave-ins. Again, we have to duck to avoid hitting our heads off the low beams. It starts getting wetter. Soon we're wading through water, crouching and ducking through the narrow passageway all the while. Still we go on.

I spot some sparkly shit glistening on the walls.
"¿Que es?" I ask.
"¿Es peligroso no?"
"Si. Muy peligroso."
It's everywhere. Unavoidable.

Soon we come to a larger clearing where I meet another couple of miners, there to get some "fresh air" and relief. Where they'd been working was very little air at all, and the gases cause them headaches. They sit there sweating like pigs in the heat and humidity, popping coca leaves as if eating crisps. They're also very drunk. They'd evidently been at the 96 per cent alcohol potable.

It gets damn hot in the depths of the mines. 30°C where we were but 45° or more further down. Forget about protection, the miners here work in their underwear. Some of them wear nothing at all. "They go a bit crazy down there in the dark and the heat," Pedro pointed out.

We meet the other half of our tour group. Argentinians who think the sun shines out of their arses. Not down here it don't. Nothing shines down here. Soon they're singing and dancing, much to the miners' amusement. One of the Argentinians starts whistling but is immediately warned to desist. "Mala suerte," Pedro explains. He's very serious all of a sudden. No whistling allowed anywhere in the mine.

It's time to head back. I hope the bad luck doesn't kick in. Before we do however, we all turn off our headlamps. The eyes don't adjust because there's nothing to adjust to. Not a twinkle. Nada. Total darkness. Blacker than Thatcher's heart.

We move on. It's a real struggle getting back up a level, climbing and crawling through the narrow passageway again. Gasping for dust-choked air and sweating from the heat and exertion. On hands and knees I make it back up the first level, hair stuck to the helmet from the sweat. I already feel safer.

Another 15 minutes crouching and ducking through the narrow passageway and I finally actually see light at the end of the tunnel. It glints off the tracks before it. We're free!
I finally make it, blinking in the sunlight, gulping in the fresh air.
I throw away my mask in disgust. I'm caked in dust and can still feel it in my throat and lungs. Jaysus, it's horrible!

None of the miners wear masks, good, bad or indifferent. It's too hot to wear them and they only restrict breathing in any case. Air laced with deadly particles is better than no air at all.

Outside, Pedro tells me his father was an accomplished accordion player invited at one stage to teach it at the local school. A good job with good pay and benefits, he nevertheless left it to return to the mines. He found he couldn't talk to the stuffy teachers and missed the camaraderie of his former colleagues.
His brother has a similar story, leaving a well-paid job in Santa Cruz to return. The lure of the lucky strike always brings them back.
"We say Tío is calling us," Pedro laughed. "He calls us back to the mine."

He himself, of course, hasn't really escaped, bringing tour groups there every day. "I love my job, but I know I have to change it," he admitted. "Doctors say even an hour a day is very bad and I spend two hours, sometimes four if I've a group in the afternoon, down there everyday."

He's seen some terrible tragedies. Many miners die before the silicosis pneumonia gets them.
"One miner, that's his cabin there," he pointed with a nod of his head, "was working with his brothers when there was a rock fall. Huge rocks trapped him up to his waist. His brothers ran up shouting for help and all the miners ran to save him. He was crying, in terrible pain. He couldn't move.
"They started lifting out the rocks. One guy lifted one out but then more came tumbling down. The miner cried and asked them to look after his wife and children. He begged them to blow him up, to put him out of his pain. But more rocks kept falling and the miners had to run to save themselves. It was very very sad."

Other accidents involve running to see why dynamite doesn't explode and then getting blown up along with it when it does.
"That's why you should dynamite in the evenings and come back to dig the next day," Pedro reasoned. Of course, there's no night or day under the mountain. It's always dark.
"Sometimes miners fall down holes too when they're drunk," he added. Ninety-six per cent proof - I'm not surprised.

The tour ended with a bang when we got to explode some dynamite. Jesus, the force was incredible! But it's incredible work. The miners are proud of it, and seem happy to do it. Happy or drunk. It seems the two have to go together here.

More pictures from the mine and the other associated shenanigans can be seen here:


  1. Mines extraction is really a difficult task and requires various labours efforts since it requires lots of hard work efforts for extracting the mines therefore the condor blanco mines managing director is focusing on it

  2. Mines extraction has effected various people life.Since mines extraction needs exploitation and that effects the other people life since people living near mines area have to left their home


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