Just as we were about to lower ourselves into a hole in the ground in front of us, a sobbing girl suddenly jumped out of there. We looked at one another concerned, while she said with tears running down her cheeks that it was dark, stuffy and she was afraid. No, the start was not a good start at all, but we just adjusted our face masks and went down.DSC01920

The ladder had its two rungs broken so we had to step down carefully trying not to fall down. We managed and then we hunched  and followed a narrow and low corridor till we could sit down in a space a bit wider and wait for the others. I couldn’t stop coughing, dust was everywhere and it seemed as if my face mask was doing more harm than good. It only seemed like that because the moment I took it off, I put it back on immediately. Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in the town of Potosi in the south of Bolivia. The town was founded in 1545 by the Spaniards when silver was discovered in the mountain. There was so much silver that soon Potosi became one of the richest and biggest towns in the world. Cervantes is said to have been the first to use an expression ‘vale un Potosi’ (it’s worth a Potosi) in his “Don Quichote”. It is also said that the Spanish stole so much silver that it would have been possible to build a silver bridge that would connect Bolivia and Spain across the ocean.

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Cerro Rico is also called a man-eating mountain because over the centuries 8 million people lost their lives inside it. When in the 19th century the most the silver was exhausted, the city began to decline. Right now there are many miners’ cooperatives digging out tin and other minerals – there are a few thousand workers in Cerro Rico, several hundreds of them children. Because of harsh working conditions accidents happen and many miners fall ill.

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The mines are not really busy at the weekends, so it was pretty quiet on Saturday when we visited. We gave our presents to the miners we met – it’s a custom to visit a miners’ shop before the visit and buy dynamite, soft drinks, alcohol and coca leaves. We were following empty corridors down, stepping carefully to avoid holes in the ground, we pushed ourselves in narrow passages, sometimes we would slide down on our bottoms just to be on a safe side because some stones seemed so loose as if there were about to roll down our passage. A disturbing thought crossed my mind suddenly that if a guide left us, we would be lost. I had no idea where we were, how deep, how long we’d been walking. “We went 8o meters down”, said our guide and I guess it must have been so but I wasn’t sure. Albaro tried hard, he used to be a miner too, now he’s a guide. He tried hard to explain and to tell us about the mountain, the miners and the city. He spoke only Spanish, but when he noticed that my companions couldn’t understand everything he tried to simplify his grammar to make his stories more understandable.

DSC01867In a shop: Albaro is explaining to us how to use dynamite and asks if we want to drink 90% alcohol. We don’t, we just do the shopping. 

We followed Albaro till we reached el Tio. El Tio is the lord of the underground. Miners bring him coca leaves and cigarettes. Then fed him believing that if the fail to do so, he will no longer protect them.

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“What’s that?” somebody asked pointing at the ceiling. We were sitting around el Tio listening to the stories when the question was asked. Everybody looked up at something white, something that looked like some strange crystals. “It’s asbestos”, replied Albaro, and asked, “Do you want to continue our walk?” We didn’t. We’d had enough. We’d seen enough. We’d learnt enough during this touristy visit in a a place that wasn’t touristy at all. We went up. Up the narrow corridors, up the ladder with two broken rungs. We surfaced, took off the face masked and breathed deeply. Photo time and we walk away looking back at Cerro Rico. The place was definitely worth visiting. It was worth it because when you listen to stories, when you read, when you even watch films or look at the photos some things are hard to imagine. You cannot feel smell, dust, scratching in your throat and you cannot feel crampy enclosed space. I was relieved to leave the place.

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  • I am not great in small spaces so whilst this sounds like a great experience I don’t know if I could go through with it especially after seeing the girl at the start and knowing how many people have died down there over time.

  • I think you’re braver than me. It must have been fascinating to see El Tio, but this is one experience I don’t think I could do….

  • Wow! What an experience. I think that I would like to lower myself into the man-eating mountain, just to see it and hear the stories firsthand, but not sure how long I could stand it either. You guys were very brave!

  • This place would give me the creeps. Very brave of you to go down there.

  • I guess this isn’t for the claustrophobic but despite that I like that you were able to live one day and experience the life of miners. I would like to try that too.

  • Happy you made it out safe. Hats off to you on this adventure. I am not claustrophobic, but it’s not something I would do.

  • A wonderful experience! I cycled through the area a few years ago, but unfortunately didn’t stay long enough to try this.

  • I didn’t know that Potosi was such an important city for Bolivian history.Also I’m impressed(not in a good way) with the 8 million people that lost their lives in Cerro Rico.

  • Wow, this definitely sounds like an adventure. I’m glad to hear you made it out ok. I think these kind of experiences are important, as much as they may not be totally enjoyable at the time. It’s really the only way to fully appreciate and acknowledge the history of such a place. We were in Bolivia for 2 weeks but didn’t manage to get to Potosi – I would definitely go back though to experience the mines firsthand.

    • I think Potosi is definitely worth visiting – makes you understand more.

  • A wow and incredibly brave act. Would love to try this once in life.
    traveling and history go hand in hand and its important to explore history angle of a place to fully appreciate it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, it gives you a little bit of understanding, and you think how lucky you are to go there just for a moment.