In Search of the Silver Lining

Longlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

‘Not Recommended for the Fainthearted!’ the tour leaflet had baited, the usual dramatic puff to convince ‘seen-it-all’ travellers to dip into sweaty money-belts. 

Hooked. Here we are, fitted out with filthy macs, wellies, hardhats, battery packs and a handful of coca leaves; a mingle of five foreigners impatient to experience one of the world’s largest silver mines.

“How old am I? How old? Guess!” Juan, our guide, is insistent. I feel obliged. Taking in his pallor and sunken eyes, I offer a kind estimate of 48? 50?

“I’m 25!” he croups, apparently proud to have outwitted us all. Dios mio! A young man looking half dead was just the first of many confronting aspects of Bolivia’s heavy metal mining world.

A minibus bumps our bones to a mine entrance over 4000 metres high on the infamous Cerro Rico. The word ‘scarring’ has never seemed so appropriate. The pink mountain, hovering over the colonial city of Potosi, is like a body donated to science, repeatedly hacked at by hordes of incompetent medical students. The land containing the coveted silver has been cut open, probed and bled for over 500 years.

Juan leads us into a dark, wood scaffold-clad orifice into the underworld. The mood darkens as the sunlight disappears.

Only minutes in: “Can’t breathe! I need to get out” A tourist is led back out, struggling to breathe, and I’m sure those of us left consider how it might feel to be buried alive as so many have been here. It’s already a mental struggle, in the muffle of this mountain. 

Keep moving. 

We continue downhill. Our headlamps illuminate the mud puddles, sagging cables and the almost opaque haze of airborne particles. The tour is a cross between seeing the seven dwarves at work and entering Lucifer’s Lair. Glinting-eyed, hunched miners sweating their way through the hellish tunnels, they and their carts rumbling to some unknown destination in the earth’s intestines. Their ragged clothes barely cling to their glistening bodies, their cheeks bulge with huge wads of coca leaves and their expressions, for the most part, are vacant.

“Everyone off track! Keep back!” Juan suddenly roars, and with seconds to spare, a laden truck is heaved past at speed. This is no mine of subtly distributed wax figures with painted expressions. Not only real, it is a livelihood that has missed out on any modernisation policies for several hundred years. We are inside a Bolivian mountain witnessing a living time warp.

Keep breathing. 

A grotto housing ‘El Tio’, god of the mine, is awash with offerings of alcohol, cigarettes and most importantly, coca leaves, the only substance that makes life here remotely bearable. The underground deity has the ‘power’ to take life within his nightmarish realm, but judging by his inane grin and erect penis, thankfully, he seems happy today.

Scuffing down one of the mountain’s hot arteries, explosions like cinema-surround-sound pulsing through the riddled mountain flesh, I pull my metallic tasting headscarf tighter around my nose and mouth. The 40-degree heat is loaded with poisonous chemicals, explaining why, as Juan explains, the average male life expectancy in Potosi is 43, with the ‘mal de mina’ – silicosis – progressively eating away at lungs. Ah. Juan’s appearance. He has been a miner in Cerro Rico since he was a boy.

Crawling along to a deep, hot pocket in the earth, we perch uncomfortably to listen to Juan. He tells of the eight million Incan and African slaves who have died within the labyrinth’s appalling conditions. Countless children too. His blackened hand slaps a rock. I’m really scared. Of being buried. Of being crushed. Of there being no air. 

“Only 40% of the silver has been extracted!” He’s excited by this. Rocks clatter loose. It seems that many more men will gamble their lungs yet.

I am by now breathless, and yes, pretty damn faint of heart after all, yet we still descend further into the dank dark shafts. Our group stumbles into alcoves where men, often a feeble flame on their helmets their only illumination, squint at us, glad for a change from the monotonous rock face. The miners crouch like animals in the gloom, their lungs full of cyanide, asbestos and death, yet Juan says they are eternally optimistic about what their protracted rape of the mountain might produce.

Snatching almost useless breaths of foul air now, we need to ascend. Much of the climb out is on all fours, half slithering uphill on our bellies. Our hard hats crack dully against the low, roughly hewn ceilings as we move more urgently, so grateful to be re-entering the 21st Century. After four hours underground, we emerge, blinking, into the cold air outside as grimier but wiser tourists than the ones who went in.

For once the hype had been right.