A Miner’s Life in Potosi

Above the city of Potosi, is a mountain with a story to tell. The Incas knew of it as a rich source of silver and had mined Cerro Rico for many generations. When Spanish explorers arrived and saw the amount of silver still contained in the mountain’s walls, it didn’t take long for them to decide to take the mines and minerals for themselves. Between the 16th and 18th centuries 80% of world’s silver came from Potosi. In fact the phrase ‘Worth a Potosi’, which means to be of great value, came from this city.

The mines in Cerro Rico (Rich Peak) are still operational today. Instead of being run by governments or large corporations however, they are operated by a cooperative of family run businesses. We took a tour that led us deep into the mountain to visit the mines. Our guide was a young miner who had been working in the family mine since he was 16 years old. It was shocking to see the dangerous working conditions these miners face everyday.

Below is a fictionalized short story based on what we learned about the life of a miner in present day Potosi.


As he descended into the dark corridor of Cerro Rico mine David switched on his headlamp. Even though he knew this area like the back of his hand, he liked to have the light guide his way. He’d been a miner since he was 16. It was his life, and had been the life of his father, his grandfather and a long line of ancestors before them. As he walked along the metal tracks he thought of his young son at home, wishing he could keep him from this job, but knowing it was inevitable. Their family had worked hard to own their section of the cooperative mine. It was small, but it was theirs.

As he did everyday, David stopped at the entrance to his family’s mine to pay his respects to El Tio, the miner’s God, and Pachamama, Goddess of the Earth. Every family has their own statue of El Tio, but he liked their simple one the most. Maricio, as the family lovingly calls him, has a small body, topped by large shoulders and a large head with big ears. The most notable feature is always a large penis which represents fertility.

David performed the same ceremony everyday. He asked for forgiveness from Pachamama for damaging her earth. He asked El Tio for safety as well as strength of mind and body. As he spoke, he poured a few drops of alcohol onto the floor for Pachamama and placed coca leaves on El Tio. The ceremony ended by asking El Tio to use his fertility with Pachamama to produce more mineral rich veins in their mine. As a kid David didn’t believe in El Tio or these rituals but as a miner he changed his opinion and valued the comfort these beliefs gave him. A large El Tio statue in Potosi allows everyone in the city, even the non-mining families, to ask for safety for all of the miners. 

Over the years David’s grandfather told him many stories of their Quechua ancestors who worked at this mine long before the Spanish took control. He loved the story about the origin of El Tio. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they soon discovered the wealth of silver still located within the mountain’s walls. They forced the knowledgeable Quechua and Aymara men into slavery to work in the mines. They also made them adopt Christianity. As new Christians, the Quechua and Aymara miners created a statue of God to protect them in the mines. The Spanish word for God is Dios, but since the Quechua and Aymara languages don’t have the sound ‘d’ in their vocabulary they called him ‘Tio’. When the Spanish heard them say ‘Tio’ they assumed it was a heretic, indigenous god and they confiscated all of the El Tio statues.

After the ceremony David double checked the integrity of the wooden brackets designed to keep the mine’s walls from caving in before venturing further into the mine. The deeper he got, the narrower the path became. Over the years the mine went deeper and deeper into the mountain, following the veins in the Cerro Rico’s walls in search of minerals. All of the miners use dynamite to blast into new, unexplored areas. That was a job that David really hated. It was very dangerous, but was unavoidable. They had to keep exploring so that hopefully, one day, they would hit the jackpot and find a large vein, full of precious minerals.

The most valuable mineral in this mountain is silver, but there is also lead, tin, copper and zinc. He heard that centuries ago the veins were at least a meter wide and filled with silver. The legend says that the streets in the town of Potosi were lined with silver and families were so wealthy they would throw out their silver platters rather than wash them. It’s much different today, David thought. Most of the veins they mined now were only a few centimeters wide.

David reached the entry to the mine’s newest pit. Just getting here was dangerous, but now he had to descend even deeper into the mountain. It had taken David a few days to get comfortable with the moves needed to downclimb the shaft. The first few times he was really afraid of falling and with no protection, a fall would be disastrous. Today though, he climbed down the narrow opening with ease as he used a combination of natural features in the mountain wall and a makeshift platform to descend.

