I’m also not crazy about the idea of being buried alive under 20 meters of rock — which was, of course, the scenario running through my head as I ducked through the entrance to the cooperative silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia.
The silver mines of Potosi were founded in 1545, initially attracting a population of over 200,000 and establishing ridiculous wealth for the Spaniards that had recently taken control. It quickly became the prized possession of the Americas and rumors floated over to Europe about a city paved with silver. But when Bolivia finally won their independence from the Spaniards in 1825, the city of silver had lost its sparkle.
Today, the silver mines operate as a cooperative, but Potosi is a dusty artifact of its former self. Regardless, it’s a popular stop for travelers looking to experience a working mine — a unique experience that likely wouldn’t pass safety regulations, if they existed.
Seven of us flicked on our headlamps to watch our boots slosh through the flooded tracks, leading us down a darkening tunnel. You could see the walls narrowing and feel the air thicken as our guide’s voice became a distant mumble at the front of the line. My mask didn’t seem to be doing much to filter the dusty air and I played around with it nervously, pulling it off and then back on — indecisive as to which was more suffocating.
My heartbeat was fluttering into a panic as we took a corner and the little light that was left disappeared, but just as I began to search for an exit option, we came upon a bubble of space that allowed the group to stand up straight and gather around our guide. At our feet sat a terrifying stone creature, which immediately took my mind off my inability to breathe. Discarded plastic bottles were scattered around its feet and coca leaves littered its shoulders, limbs, and a very prominent penis.
I thought back to the little bottles stowed in my bag as I tentatively inspected the demonic statue before us…
Prior to entering the mines, our group had been brought to a shop in town to purchase gifts for the miners. It seemed like a nice gesture, considering we’d be gawking at their dismal conditions and snapping pictures of the work that typically kills them in ten to fifteen years of entering the profession.
But the gifts were not up to us. We filed into a line and were instructed to purchase three things — coca leaves, alcohol, and juice. Dynamite was an optional addition to this charming package. After our purchases were complete and our gifts safely stowed in the potato sack bags we carried on our backs, our guide took the liberty of demonstrating an appreciation for the products at hand.
He pulled out a handful of coca leaves, using two inverted front teeth to slide the little sheets of green off their veins, smiling with bits stuck to his lip as he grinded the meat into a paste and stored the wad in the corner of his cheek. Then he popped open a little plastic bottle, pointing to the 95% alcohol content label with another mischievous grin.
He took a swig without flinching and passed the bottle to a member of the group with a twinkle of a dare in his eyes — bits of coca still dangling from his lip.
“Try it!” he exhaled, visibly pleased with his tolerance for drinking something akin to nail polish remover.
Tentatively, our group passed the bottle around, most people barely letting the liquid touch their lips yet still pulling away in anguish with an apologetic pass to the following person.
Our guide chuckled at each mangled expression.
It made sense. He had worked the mines and escaped.
He had earned the right to laugh at those about to enter by choice.
So there we stood, looking down at two glassy eyes, pressed into a crudely crafted stone face with the pointed horns of a bull. For such unrealistic features, I still felt its eyes boring into mine, as if demanding the toxic liquid I had stowed in my bag.
“El Tio!” exclaimed our guide, as he popped open a fresh little bottle and dumped a splash on the phallic chunk of stone.
He explained that “Tio” (“Uncle” in Spanish) is the Devil. Because the miners work underground, which is technically the Devil’s property, they must worship him for safety. Every miner sacrifices a bit of their cherished alcohol or coca leaves when passing Tio for work each day.
He may be evil, but down here, it’s all relative.
We were each encouraged to dump some alcohol out for Tio before we continued further down into the depth’s of Hell’s guest house. I poured out nearly half my bottle — just in case.
Two hours of anxious discomfort later and we had reached the lowest point of our journey. Two miners who appeared to be waiting for us, accepted all remaining bottles of alcohol and bags of coca leaves. We all crouched in a circle with them as they passed a bottle around repeatedly while each person offered a splash in the dirt for “Pachamama” or Mother Earth — another entity worth acknowledging in these precarious conditions — before forcing some down for themselves. This time we were at least mixing the grain alcohol with orange flavored juice, but it still lit a fire in my chest every time.
As we all struggled with the tradition, the miners drank with ease, all the while squishing wads of coca leaves between their inner cheeks and gums. They laughed and made jokes — some at our expense — and took extra turns on each go-around.
I was torn. Torn between a lingering fear of our circumstances, a sense of thrill at this bizarre experience, and a creeping sadness for the people who lived this every single day.
I had known prior to participating that the morals of this tour were sketchy. This was not a tourist place down here — this was an operating mine and we were, in a way, intruding upon people’s livelihood. But our participation also went to an organization that employs those who might otherwise be working full-time in the mines, rather than the two hour stints to lead us through. My initial guilt hadn’t been enough to squelch my curiosity, but now I just felt sad as I was offered the cup, yet again, and “Salud!”‘s went around.
Then our tour guide asked if anyone had purchased dynamite.
One guy had, and pulled the white coil from his bag. The miners’ eyes lit up as they took it from him.
“Wait, I’m sorry, are you using that now?” It was the most I had spoken on the entire tour and I suddenly felt very talkative.
All three of them laughed as one began preparing the device.
“What?! Where? Where is that going?”
Nervous questions flooded the three miners, along with excited inquiries about photographing and recording the explosion. I was clearly outnumbered and the dynamite demonstration was going to be a part of our tour.
Focusing on the more enthusiastic members of our group, the guide offered the opportunity for recording the explosion. Anyone who didn’t care to stay that close could crawl around the corner — about five meters further from the blast site.
We were assured that the dynamite was being pushed far enough into a hole that it couldn’t hurt us, but that didn’t stop me from huddling as close to the corner of our nook as possible, as we waited for the detonation.
I stuck my fingers in my ears as we sat there. Two girls giggled madly, obviously having accepted every round of shots. One older gentleman shook his head with a smile in my direction. I closed my eyes tight.
Ten seconds and a lifetime later, the tunnel shook with a deep groan. Dirt and bits of rock rained down, just outside our hole. Despite a fairly accurate countdown, I let out a yelp and fell against the wall.
Our guide stuck his head around the corner, coca leaves gleaming on yellowed teeth.
“Now, we go!”
We all scrambled and climbed back up several layers of ladders, through the tunnels that seemed to lengthen with our sudden urgency. Within ten minutes, we could see daylight spilling into the widening space and the air began to clear.
We were out, and the sun had never looked so bright.
I tore my mask and helmet off, desperate to feel air on my face. I then pulled the potato sack off my back and it thunked on the ground with a weight I hadn’t anticipated. Peaking into the bag, I saw one more bottle of alcohol that hadn’t been offered to the miners.
I thought of Tio, who I had scurried past to exit without acknowledgement.
Discretely, I poured the remaining alcohol onto the barren ground and it watched it quickly disappear.