Cerro Rico Mine, Potosí, Bolivia

Part 2 of the Bolivian Death Triangle.

The main reason for visiting Potosí was to tour the Cerro Rico mine, known largely for being one of the key mines that gave the Spanish empire its riches in the 1500s.

To that extent, the colonial past was definitely a topic on the tour (given that forced enslavement of native Bolivians killed thousands back then), but surprisingly to me, that sentiment also extended to the present day. That is, although the miners work in miner-owned cooperatives, they sell the minerals to largely foreign-owned corporations, so they still feel exploited by European powers.

The other aspect I should mention is the ethics of visiting an active workplace and taking pictures of workers as if they were in a zoo. To that extent, I tried to take as few pictures as possible in the mine, and was annoyed with some of my fellow tourists that obnoxiously (and unnecessarily) kept using flash when the miners were trying to work. I felt like the miners somewhat appreciated the gifts we brought (drinks, coca leaves, alcohol), but they weren’t necessarily proud that people come from all over the world to see the mine, as had been advertised. However, I talked to other visitors to the mine that had miners stop, talk and answer questions, and thank them for coming, so I guess it depends on who you see. For more on the ethics, you can check out this blog.

The first stop on the tour was the refining plant where the crude minerals are shipped. This was amazing.

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Crude materials brought in; Cerro Rico in the background.
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Typical piece at this stage. There’s silver visible in the rock!

They first get put in this tumbler where they are crushed to powder.

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Super heavy metal balls tumble in there to help the crushing process.

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Then, chemical reactants from huge vats are added to the powder that bind the silver (or tin) and help it float to the surface.

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Then the coolest part. A skimming machine whisks off the top layer of the mixture, to extract just the desired mineral (bound with the chemical).

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You walk right along side these machines…hope you don’t get splashed!

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A massive engine powers the entire process.

They’re piped into vats like these that allow the liquid chemicals to drain out, leaving a hard sludge that workers cart away using shovels and wheelbarrows.

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Over $110,000 of silver in these two vats!

They’re then dumped on the ground to further dry in the sun.

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In the background you see the recovered reactant pools. Some can be reused, but a lot of it ends up polluting the groundwater in the region.
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Stepping on the end product…fine tin powder!

Right after, it’s on to the mines!

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Quite a nondescript entrance.
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Almost immediately, we saw a team of three shove a cart towards the exit. They were sweating profusely and didn’t really have time to drink the soda we gave them, although I’m sure by the time they reach exit they would.
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Don’t touch it! Asbestos fibers will lodge into your skin and lungs, so you have to be careful.
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Don’t touch it either! Stalactite dripping a poisonous liquid.

And of course, one of the infamous Tíos of the mine. Underground, they don’t believe in God but in these devil-like figures, offering cigarettes and alcohol to them on a regular basis. Tío is married to Mother Earth (pacha mama) so women are not allowed to work in the mines, for fear of making Mother Earth jealous. Women are allowed on tours, but if they want to look for minerals the have to do so on the mountain surface.

Warning: sexually explicit clay?

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With 96%-by volume alcohol at his feet labeled “potable”; the miners actually drink it too when not offering some to their tío.

After a few more tunnels, the exit!

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One of those stretches where you have to run: the track is downhill at this point so the miners just let their carts go and you better not be in the way.

Other things I learned…

-Most deaths don’t occur from accidents, unlike what I thought. Instead, inexperience kills many miners when they get lost in the labyrinth of passageways, or encounter a noxious gas and don’t know how to get oxygen/where to exit. Also, battles between rivaling cooperatives sometimes turn deadly, as they fight using dynamite as grenades or lighting rubber boots on fire to fill the tunnels with smoke.

-#1 is ok in the tunnels, #2 generally isn’t. If you’re caught pooping, you’re made to eat all of it.

-In the boom times, miners could make over $2,000 in a good week. However, the mountain is quite depleted after almost 500 years of exploitation, and now only has a quarter of the miners working in it at peak compared to former times.

In all, it was a super interesting visit, and helps tell the past and present story of the city, and by extent, of much of Bolivia.


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