When he reached the bottom he started crawling through a narrow tunnel. The air was stuffy as he pushed his way through. After a few minutes he caught up with his brothers. They were already hard at work chiseling out rocks from the mountain wall. The shiny metals embedded in their rocks brought them hope for big discovery.

He began shoveling the small rocks that his brothers had chiseled out into a rubber basket. It was hot and dusty. His face mask made him even hotter and difficult to breathe. He knew well the risks of working without it. His own father was in the hospital right now. In his 50s, as with most miners, he was dying of lung cancer. Even knowing this, David frequently removed his masked as he heaved shovels full of rocks into the bin. By midday his back ached, shoulders were tired and his stomach growled, but it wasn’t practical to stop for a break. Instead, he put another handful of coca leaves in his cheek. Chewing them throughout the day staved off hunger and helped him breathe. Almost everyone he knew did this.

When the basket was full, he brought it to the base of the elevator. He climbed back up the 20 m tall shaft to reach the motor and then lowered the rope to his brothers below. After they attached the bucket, he turned on the motor and the homemade pulley system slowly brought the basket up. Its contents were poured into a large cart set on metal rails.

They continued this routine for another hour until the cart was full of their etched-out rocks. David was glad that their family had an elevator and a rail system. Some families weren’t as fortunate and had to carry all the rocks out of the mine on their backs. Together the three of them pushed the full cart along the mine’s tracks until they reached the main rails. Most of the individual mines connect to the main tracks. It’s a busy place with carts continuously coming and going, filled with the hope of having a large collection of silver.

David and his brothers pushed the cart outside and emptied it into their collection area. This was the first cart of the day; they hoped to have at least 5 more before the day’s end. Once they had filled 24 carts, they would get paid by the mine cooperative. The more, high quality minerals in their pile, the more money they’d make.

On Sundays David didn’t work. Often on these days he liked to explore the city of Potosi and imagine how it looked to his relatives from generations ago. At 4,090 m (13,400 ft), Potosi is the highest city in world with over 10,000 residents. Being this high means that it is quite cold. The sun in the day is strong, but in the shade and at night, the temperature plummets. After spending his days in the hot mine, the cool air was refreshing.

Almost all of the downtown streets are lined with colonial buildings that lead to the main plaza. He especially liked the whitewashed ones with small second story balconies looking out onto the street. Unfortunately, David thought, the buildings he knows today are a little worse for wear. Money stopped coming into this city a long time ago, but the remnants of the buildings let him imagine how it once looked.

David walked by Plaza 10 de Noviembre (November 10th Square). The plaza was named for an important day in Bolivian history, the date that Potosi first began its uprising against the Spanish. The Plaza has a few important residents. On one side is the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. It is a grand looking stone building with two tall bell towers. Many of the residents of the city including David are catholic, but also follow their indigenous Quechua or Aymara beliefs. He had been inside the cathedral many times and the grandeur of it made him feel small in comparison.

He admired the other colonial buildings in the square before stopping outside the National Mint of Bolivia. It printed its first silver coin in 1572.

A short walk brought David to Plaza 6 de Agosto (August 6th Square) which commemorates Bolivia’s Independence Day. In the centre of the plaza a tall obelisk is surrounded by white arches. He loved coming here in the late afternoon when the low sun made these arches come alive.

He always loved the detailed stonework on the front of the Theatre. Its position on the side of the square means it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

From the square, there is a direct view to the reason this city had so much wealth. Cerro Rico, where David spends almost every day, stands high above town.

David climbed the steps to the top of the nearby Torre de la Campagna de Jesus where he had a better view of the city and the mountain. From this vantage point he could see how the mines are slowly eating away at Cerro Rico. With all of the mining done year after year and all of the rock that is removed, David heard that the mountain is collapsing 1 meter a year.

The last thing he did each day before returning home was walk by one of the many colonial churches in the city. There were enough in Potosi that he could walk by a different one everyday for a couple of weeks.

Note: It was a real eye opener to see one of these mines in person. It is a dangerous place to work and the miners only receive a meagre pay. We probably shouldn’t even have been down there as it was not at all safe. Seeing a mine in an underdeveloped country should give us pause when we order that new electronic device that needs silver, copper or other metals. Do we need someone to risk their life for us to have a luxury item?

Coming Next – The World’s Largest Salt Flats in Uyuni

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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