Mining With The Miners

(this is a repost: in the wake of last week's dramatic rescue of 33 miners in Chile and the tragic mining accidents that occurred shortly thereafter in China and Ecuador, I'm sharing here an entry from my trip to Bolivia almost 3 years ago to show the constant perils miners are subjected to while at work)
Here's our shopping list this afternoon: coca leaves, 96% "alcohol potable", hand-rolled cigarettes, biscuits, dynamite. Dynamite??? Yes, it's only in Bolivia where tourists can buy dynamites but don't even think we're bringing the stuff back with us as souvenirs. These are to be used at the mines beneath Cerro Rico, that mountain towering like a pyramid over downtown Potosi where our group is going into. Potosi already sits at a dizzying altitude of 4,090 meters above sea level so you can imagine what we're dealing with: going midway up the mountain in this thin air and into its bowels for about two hours of mining adventure with actual miners!


What we're buying at the miner's street market is actually our gifts for the miners themselves. A bag of the goodies, including dynamite and sodium nitrate, cost 25 Bolivianos. A bottle of Ceibo "alcohol potable" cost an additional 15 Bolivianos. I won't be surprised if Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen will find Potosi to be their Garden of Explosive Eden. I held my dynamite stick with such care knowing our van, 11 of us carrying 11 dynamites in all, can be one hell of a mushroom cloud if something catastrophic happens.



We put on our protective miner's suit, boots and helmets at the downtown office that conducts the mine's tours. As soon as we arrived at the mine's entrance, headlamps were handed to each of us with the 24-hour battery pack secured at our backs. They're our only source of light as everything else in front of us would be otherwise dark. With our bags of gifts, we entered the main tunnel and met a miner pushing a wheelbarrow full of ore ready for extraction outside. Our guide, a local woman, immediately asks one bag to be given to this man. The air was noticeably stale and dusty. Blasting with dynamite was ongoing as we heard muted explosions coming from caverns deep below us.

Deeper into the tunnel we went down, walking on a very uneven floor then clambering up and down shafts while dusts whirled all around us. Further down, we encountered an altar dedicated to El Tio, the so-called god of the underworld. El Tio doesn't look like the regular saint on an altar - more like a scarecrow. Miners offer El Tio cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves, hoping that this shrine amongst the rubble and dust would offer the miners safety and best of all, an abundant ore for extraction. These days, zinc is the most profitable mineral being extracted as silver is almost depleted.

Back in 1546 during the time of Spanish colonization, Potosi became a mining town after large deposits of silver were found within Cerro Rico. In no time, Potosi enjoyed the distinction of being a fabulously wealthy town, becoming a major supplier of silver for the Spanish Crown. But with its fortune came inequity: thousands of native Indian laborers were put to work in very primitive and dangerous conditions that a lot of them ended up dying. Threatened with less workers, the Spaniards turned to African slaves, shipping by the thousands. Again, they were put in the same deadly working environment all in the name of silver.

Our guide asks for a dynamite which was given to one of the miners. A hole has been burrowed on some potential area, ready for some blasting. With the fuse attached and ignited, Tom bravely volunteers to place the stick and we all huddled in the safety of another chamber nearby. In just a few seconds - booom! - the whole place shook with explosion as a blast of air and dust whirred all around us. That was a very unnerving experience really. I got worried at that point that an exploding dynamite might cause a cave-in!



Miners as young as 12 years old toil around the many interconnected shafts. Conditions, just like the Spanish times, remain very crude that they are constantly exposed to a myriad of dangers: cave-ins, tuberculosis and silicosis. One man I met is all covered up with dust and grime, looking like a middle-aged laborer only to be told he's 18 years old! I wonder how long he's got to live? If not for the coca leaves they chew which numbs them from hunger and thirst and gives them that much needed stamina, they wouldn't even survive a day here. Working in these conditions is the pay-off for what miners think make them earn more than the average male Boliviano.


