potosi mountain view bolivia

The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosi - Bolivia

It devoured the lives of 8 million Andean and African slaves.

Here at “The Mountain That Eats Men” a silver mining boom powered Spain’s colonial economy for centuries and later fueled Europe’s Industrial Revolution.

potosi town bolivia
LEFT: The ‘Mountain’ seen from Potosi. Notable are the churches and other ornate buildings around the plaza of this once-wealthy Spanish colonial town.

Welcome to Potosi, the world’s highest city at 4070 metres – and once the richest city in South America.

Inside this nasty mountain, I spent 5 hours on a ‘guided tour’, exploring some tunnels. Many seemed in danger of collapse.

Decked out in rubber overalls and jacket, helmet with flashlight, and feet in gumboots.

Inside the mines of Potosi in Bolivia.
Inside the mines of Potosi in Bolivia. BOTTOM LEFT: MRP before entering the mine. BOTTOM RIGHT: Miner preparing dynamite.

Gasping for breath, walking, up and down, crouching and squeezing thru narrow gaps in the rock, or wandering in muddy tunnels; scrambling, crawling in burrows of loose rock and up rickety ladders, crossing chasms on planks of wood all in a place best described as a filthy subterranean hell.

inside Bolivia's Potosi mines of narrow passages, mud, and broken machinery.
Mine interiors scenes: TOP LEFT: Miner makes a cigarette offering to their local deity for luck and safety. Narrow rocky passages and tunnels of chemical-contaminated mud puddles and past wider work areas of primitive corroded machinery.

The Miners of Potosi

These days the silver is gone – depleted, and so miners dig out tin, using dynamite and picks, while fighting fatigue and cold and hunger by chewing coca leaves.

As gifts for the miners, I brought a few bags of coca leaves, and some cigarettes, along with some dynamite and detonators—to experience and sponsor an underground explosion.

potosi mining settlement on mountains in bolivia
Miners and their families live on the mountainside near the mine opening. On this day, there was a celebration and sacrifice of a lama, its blood smeared above the tunnel entrance.

And also, I gave them a bottle of 96% alcohol.

One mouthful was enough for me.

But many men drank it regularly, as the life expectancy of these miners is cut short.

After years of inhaling dust and toxic fumes in the lungs, within 10 to 15 years of starting work, usually they’re chronically sick or dead.

And deadly accidents aren’t rare, either.

Indigenous Andean woman in the quiet backstreets of Potosi in Bolivia
Indigenous Andean woman in the quiet backstreets of Potosi with the notorious ‘mountain’ in the background.

Travels in Bolivia – 2002

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