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A glimpse of a Bolivian hell

A Look into Hell
I believe I am in hell, therefore I am.

– Arthur Rimbaud, French Poet

Heart pounding in my ears, lungs near collapse, I tell myself that I must suppress the arising panic. If I admit any sense of claustrophobia to myself, I will drown in a funnel of fear. If I mention it to the others, I will bring them down with me.

My headlamp scrapes the ceiling as I wriggle my oversize gringo body through the cramped crawl space. I hear only the panting of my own breath and the rubbing of my limbs against the walls. I feel stagnant and clammy air against my face and taste freshly stirred dirt with every gasp of air. Watch out to the left! There’s another stygian void liable to suck down the next artless tourist who makes a single false move. This is exactly how I would imagine a scene from Hades, the underworld kingdom of Greek mythology inhabited by the souls of the dead.

We come to a cavernous opening navigable only by a single thin ledge; beyond it lies an ominous bus-sized black hole. Oscar, our sinewy and intrepid guide, goes first. As he lifts his rear foot a chunk of the path drops away into the abyss. We each hold our breath, silent, waiting for the sound of tumbling rock to end. It doesn’t. Crashing turns to thudding, thudding turns to muffled puttering, and still a faint echo continues. I leap over the fresh bite in the ledge to Oscar’s extended hand. I, in turn, reach for Yuko and together we form a daisy chain to slowly and carefully extract the Dutch girl, the Kiwi, and the Australian couple from the danger zone.

The adventure continues. Past a labyrinth of tight corners, rises, falls, and mine shafts we are confronted with a sheer rock wall some four meters high with a cramped opening at the top. Scaling it is the only way forward; going back is not an option. Oscar floats up the face with ease, as he has done a hundred times before. Then I scramble up, utilizing my limited rock-climbing experience. Together we assist the others up.

Oddly, as our expedition through the mines of Potosí becomes more adrenaline pumping, more hair-raising, and even more life threatening, any claustrophobic discomfort I may have had passes. In fact, I’m thirsty for more obstacles and more challenges. We come upon another life-sucking pit, passable only by crossing an ill balanced, splintered wooden plank. Beyond it, we navigate a series of flimsy ladders assembled from sticks and twine. We have descended into the guts of hell. More than a kilometer underground Oscar orders us to stop and listen.

“Tink, tink, tink.” The elusive miners are in hearing range. Oscar calls out to them in Quechuan. The hammering pauses for a moment and a muffled voice responds. After a brief exchange Oscar informs us that the miners are preparing to explode some dynamite and will come to greet us as soon as they are ready.The Tarnished Silver of Potosí.

The Tarnished Silver of Potosí
Bolivia’s Potosí mines once served as the source of South America’s wealthiest and most prosperous cities. It began in 1545 when silver veins were discovered in the surrounding hills. Potosí is the world’s highest city at 4090 meters (13,415 feet), but its altitude could not deter the massive economic boom that ensued. In 1611 Potosí was the most prolific silver provider in the world and with a population of 150,000 it was not only the most populous city in Latin America, but also one of the largest in the world.

While remnants of Potosí’s colonial grandeur still echo in the decaying Spanish architecture, the city fell to dire times long ago. In the nineteenth century, plunging silver prices, mineral exhaustion, and squabbles over possession between Peru and Bolivia caused the city’s decline. Today, only the unstable demand for tin keeps the limping mines, and Potosí itself, alive. The only other hope for a boost to the economy would be tourism, but Potosí’s only real appeal besides its fading colonial heritage is the mines. Then, only fearless, possibly half-crazed, visitors who are willing to submit themselves to the risks and dangers accompanied by their exploration, and there are relatively few of us. But those who wish to put themselves to the test and who do make the descent into the bottomless mineshafts of Potosí are rewarded with a real Bolivian highlight and possibly one of the most exciting experiences of South America.

Mining For a Heart of Gold
The physical journey into the mines makes for an engaging story in itself, but no less remarkable is meeting real-life miners who risk an early death laboring in some of the most atrocious working conditions in the world. Since mineral extraction commenced four centuries ago, Potosí’s mines have swallowed an appalling eight million lives (yes, an “8” followed by six zeros). In the past, workers were mostly indigenous people or African slaves who, if they were able to survive, were forced to endure twelve-hour shifts and remain underground without exposure to daylight for some four months at a time.

Today, nearly half a millennia after the ground of Potosí was first cracked opened, there has been hardly any improvement. Miners still use primitive tools, and still work dreadfully long hours. Underground temperatures range from freezing to 45 degrees Celsius and the workers are constantly being exposed to toxic chemicals and gases that contribute to an epidemic of silicosis pneumonia. Once someone begins a career in the mines he can expect to live for another ten to fifteen years. Amazingly though, each miner will express his gratefulness that he has a job at all. He explains that he feels very fortunate compared to his unemployed and forlorn neighbors who have to scrounge for food scraps from trash dumps.

