After the Spanish conquistadors made their way to South America the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia floated the Spanish economy for over 200 years. Now thousands of Bolivian men (women are bad luck in a mine) support their families in the free-for-all that the mines have become. The mining rights are extremely loss and when mine shafts cross they often result in physical fights over who owns what. The labor is extremely physical and life expectancy for many of the jobs in the mine is 10 years. That being said, we jumped at the opportunity to go into the mine with an ex-miner.
After dawning some “protective” clothing, helmets and a headlamps, we went to the miners market for coca, dynamite and some 96% alcohol, a miner favorite; all gifts for the miners we would be visiting. Chewing coca leaves is supposed to help with the altitude, low oxygen levels, as well as increasing alertness among other things. The alcohol is basically cheap Everclear, which is a lot easier to carry hundreds of into the mine than a case of beer (though we saw plenty of beer cans inside as well). And the dynamite… it’s for blowing things up.
Inside the mine was a labyrinth of tunnels, ladders, shoots and rails all to extract every last mineral in the mine. It went from dark and cold, to dark and steamy, to dark and dusty.
Our guide, who’s father still worked in the mine, kept us from getting lost as he gave us some of the history of the Potosí mines. One of the interesting stories was how he explained the religious beliefs of many of the miners. When Christian missionaries came to South America, they introduced the miners to Jesus and the devil… which the minors add to their list of things to worship. Inside the mines to can find many alters to both Jesus and Tios (a mispronunciation of of dios, the Spanish word for god) who is a form of the devil. They miners figured the closer to hell they got the more they should ask Tios for protection as they are taking minerals from his realm. To thank him they leave him thinks he likes, alcohol, coca leaves etc. though they leave the similar gifts on the Jesus alters… it’s a little confusing to say the least.