Most visitors to Potosí will at some stage during their stay take in a tour of the mines of Cerro Rico; the tall, rose-coloured mountain that looms over the city as a constant reminder of its trade and former prosperity. The conditions in the mines of Potosí are well documented – dark and dank, with extremes of temperature ranging from perishing cold to a sweat box of 40°C or more. The hours are long, the dangers real and the work physically demanding.
Lording it over the miners, acting as their inspiration and protection is El Tío – the god of the mines. The folklore and faith that surrounds El Tío is one of the most fascinating aspects of the mining way of life. El Tío means Uncle and is derived from the word for God, Dios. El Tío is the other half of the goddess Mother Earth, or Pachamama, and women are not allowed to work in the mines as it would incite the jealousy of Pachamama.
There is a duality underpinning the faith in El Tío - good and evil, light and dark and male and female elements all play a part. In contrast to Jesus Christ, who is Lord of the light and infallibly good, so there is an exact opposite, a Lord of the dark, El Tío, who lives within the bowels of the mountain. He has the appearance of the Devil with horns and a penis any man would be proud of, representing the fertility of the earth. Inside the earth, El Tío reigns supreme and commands the respect and reverence of the workers, as they believe their fortunes lie in his hands.
Inside Cerro Rico lies a labyrinth of tunnels and shafts making up 516 different mines, most of which are now abandoned. Hidden in these mines are around 1 000 Tíos - roughly two to every mine. Carved out of stone, often in a place rich in minerals, each Tío sits in a cave built by the miners. This cave plays host to the miners every Tuesday and Friday, with the main get-together taking place on the last Friday of the month, to thank El Tío for a fruitful month’s work and to ask that this will prevail into the coming month.
The ceremony involves the consumption of 96% proof sugar cane alcohol, countless coca leaves and numerous cigarettes. El Tío can count himself lucky as the best is reserved for him. Miners will take a puff of a cigarette and place it in the mouth of El Tío so that he can enjoy the rest. He will also be given coca leaves and alcohol as offerings in return for good luck and an abundance of minerals. Be careful what you wish for though, asking for material possessions will not be received favourably. For example, it is better to ask for regular and lucrative work, not money itself. Other rituals include fortune-telling coca leaves. Miners stick the leaves onto their noses with a little saliva, ask a question about the future and blow upwards. The predictions depend on the way up the leaf lands, for a positive or negative response.
Often El Tío is decorated with flags and ribbons and his domain, despite being made of rock, is cosy and colourful in contrast to the damp and muddy tunnels where the miners spend most of their time.
That the miners still maintain these mystical rituals surrounding El Tío, when the reality of their jobs is so gritty and stark, is a testimony to their spirit. Perhaps it is light relief from their dark, arduous days or just an excuse for a good old booze-up. Whatever it is, it remains an important element of their routine.
Our guide for the morning, Juan Carlos predicted that the reserves of silver, tin and zinc in the mountain will expire in around 50 years. That is if the supports and internal networks of the mines don’t collapse beforehand. It’s hard to imagine what the people of Potosí will do when the mines fail to deliver, as 60% of the population are involved in the mining industry in some capacity, be they miners themselves, vendors in the miners markets or guides for the tourists. Let’s hope that, when the inevitable happens, El Tío is watching over them.
The city of Potosí is renowned in Bolivia for two reasons. Firstly, standing at 4,070 meters above sea level it is the world’s highest city, and secondly for the silver mines of Cerro Rico, the once rich mountain which looms above the city. The extracts of these mines helped to establish Potosí as one of the wealthiest and most famous cities in South America during Bolivia's colonial rule. Cerro Rico was once the biggest silver deposit the world had ever seen. Today most of the silver has been depleted; it is now only tin, zinc and other minerals which remain. Despite this miners continue to dig deeper and deeper in to the 15,680 foot Andean peak to extract the remaining resources.
Unfortunately, due to the loss of its silver Potosí is now one of the poorest cities in South America, but despite its change in fortunes, it still has much to offer tourists. The reminders of Potosí’s past still linger on in its magnificent ornate churches and palaces which are the best examples of colonial architecture in Bolivia. Guided tours can be arranged around these historic buildings. You can also tour the Casa Real de la Moneda, the colonial royal mint which now holds a fascinating museum depicting the history of the minting process in Potosí. However, for the tourist who wants a little adventure, I would definitely recommend a trip down into Cerro Rico’s mines to experience the work of the locals and the history of this famous mine.
I booked my trip through a company called Koala tours. I chose this company in particular, because I was assured that the guides would speak English and I was told that 15% of my fee would be given back to the miners themselves. Knowing what awful conditions exist in the mines, I was encouraged to think that my visit would in some way benefit them.
After kitting us out in full mining gear, complete with boots and headlamps, our guides took us to the miners’ market where we were shown around and encouraged to buy gifts for the miners. These ranged from explosives, to bottles of soft drink and coca leaves, used to alleviate the hot, exhausting conditions.
After entering the mine through a small dark archway, blackened by the blood of Llama sacrifices, we encountered a statue of “El Tio”, or the Devil. The miners believe that, while underground, they work in the devil’s domain, so they worship him in the hope that he will reward them with the minerals of Cerro Rico.
We descended through four levels of the mine, some 100 feet, at times crawling or sliding through precipitous slimy tunnels. I felt hot under my protective clothing and the air seemed to be tainted by the smells of arsenic and explosives. Our guide introduced us to one of the miners, a 45 year old man who had been working in the depths of Cerro Rico for over twenty seven years. It was particularly poignant to watch his work knowing that his age is the average life expectancy in the mines, mostly due to respiratory diseases. He had been working at this depth for years, yet we could hardly stand it for ten minutes. Fortunately at this point our guides - who are all former miners - began the ascent to surface level.
Despite my reservations, I am glad that I took a guided tour down the famous Cerro Rico. The part of the experience which will always stay with me is the miners whom I met. I spent three hours surrounded by the heat and the dust and the smells; these men spend their whole life time in these confined spaces trying to make a living.