The Mountain that eats men.

Potosi and Cerro Rico Photos Here

Mon 20th May. An early start at 6.15am – this to avoid the road blocks which were expected to be in place for normal working hours. Our strategy worked as far as getting out of La Paz but by midday we were stuck in the town Oruru with multiple road blocks set by protesting taxi drivers who had gridlocked the town. We were stuck for around 6 hours and as a result didn’t make our intended destination Potosi instead bush camping in a quarry – not the greatest site but we were tired and slightly fed up plus Rogan discovered the truck had a fuel leak so more work for him before bed. It turned out to be a damaged fuel filter but he had plenty of spares.

Churchillian Pose …. with Dynamite!

Arrving in Potosi a day late wasn’t a problem – one of the advantages of such long trips is flexibility, when away for a few short weeks a days delay would be a major problem in 6 months it can be accommodated comfortably. We were staying at the La Casona Hostel which advertised itself as being “Newly restored 18th century colonial house” this was partly true apart from the ongoing building and the lack of hot water in the shared facilities – solved by those with en-suite rooms (luck of the draw) kindly sharing the facilities. It will be gorgeous if ever finished having several linked courtyards with the rooms overlooking them, the finished rooms being to a good standard but apparently it has been a work in progress for years, another quirk being the room numbering with the higher room numbers on the ground floor. Still a great location minutes from the main attractions and comfortable beds.

Cerro Rico

Potosi is at the base of the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) which has been mined for some 400 years and at the time of the Spanish occupation this single mine funded the spendthrift Spanish monarchy (effectively Spain) for some 200+ plus years. The cost in human terms was staggering with estimates of up to 8 million deaths of those that laboured here.  Both the local indigenous Quencha Indians forced into slavery by the Spanish and the majority of African slaves brought here to make up the numbers. It is estimated that for every African slave that went to North America 12 went to South America.

During the time of the Spanish empire, Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world. It was said that a bridge could have been built with the silver from Cerro Rico all the way to Madrid. But now Potosi, with its stunning colonial haciendas, churches and royal mint, is struggling as the entire economy is dependent on the declining mining –   now a shadow of its heyday glory. If ever the annual treasure fleet – due to weather or piracy – didn’t reach Spain it was a national disaster.

Today the mountain is managed by descendants of the Quenchua Indians and around 15,000 miners in small co-operatives continue to eke a living in brutal conditions that tend towards a short career and an early grave as those that survive the hard work and accidents succumb to almost inevitable silicosis. The risks are known however there is simply no alternative work to feed a family, e.g. miners can get a pension of about $20 a month when they have lost 50% of their lung capacity, an appalling disability when you already live at 4,000 meters.

It is little wonder the miners call it “The Mountain that eats men” as generation after generation of Potosi male inhabitants are consumed by the mine. Women are considered unlucky underground. Nowadays you can visit of the mine but its definitely not a cosy tourist experience and not for the faint hearted, the claustrophobic spaces, the ever present fine dust and the apparent complete absence of any semblance of a health and safety regime making it a dangerous place for anybody let alone working down there for 12 hours a day 6 days a week.

Doing some subsequent research I learned there are 600 mines, many abandoned and consisting of about 60 miles of shafts that have left it with more holes than a swiss cheese, and the whole mountain is considered in danger of collapse – the summit is already doing so and mining in that area is officially banned but apparently still happens illicitly. I am not surprised, it is clear when you arrive that this is not the normal tourist attraction and the piles of slag, discarded equipment and piles of scrap metal do not give the impression of a safe workplace.

It was a fascinating insight into the miners life, the tour began with donning our overalls, helmets and wellingtons so we at least looked the part. En-route we make a stop at the miners market as its traditional to buy the miners gifts. Gifts consist of alcohol, and not branded drinks but raw alcohol diluted 50/50 with soft drinks, coca leaves which are chewed incessantly or dynamite.

Looking the Part

Yes in Potosi you can buy dynamite on the street, to the utter amazement of Tony the former security police specialist, for about £2.20 you get a stick of dynamite, detonator cord, detonator and a small quantity of ammonium nitrate more of which later.