When we were introduced to the four mud-blackened miners, it was difficult not to think about how the youngest, probably around the age of 17, might very well not see his 30th birthday. Instead, we offered them gifts of soda, socks, and coca leaves as the least we could do. They spoke their native Quechuan to each other, but understood Spanish. I struck up conversation with one miner named Jose who appeared in his mid-thirties, but was probably in his early-twenties. It was hard to tell. Through the dirt that caked our clothes and the smudges that covered our faces, we joked about women, dancing, and drinking, three topics that are guaranteed catalysts for laughter between young men anywhere in the world. I had been granted a life that offered nineteen years of education and the ability to travel to nearly sixty countries. Jose may have had a couple of years of schooling and probably hadn’t ventured far from the city of Potosí. My shoes – though falling apart – once cost more than Jose made in a month. Yet for that moment, through our laughter, we bonded. We were denuded of all the frivolous excesses in the world, we were removed from all the external fortune or misfortune that had been handed to us from the day we were born, and for that single moment we were together on the same very human level.

“BOOM!” Ear ringing and chest thumping, the first explosion of dynamite shook the ground and caused dust to sprinkle around us. The miners smirked at the anxious expressions of the outsiders. “BOOM!” The second blast, louder, brought our hands to the sides of our heads. “BOOM!” The third one was even more powerful causing rock shards to split from the surrounding wall. “BOOM!” Stronger yet. We are cruelly reminded that this mine did not have sufficient funds for proper safety precautions such as retaining posts or multiple exit routes. “BOOM!” The greatest one of all nearly brings us to our knees.

Oscar and the miners looked on as we foreigners recovered from our terror. It was time for them to get back to work. I shook Jose’s grimy hand and wished him luck. He looked me in the eyes and responded with a sincere, “gracias.” Then with a fresh wad of coca leaves stuffed into his mouth, he offered me a lopsided smile, turned, and disappeared into the obscurity of the lonely mineshaft. He was off to extract more minerals from the mines while the mines extracted more years from his life. It was an encounter that I would never forget.

Before our exit from the mines, Oscar brought us down a special corridor to introduce us to Tio, a statue about a meter high that resembled the devil. This character, found in every mineshaft of Potosí, is indeed meant to symbolize the C.E.O. of Hell, but he is never referred to as Diablo (Devil), only Tio (Uncle), or in Quechuan, Supay. Piles of coca leaves and cigarettes surrounded the menacing figure. They were relics of offerings meant to ensure the miners’ safety in Tio’s lair. In addition to a symbol of protection, Tio is also meant to bestow increased fertility for all those who enter the mines.

To prove this point, Tio is saliently endowed with a disproportionately large and erect manhood (I contemplated that were he real, such a gift would likely be a great hindrance to everyday chores). Oscar claimed that the workers were nominally Catholic outside, but suggested that our very happy little friend, Tio, revealed that in the domains of the mines the workers held their own religion. Oscar pointed out the dried sacrificial llama’s blood splattered about the mine’s main entrance as another indication of the workers’ underground beliefs.
Wheezing from both the altitude and physical exhaustion, we emerged into daylight with squinted eyes. The journey through the mines of Potosí had been challenging, nerve-racking, and heartbreaking. The six of us foreigners made a vow then and there to complain less about any job we might ever have. Nothing could be worse than working in the mines of Potosí.

Information for travellers:
There are several well-advertised and respectable tour companies that are eager to take intrepid travelers into the mines of Potosí. The typical price for a four-hour trek is US$5. I went with Altiplano Tour (062-27175) and was very satisfied with the service and experience. Not all guides speak English, but mine did. The tours usually begin at the miners’ street market where it is possible to purchase gloves, coca leaves, cigarettes, soda pop, and dynamite to offer as gifts to the miners encountered in the mines.
The most common approach to the town of Potosi is from La Paz. There are several bus companies that run the route daily. They average 11 hours and US$8). The nearest major city to Potosí is Sucre. It costs approximately US$3 to get to or from there and takes around three hours.

Brief Author Bio:
Following a two-year U.S. Peace Corps service in the Kingdom of Tonga, author Paul W. Neville decided to take the long way home. Armed with only a modest backpack and a blank journal, Neville spent nine months on an extraordinary odyssey that took him through the regions of Oceania, Southeast Asia, the North Atlantic, and South America. Neville grew up in Issaquah, Washington and currently resides in Washington, D.C. where he is pursuing a Master of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Paul dreams of working for the State Department, or as a taster for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Whoever offers him the job first.

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