As we clambered up a very narrow shaft, supported by all four extremities, I thought nothing about Cerro Rico as "Rich Mountain" but rather as "Death Mountain". Cerro Muerte, why not? With all those who died in the mines since the Spanish times up till now, lives are really being lost faster than the rate at which any ore is being harvested.


  1. Anonymous3:48:00 AM

    i believe everything has risks but
    mining is definitely on top of my list of life-threatening jobs.

    you're a daredevil to go through all those pits.

  2. Child labor? Chewing leaves to numb them from hunger and thirst? Ohno, this practice still exist. Death mountain undeniably. What a sad fact. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Love the first photo.

  3. bilib ako sayo---nakapunta ka narin pala sa Bolovia.and it's true, miners are one of the most oppressed workers in the world, because they work in such poor conditions without the world knowing coz they are deep under the earth as if digging their burials. the accident in Chile opened the eyes of the world---and I hope, that's something that should never be forgotten. ngapala, if you buy that dynamite thing and you cant even pack it in your suitcase when you leave, what do you do with it then? hahaha

  4. Docgelo,
    will I do it again? NOT in that mine Doc! it was quite scary.

    it's sad that there's no regulation on child labor in Bolivia's dangerous mines. shocking but true.

    Pusang kalye,
    Bolivia is South America's poorest country yet it also is one of those beauties with a rugged charm - I'd like to go back there someday kasi di ko nagawa ang mag-bike along "The World's Most Dangerous Highway". Yung dynamite naman, for sure iiwan ko na lang sa mga minero - sa airport pa lang huli na ako. lol!

  5. astig! i also want mining sites. im looking forward to visiting the one in baguio.

  6. Nice pare,kakaibang experience yan. Sa Baguio meron din mining site na ginawang tourist spot... di ba dong ho?

  7. this is so much fun. i visited a gold mine here in cali but aside from strapping the helmet, it was nothing but a touristy tour, nothing like getting your hands dirty.

  8. damn i am not sure if i would dare to visit the mining side or they have such tour after that incident in chile and ecuador... anyway i planned to visit boliva end of the year =p

  9. You will not see me inside a mine... besides I am claustrophobic!

    Did you found your pot of gold? ;-)

  10. Dong,
    Yan ba yung sa Itogon? I remember going there as a student but we only observed the process of gold extraction and then planted trees up the hill. pang-estudyante talaga.

    Kakaiba pero kinabahan. hehehe.

    Photo Cache,
    It was fun in the company of others but I felt jittery thinking about cave-ins as it has happened there many times!

    Ha! I dare you to do it, that is, if they still do offer the mine tours.

    In a way, I found my "gold" through experiencing how difficult and dangerous a miner's job can be.

  11. What a great and I bet an unforgetable experience too! The hole looks so narrow on photo 8... oh, boy~~ What a great post in sharing what we usually don't see underground. Indeed I take my hat off to those miners.

  12. Was the mine safety officer on vacation when you guys were visiting? We had an extended field trip to the mines in Baguio and Lepanto when I was a freshman mining engineering student and it made me change my career goal LOL.

  13. Bigla naman ako natakot sa post mo kasi weeks ago, ang balita eh yung tungkol sa mga miners sa Chile.

    Ang tapang mo! So nakita mo ba ang pot of gold? Ahihihi! :D

  14. nice! adventure...hope i can do the same...

  15. Micki,
    there were plenty of those narrow tunnels deeper in the mines which were so claustrophobic for me.

    safety officer? hahaha! cerro rico doesn't seem to have heard of it. it's like to each of his own down there.

    wala naman talagang gold doon. dati maraming silver. zinc naman ngayon.

    baka may mines dyan sa lugar mo. do it at least once.

  16. You're so brave! In one of my previous jobs, the riskiest I did was when we did the inventory of coals, cement and other elements that we had to go down almost like that but not that deep. Afterwhich we went up the silos (almost 10 floors) naman for the materials being mixed to be sold as cement. I can still feel the harness and boots until now.


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