In we go …..

Suitably armed (no pun intended) with a selection of all the gifts, you then go to the mine entrance, literally a hole in the side of the mountain with small tracks coming out for the hand pushed trucks that bring the ore out. The tours are led by ex-miners – it seemed to me the smarter ones who realise that the mine is not a healthy life – and following him in you are immediately wading in ankle deep water, ducking under low and frequently broken pit props and stepping over holes big enough to fall through into the gallery below. Which was an indication of the lack of any overall co-ordination of mining activity and lack of maintenance or safety.

Climbing up a steep and narrow gallery, I needed a hand up from the guide as couldn’t get a grip on the steep slope, we met a group of miners. The mining technology is primitive the most advanced tool being the drill to place the explosives otherwise it’s just hard manual labour to dig the ore out.

Their working space was the size of a small bedroom and was also home to a shrine to Tio Jorge — “Uncle George” — the devilish deity who oversees this subterranean universe. These figures are ¾ life size mannequins who all feature a monstrously out of scale erect penis – for virility and power – and who is the recipient of many gifts which are considered essential for successful and accident free mining. There is much ritual associated with mining and for example on the first Friday of the month a llama will be sacrificed to Pachamama (Mother Earth) at the mine entrance and the blood spread on the mine entrance – I guess in preference to  anyone else’s blood being spilt.

There then followed a lengthy discussion via the guide on our respective lives and careers, freely populated with samples of the alcohol mix. I had 2 small shots and I was feeling the effect, drinking it all day coupled with coca leaves would require practice! which the miners and our guide certainly got plenty of. There is ritual to the drinking, drinks must be taken in the right hand and a few drops sprinkled on Uncle, the head, shoulders and of course penis. A drop for the miners, tourists and Pachamama must not be forgotten either.


As the atmosphere became more convivial we were treated to a rant from the guide about all of Bolivia neighbours, “arrogant” Argentines, worthless Peruvians, Chileans and Paraguayans he didn’t have a good word for anyone. He didn’t even approve of the way Chileans and Pervuians chewed cocoa leaves – apparently they have no idea !

This dislike of the neighbours could be traced to a series of wars Bolivia fought in the last century disastrously losing all of them and losing about 50% of the country’s geographical area including vital access to the sea which is now part of Chile. As a result the Bolivian navy exists only on Lake Titikaka.

So having had sufficient cocoa leaves and alcohol one miner then built what can only be described as a small bomb using the empty plastic bottle of alcohol packed with ammonium nitrate and a quarter of dynamite. He crimped the detonator with his teeth – a highly dangerous method as if it was to go off he would be a head shorter. This all to the astonishment of Tony who at least added to his rogue’s gallery of photos for his security lectures.

We were then backed up into a side tunnel when it was detonated to demonstrate the concussive force – you certainly felt the shock wave and that was only a quarter the normal force.  This was purely for us – the normal proceedings are to drill a hole in a strategic place and then detonate a full charge leaving the rock fall (and dust!) to settle overnight for the next day’s digging.

The group then moved on to another area and group of miners up another gallery, however 3 of us including me had had enough of the mine and opted to wait outside in the sunshine – a blessed relief. Pleased to have had the experience but the thought of having to it every day makes you understand the need for the cocoa and alcohol to get you through the day.

Karen had sensibly (because she would have hated it) had opted to stay behind and  accompanied by a few of the other girls took Kirsten for a birthday lunch. At £1.50 for a bowl of soup and 60p for a water Karen reckons she is a cheap date 🙂 Pete probably thinks otherwise and has the bills to prove it 🙂  We all surprised her in the afternoon when returning from  the mine by hiding in the kitchen downstairs while Tony went and fetched her with a tale of the traffic police wanting to move Icatha, she appeared with her serious face on and then we all came out singing happy birthday.  Done up like a kipper!  Its that authoritative presence of Tony  – you would believe anything he said.

An interesting and fun day capped off with a group birthday dinner at Pub4060 – about the only place we ever found in Bolivia that could serve more than 2 meals at the same time and the food (and beer) was excellent. A great end to a fascinating day. More Photos Here.

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