Cerro Rico is the hill which has made Potosi the city that it is, as it was here that silver ore was first discovered in 1545. The veins were so loaded that the mines quickly became the world´s most prolific and Potosi grew into Latin Americañs largest and wealthiest city. Millions of labourers were conscripted to work the mines. Conditions were, and remain, appalling, with as many as 8 million workers dying in he mine during the last 3 centuries
. During the 9th century silver production began to wane, nowadays a renewed demand for lead and zinc keeps the Unesco World Heritage city alive.
Most people that visit Potosi do so with the intention of going on a mine tour which can last between 1 and 5 hours. However, we decided against it as we were advised by a reliable source that child labour still exists in the mine. It was a shame but we couldn't ignore it.
As luck would have it we seemed to arrive, just by chance, on the most special day of the year for the miners. The 3rd of June was offered to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) for the riches which she has given to the people. It was a day off of sorts for the miners, a chance for them to get drunk and offer some blood back to Mother Earth.
We asked a taxi driver to bring us up the mountain so that we could join in the party with the miners. On the way up we stopped off to buy them some gifts. Miners don't really appreciate a packet of chewing gum or a bag of wotsits so we opted for the bottle of 96% alcohol/meths, 3 sticks of dynamite (with fuses) and a bag of coca leaves.
Coca leaves hold a huge value at the mines as in most places of high altitude in South America
. The miners chew them constantly as they work extremely long hours. The low levels of alkaloid help to suppress the miner´s appetites meaning they need less food breaks. Surprising coca leaves have an extremely high nutritional value, and clock up more fibre in a serving than found in vegetables. It is said that working in the mines would be impossible without the coca leave. Its place in Bolivian and general Andean society is held with the upmost respect. It has been chewed here for over 4,000 years and only since the chemistry that the western world has introduced over the last 100 years to extract and condense the alkaloids to form cocaine has it incurred such a bad reputation. The USA´s dependence on the drug has created a massive campaign to destroy the coca plantations and to have its growth deemed illegal. Bolivia, however, has rejected such pressure as the place of the coca leaf in today´s society and in its history is still of great importance, besides which it doesnt actually have a social problem with cocaine consumption. Instead they have focused resources on tackling the production of the drug, allowing farmers to continue growing it and the continuation of the leaf´s role in society and of course profits of Coca Cola in which it is still used today.
Our miner friends welcomed the gifts and invited us to join them for a shot of meths. It would be rude to say no, so we plunked ourselves in the middle of them and made friends
. They gave us a small handful of coca leaves and a cup of meths and a beer which always helps as an icebreaker. Before indulging in our 96% cup of hell we were told to offer Pacha Mama a splash first, which we did, before sinking our hangover specials. After gagging for air our cups were quickly refilled and we settled ourselves for a long day. We took some photos, spoke some broken Spanish and made friends with 2 llamas that had been hanging around. We quickly realised that the llamas weren't really part of the scene up here at the mine and that it was their blood that was to be offered back to Pacha Mama when a miner drew his finger across his throat as Máiread had a photo taken with the soon to be dinner. Half and hour later dinner time had arrived. The 2 llamas were lead/dragged to the entrance of the mine. A ritual of sorts was preformed as the miners shoved coca leaves and cigarettes in the llamas mouth whilst others poured alcohol over their heads. We watched and waited anxiously to see if the dynamite would make an appearance! Thankfully it didn't, but it wasn't long before 2 blunt knives came on the scene and a few frenzied moments later the miners were fighting amongst themselves to get their bowls under the llama´s throat so that they could throw some of its blood over their huts and in turn keep them in Pacha Mama´s good books. 10 minutes later it was over and the llamas were carried indoors to have the guts removed and chucked down the mine before preparing for dins. We looked at each other somewhat pale faced and knocked back a shot of meths to steady ourselves.
The scene afterwards was pretty messy. The place was covered in blood along with everyone that had participated including the kids but nobody seemed to care....just another 3rd of June for them I suppose. We had another beer with the lads as the llama cooked behind us but as darkness fell and the miners became less steady on their feet we thought we had better hit the road before someone else was offered to Pacha Mama.....
At 10am we caught a local bus to the city of Potosi. The 6 hour journey was pretty tough going as it was severely overcrowded but at only 1 pound each we couldn't really complain. When we arrived we got ourselves a half decent room and tried to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude. Potosi is the highest city in the world at an altitude of 4070m and theres no getting away from it when you´re labouring up the streets while freezing at nights...in the middle of summer.