Would you continue working hard in your job which pays peanuts?
What if your job is the reason you’d die at 45?
What if… there are no other options?
This is the fate of the 12 000 miners of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Potosi, Bolivia. And I had the chance to visit these miners on a tour to the mines.
(Once) The World’s Richest City
At 4090m, the UNESCO declared Potosi is the world’s highest major city and houses the once-largest silver mine in the world, Cerro Rico.
Due to the discovery of the mine, economy boomed in Potosi in the 17th century, and at one point, was one of the world’s richest city. The wealth and grandeur of the city can still be seen with the old churches and grand architecture near the main plaza.
With wealth, came the conquerors. The Spanish exploited the mines, and the silver ran out. Spain became one of the most powerful country, and Potosi?
Today, Potosi is the capital of the poorest department of South America’s poorest country.
The Miner’s Market
I booked a tour at my hostel the very night I arrived at Potosi, and got picked up by the guide the next morning. The bus brought us to the Miner’s Market, a place where the miners buy their tools of the trade and supplies like coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and dynamites.
Yes, dynamites. The Miner’s Market is probably the only place where you can legally buy dynamites over the counter, and they are used to blast new tunnels in the increasingly hollowed-out Cerro Rico.
It wasn’t written in the tour brochure but we were expected to buy ‘gifts’ for the miners. These gifts are meant to help the miners, or maybe, to alleviate our guilt for visiting distracting the miners while they’re working.
Coca leaves are well known in the Andean region to help with altitude sickness, appetite suppression and boosts in energy. I had my fair share of coca tea and similar herbs in San Pedro de Atacama. The miners chew coca leaves religiously in and out of the mines and are often seen with a huge lump in their cheeks.
The miners also drink 96% alcohol during their break time and smoke cheap cigarettes. As if the darkness, narrow tunnels and inhaling sulphur, arsenic and other cancer-causing particles isn’t harmful enough, they also smoke tobacco and drink almost pure alcohol.
Each of us bought a pack of coca leaves and orange juice for the miners (no harmful substances), and a face mask for ourselves.
We went to a small staging area inside a ramshackle building and put on oversized protective gear, plastic helmet, headlamps and rubber boots. It’s funny how everyone else started taking photos like it’s their OOTD.