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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.