The caves are narrow, dark and choked with soot.
Men scramble though tunnels barely tall enough to crouch in, pushing carts and hauling sacks of stone. Helmet beams cut through the blackness; thin streams of torchlight, bouncing off glittering mineral stains on the rock walls.
Ahead of me in the tunnel, my guide--a former miner named Antonio--scurries along, squatting. It’s a struggle to keep pace with him, my hardhat scraping against the stone ceiling.
We’re following rails; a path intended for mine cars. Every now and then, Antonio barks a warning to step aside. There are plenty of cars trundling along the rails, each one carrying a tonne of ore. They thunder past, with enough force to crush a person under-wheel.
This is a working mine, after all.
The Spanish called it: “Cerro Rico.”
It means: “Rich Hill.”
Once, the streets of Potosi were plated with silver. Cerro Rico is a mountain that overlooks the city, and in the 16th century, its silver deposits made Potosi the richest spot in South America: as close to a real El Dorado as anyone ever found (albiet in silver instead of gold).
That silver also cost millions of lives, of course.
The Spanish were ruthless in their desire to exploit Cerro Rico, working countless Quechua labourers to death. And when that supply of workers proved insufficient for the task, they began importing a steady stream of slaves from Africa. Conditions were awful; African slaves forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda (the National Mint, located in Potosi) were referred to as "Acémilas Humanas"--"Human Mules."
These monstrous conditions earned Cerro Rico another nickname: “The Mountain That Eats Men.”
It still does, to this day
Today, the mines are run by Bolivian Mining Cooperatives--workers unions which allegedly offer the miners some measure of solidarity and legal protection, and which permit tourists entry to the mine for a small fee.
(A fee which my guide insisted goes toward helping the miners' feeble healthcare coverage).
But the conditions faced by miners are still absolutely brutal. The men have safety equipment insofar as they have helmets, and the mines are filled with rickety wooden ladders and precarious ledges. Getting into the mines means descending down through warrens of rock that could all too easily cave-in.
Occasionally, there will be a low, escalating rumble, like thunder through the caves. It's the sound of blasting dynamite, somewhere in the tunnels.
"At first we were afraid of one blast a day," a miner commented to me, in jocular Spanish. "Now we are used to hearing them every fifty minutes."
Having been mined for the last 500-odd years, Cerro Rico is so riddled with tunnels that its very structure is in question. The mountain is puckered with sinkholes, and geologists have warned that parts of the peak are at risk of collapse. In 2011, a 339 square metre crater opened in the mountain's summit, and attempts to shore up Cerro Rico with cement and metal bracing have been of debatable efficacy at best.
But there's no doubt that the mining will carry on. The mines employ an estimated 15,000 men (and boys; some miners start as young as 6), and they are at the heart of Potosi's attempts to build itself a viable tourist industry.
"My family moved away from Potosi," Antonio said to me, explaining that his father was a miner, "to Argentina... because all there is here is mine, mine, mine."
On the way out of the mine, I passed a young man with a handsome face and clever eyes, wearing a hardhat.
I wondered at his future. Antonio--short, hunched and possessing a resolutely dirty sense of humour--is one of the lucky ones. He taught himself enough English to escape working as a miner, and become a tour guide instead.
Few others are as fortunate. Miners have a typical life expectancy of around 40; the soot that fills the mines does serious harm to the lungs. Visitors have to wear breathing masks (scraps of cloth), and the miners themselves chew coca leaves while they work, because eating on the job would risk ingesting extra muck.
Inside the mine tunnels, there are numerous shrines to a El Tio; a devil-like deity, with red skin and pointy horns, to whom the miners offer booze and coca leaves. They hope that a little supernatural pact might help keep them safe. It's a deal that (in the classic style of devils) El Tio rarely keeps.
Cerro Rico once made Potosi rich, on the backs of choking men. Nowadays, Potosi is a poor city in the poorest country of South America. There's little silver left, and the great peak slumps.
But men work all the same, and the Mountain eats them up.
>Whether Potosi's Mining Cooperatives truly help the workers, or simply exploit them, is a matter of debate. Similarly, the ethics of mine tourism is an open question. Certainly there are some tour operators that pay the miners much less than others.
If you are considering a mine tour, try to find an operator that is run by miners, as they are most likely to pay other miners fairly. It's also typical practice to bring the miners gifts of drink or coca leaves.
>Venturing into the mines is probably inadvisable if you're prone to claustrophobia or afraid of the dark. They are a fascinating and somewhat horrifying experience, and I was certainly very glad to escape into the daylight.