I like small dark spaces. Sometimes I get told I look like a hot mole so I suppose I’m just playing to script. When I was a kid I used to crawl head first down the end of a sleeping bag and try to do a tumble turn at the end to get back out. Kids are idiots, I was no exception. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU REFUSE TO BUY A NINTENDO MUM.
This did however put me in good stead when we arrived in the Bolivian city of Potosi, a town of about 130,000 that is where it is because there’s a big-arse hill next-door. This big-arse hill is choc full of silver and zinc, which have what economists call ‘value’. People dig the stuff out of the hill in order to make money, and these people are referred to as ‘hill-diggy-sorts’ or ‘miners’.
POTOSI FUN FACTS:
- The Spaniards created the town in 1540 to run their South American mint
- The Spaniards were GIANT DICKS and enslaved the locals, making them work 18 hour days in the mines with nothing but coca leaves to chew on.
- It’s been said that the amount of silver extracted from the mine over the years is enough to make a silver bridge stretching from Potosi to Spain.
- In a case of unhilarious irony, the 8 million people that died in the hill over the years would be enough to build a corpse bridge equivalent.
- 470 years of mining has caused the hill to shrink 300m due to the amount of minerals extracted. Unreal.
- Potosi backwards is Isotop which sounds like a fun name for an ice cream.
So here’s the thing. 470 years have passed since the mine started. The world has changed. The mine has not. Like, not a skerrick. It’s still 1540 down there dudes, and it is mind blowing.
Tours are available where you can have a poke around a working mine, say g’day to the miners, and see the whole process of digging and refining. $30 gets you a 4 hour tour in a claustrophobe’s hell, and this hot mole said yes please.
We started proceedings by getting kitted out full miner’s style. A relaxed fit pant coupled with a relaxed fit jacket, a pair of no frills gumboots, and a helmet and light combo that could not have been more legit if it tried. At this point we met our guide for the day, who introduced himself as ‘Mr. Potosi 2005’ and proceeded to take his clothes off. Because NAKEDNESS is FUNNY.
Hands shaken and clothes on, the first stop was the miner’s market. This joint was about as far removed from the Western world as those Amazonian tribes that throw spears at close-flying planes. We were herded into one of the little tiendas (shops).
A completo in much of South America is a hotdog with the lot. In Potosi, it’s a stick of dynamite, a fuse, and a bag of ammonium nitrate packing powder to make the boom bigger. Anyone can wander into this miners market and purchase as many explosives as they want. And at $3 per completo, blowing up houses and cars has never been cheaper.
And it’s not like the stall holders need to hold any sort of official permit. There are 80-year-old women with severe dementia peddling this stuff. When I asked what else would be a good thing to buy, the shopkeep pointed me to a 500ml bottle of 96% drinkable alcohol. Apparently the miners swig this stuff down the mines while they’re fiddling around with their dynamite. I had a sip and my throat burned through. I took the dynamite, but left the alcohol for another time when I felt like being voluntarily euthanised.
From there we were lead to a processing plant that crushes up the miners’ rocks, extracting the goodies inside. Again, occupational health and safety weren’t high on the cards, but we were ALL REASSURED when our guide said that the arsenic and cyanide we were breathing in wouldn’t harm us as long as we walked quickly.
‘Enough faffing around’ we all didn’t say but were probably thinking, ‘we signed up for a mine tour, show us some mines’. And so it was.
The fruitful hill in question stands ominously over Potosi proper. It’s an intimidating sight right now, I can’t imagine how imposing it would’ve looked 500 years ago with another Empire State Building’s height of dirt on top. We ended up about 2/3rds of the way up at the entrance of a long-established mine.
The actual mine experience was an absolute trip. You’re essentially never fully upright, as Bolivians are a combination of not bothered by crouching and pretty short anyway. There are parts that have you on all fours, your shoulders scraping the sides of the cave and your headlamp scraping the top, all the while getting dripped on by some condensation formed by fucking mystery chemicals inside the mine.
Then you have to remember that workers are still doing 12+ hour days in these conditions, much of the time with 50-60kg bags of rocks on their backs. Nearly all of these lads would only weigh 50-60kg themselves. It is frightening yet impressive.
In a little dug out grotto, the guide introduced us to ‘El Tio’, directly translated to The Devil, a figure who the miners worship because ‘God doesn’t go underground’. They worship him by creating a papier mache likeness of him and then giving him gifts, such as alcohol, cigars and coca leaves. Papier mache El Tio also sports a massive boner, as when El Tio and Pachamama – Mother Nature – have sex, the mountain is replenished with minerals. IT’S CALLED SCIENCE LOOK IT UP. Dead set this shit is a self-writing PSA on the dangers of 96% alcohol.
There were plenty of other fun tidbits, such as having a woman working in the mine is a natural disaster the likes of which you cannot imagine, and will undo all of The Devil and Mother Nature’s good work. Or the fun of mine fiestas, where you backup a 12 hour work day with a 12 hour drinking session in the pitch black.
Anywho, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel eventually and made our way out, dirty but unharmed. My dynamite was left unexploded for the miners to use at their leisure.
The mine is likely to close in the next 10-20 years, as the need for some semblance of workplace safety forces their age-old practices into a litigious corner. I’m sad for the city of Potosi, which will undoubtedly become a ghost-town in that case, but happy for the miners who won’t cark it in a 3rd world death pit, despite the flow-on need to uproot themselves and their family.
All said and done, going into a mine transported straight from the 1500s was an unreal experience. But, like 192 proof alcohols, I’ll say cheers for the taste test, but I’m happy to not fill my glass up.