The Fallen Guard Angel

(Visiting the mine of the Cerro Rico de Potosi – 22/05/2018)

The history of Spain, Europe, Bolivia and South America cannot be understood without the inclusion of the Cerro Rico of Potosi.

The Cerro Rico of Potosi has been the biggest silver mine on earth. The mountain reaches almost 5000m above sea level and its presence dominates the views of the city. There is some kind of majestic shape to it, the profile of the mountain looks like a protective presence over the city.

This triangular mountain shape represents the nurturing essence of the Pachamama (the mother nature for andeans). The presence of this shape is so powerful that got featured in the local religious art. ‘La virgen del Cerro’ is one of the most important paint we can find at the Museo Casa de la Moneda, in Potosi, and one of the peaks of andean painting school.

Despite the magnificent and protective shape the mountain projects, the reality is that the Cerro is a soul eating mountain. Since the discovery of silver in 1545, it is said that 8 million people died inside.

The silver mine was feeding the greed of the Spanish empire (and proto-capitalist Europe) during XVI and XVII century. One would be inclined to think that with the independence of Bolivia, dignity would get in place. But the history of the mine and its working conditions have not much improved since. Greed is a timeless and global condition.

So, once in Potosi, I decided to visit the mine myself and see it with my own eyes.

At the hostel they offered me the tour for 120 bolivianos, but you can find it cheaper (specially if you speak Spanish) in the local agents across the city. I ended up paying 80.

The money paid for the tour does not go to the miners (only 5 bolivianos) so that’s why you need to buy presents to the miners and bring them to the visit.

Once inside I could not stop feeling the strong energy of the place. Entering the mine is an act of courage. The mine is like a jungle of tunnels and dangers. And no one knows who’s inside so you are at the mercy of the elements and people around you. That is why you will require good luck and protection.

El Cerro has been perforated viciously since mining started, like a Gruyere cheese and some fear one day it will collapse.

Local miners seek the protection of “El Tio”. Located at the entrance of the tunnel, El Tio is a representation of a devil that trades with the Pachamama. In order to bring protection, El Tio demands presents and sacrifices. Presents in the shape of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves are offered to him every time someone enters the mine.

But El Tio requires more presents and some blood. You can see around the figure red stains: these are the blood of sacrificed llamas during the rituals held during the celebration of Pachamama festivals (May and November). The blood of cute llamas is traded for protection and luck.

However, it seems that the deals that El Tio trades might require higher costs. Rumor has it that human phoetus from abortions are brought to El Cerro to be presented to him. And legends and stories circulating around in the city talk about kids been brought into the mine as they were given toys and sweets, just to be left alone inside to get lost and die to satiate the appetite of the mountain.

I was not aware of these rumors while visited the mine, so my brain was just dealing with the darkness and claustrophobia.

Entering the mine is a challenge. The tunnels are tiny and dark. No signaling, some of the beams propping the tunnels are broken, descending or ascending levels are made in the Indiana Jones way… and all of that several meters underneath a mountain at 4200m high. Breathing isn’t easy and coca leaves are your best help.

Once inside you can see real miners working and realize how tough this job is. Life expectancy for these miners, if nothing happens, is around 50. We exchanged presents and drank with them before we decided we saw enough and kindly suggested to our guide that it was time to see the sun.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience but certainly it was one of the most impacting experiences in this trip. Glad I did but I would not come back inside again.

And despite the pain trapped in the mountain, I still find fascinating its shape and presence over the city.