Buying dynamite without a license is unlawful in Bolivia, just like everywhere else in the world. But would you believe it, in the city of Potosi, Bolivia anyone can buy dynamite sticks legally! This is exactly what we did, and we did so while the police were watching. But let us start at the beginning……
In June 2017 we visited Bolivia as part of leg 2 of our South American adventure and Potosi was one of the first cities visited. Potosi, at 4200m is said to be the highest city in the world. The city came into being in 1544 when a local Inca, Diego Huallpa who was searching for an escaped llama, started a fire at the foot of a mountain known as Potosi. To his surprise Diego saw the earth melting below his fire and a shiny liquid started to ooze from the ground – silver! The Spanish immediately realised that there were riches below the earth and started to exploit the silver of mountain Potosi. The Spanish called this Cerro Richo “Rich Mountain” and soon thousands of slaves were pressed into service and large-scale excavations began. Excavations were and are still being done by digging horizontally into the hill.
During the boom years Potosi became the largest and wealthiest city in the Americas. It is said that so much silver was extracted from the mountain that a bridge constructed from silver would have stretched all the way from Potosi to Spain. Potosi bankrolled the Spanish empire for centuries.
Slaves from Bolivia and later from Africa were pressed to extract the silver. In order to increase productivity a law was passed in 1572 that all slaves over the age of 18 had to work for 12 hours a day. Slaves spent up to 4 months underground, working, eating, and sleeping in the mine. The conditions were appalling, it is estimated that over the 3 centuries of colonial rule (1545 up to 1825) up to 8 million people died in the mine as well as from contact with mercury at the smelters.
With the drop in the price of silver during the mid-19th century extracting silver from Cerro Richo became uneconomical and nowadays there is more value in the tin, lead and zink taken from the mine. With the mine having become un-profitable in modern times, informal co-operative miners have taken mining activities over from the Government, much like South Africa’s Zama-Zamas.
Getting back to our story – one can now visit the mine with a guide, and that is what we decided to do. At the pick-up point, the guide issues you with overalls, a helmet, headlamp and boots. Before getting to the mine itself the guide stops at the market in Potosi where every person in the group is encouraged to buy gifts for the informal miners that are encountered in the mine. As the cooperative miners are responsible for their own well-being and means of production, the gifts consist of goods that they need on a daily basis to perform their mining activities – 200ml of 96% alcohol, 2 liter Fanta, a bag of coca leaves, a dynamite stick, a detonator and a length of fuse. And all of this is bought legally! Miners are highly superstitious, and the alcohol is offered as a gift to please Pachamama – Mother earth – their shrine. Mining activities are hard work, miners only manage to scrape together a living and every day, upon entering the mine each miner stops at the shrine to offer gifts and to ask for protection during the day’s work.
We spent about 3 hours in the mine, and in the process came across various miners performing their daily tasks and offered our gifts to those encountered. We walked deep into the belly of the mountain along horizontal tunnels, wriggled our bodies down shafts also heard dynamite explosions that seemed too close for comfort. All this while often suffering from claustrophobia made worse by the lack of oxygen at a height of over 4200m. Our thoughts regularly returned to the millions that died in this mine over the years, while hoping that we would not become another statistic.
Lonely planet sums the situation up as follows: “Visiting the mines is a serious decision. If you have any concerns whatsoever about exposure to asbestos or silica dust, you should not enter the mines. Accidents can also happen – explosions, falling rocks, runaway trollies etc”.
What a great relief when we felt the first breath of fresh air even before we could see the first hint of light. Visiting the Potosi mine was an interesting experience, but not necessarily one that we would want to repeat! The mine was above all a reminder about how cruel mankind can be to each other.