Immediately south of Potosí the near-perfect cone of Cerro Rico (Sumaj Orko in Quechua) rises above the city, its slopes stained startling hues of red and yellow by centuries of mining waste, and pockmarked with the entrances to thousands of mines. For many travellers a visit to one of the mines is a highlight of their trip to Potosí, an amazing and disturbing journey into the bowels of the earth. No less fascinating are the customs, rituals and beliefs that sustain the Quechua-speaking miners.

Most of the miners are reworking old silver mines for tin, lead and other less valuable metals, so the entrances to the shafts tend to be lined with stone facing dating back to the colonial era. As you descend deeper, though, the passageways become narrower and less well made. The miners work in shift teams who divide the profits of what they extract on an equal basis, though some of those working in the mines – particularly the children – are paid a fixed daily wage as employees. The miners are generally proud of their work, and are usually happy to talk about their lives with visitors. Many of the miners previously worked in large state-run mines; others are campesinos who come to work in the mines for short periods on a seasonal basis. Few earn more than a marginal living, though the dream of striking lucky sustains many in their labour. Life expectancy in the mines is about fifteen years, with most miners falling victim to the deadly lung disease silicosis. Cave-ins and other accidents claim the lives of many others.

Few miners eat when they are underground, relying for sustenance instead on coca leaves, harsh black-tobacco cigarettes and the occasional swig of neat cane alcohol. Today, as in the colonial era, coca is considered an essential requirement without which work in the mines would be impossible. Miners spend a good hour chewing coca before entering the shaft to begin work, and all agree that it helps them endure the heat, exhaustion and backbreaking labour. Coca, tobacco and alcohol are also taken in as offerings to El Tío – the supernatural being who is believed to own the mine’s silver and other metals (see Cerro Rico).

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