Midway on my journey through Bolivia, I find myself within a world I thought only known in literature. Here the wind chills to the bone; the boiling smell of sulphur slaps the senses. The winding tunnels barely seem big enough to house the millions of souls that inhabit this mountain. These aren’t the spectres of Romans, Greeks, Florentines and myths ― no, this inferno is haunted by the restless spirits of native and African slaves. Not in Hell for any wrong doing, but for being forced to work in these terrifying conditions, which have barely changed since the first miner entered over 400 years ago.
Potosi was once the richest city on earth, boasting a larger population than London or Paris and importing goods from everywhere in the known world. All this is due to Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) a once great mountain that towers, a little less than it did 500 years ago, above the city. At 4,000 metres above sea level, and far from any other civilisation, it is still a marvel to walk around this city and admire the work of Spanish craftsmen who endorsed it with elegant palaces and superfluous archways.
But there is a sadness here. As the darkness envelops me, this becomes painfully clear. The narrow entrance is not high enough for me to stand up straight, in fact most of the time I am bent double. Luckily, Bolivians tend to be short (otherwise their list of ailments would be somewhat longer). Lights shine, weak against the air ― weighed down by dust, rock, sulphur and gunpowder. Indistinct noises emanate from the dark while volatile aromas leap down my throat. A clanging and tinkling can be heard as mining carts rattle and spill, their tracks snaking through this ever shifting mountain. A bang: dynamite blows four levels below. Did they find the vein? More explosions shake the fragile caverns; they must have a lead.
We offer up coca leaves and unbranded ninety-percent alcohol to El Tio, guardian of the mine. His effigy sits in a blocked shaft, sardonically grinning, for he is the richest man inside the mountain. The back breaking labour and medieval conditions make me hyperconscious of the void that separates this culture from my own. But the strangest and most inspiring scion of this world is faith. Although the silver has more or less gone, it is incredible to know that these people still perform this most awful of jobs ― possibly, because they had no other choice ― but always spurred on by the dream: that one day they will find a shimmering lump of freedom.