John Malathronas shares some explosives with the miners of Potosí



It's impossible to walk around Potosí and not be overawed by Cerro Rico, a mountain top overlooking the east side of the city and the reason for its existence: it contained the richest seams of silver found anywhere in the world. It financed European wars, made the Habsburgs the greatest royal family in Europe and transformed Spain from a top military power to a smug realm of settled wealth.


I had to go inside.


I met Gerónimo next morning. He was 24 and had been a Potosí miner for two years, but he hated it; it dawned on him to use his friendship with his ex-colleagues  to offer alternative tours inside the Potosí mines. Bright guy.


We walked to the bottom of Cerro Rico, where we bought gifts for the miners: alcohol – at 95% pure, more like rocket fuel – coca leaves, coca cigarettes and sticks of dynamite. We also changed into protective gear in a house belonging to one of Gerónimo’s friends: helmet, reflective jacket, galoshes and a primitive light that worked like an acetylene torch.


“Do you want to chew coca leaves too?” asked Gerónimo .


“Of course, I do. And drink this surgical spirit. And smoke the cigarettes”, I replied.


Well, I had to chew the coca leaves. How else could I climb vertically the two-hundred or so metres to the entrance of the mine at that altitude without as much as a whimper?


We entered the tunnels, and walked for hours, greeting miners, dodging railcars, avoiding vertical shafts and getting increasingly hot due to the lack of ventilation. Blunt, faraway explosions occasionally shook the walls. We eventually reached a makeshift shrine. It was dominated by a two-foot clay idol – surely the Devil, though the miners call him 'Uncle'. He had two horns, a beard, wide eyes and hands onto which we put a lit cigarette. Coca leaves were strewn around, while bottles of alcohol were stacked as offerings.


We sat down for some time to smoke a couple of coca cigarettes and drink that horrible hooch in semi-darkness.


In the last four centuries Cerro Rico has lost 300 meters off its height and has been the tomb of eight million people who died working as slave labour in its interior. Makes the killing fields of Cambodia sound like Kensington Gardens.


“Do you want to start an explosion ?” Gerónimo broke the silence. “We have a three-minute fuse. You can run quite far in three minutes”.




I gave my dynamite sticks to Gerónimo’s cousin instead. He was working semi-naked down a 30ft-deep shaft and wanted a photo. My camera would not focus. Miners shone their torches at him. I took some kind of picture. Suddenly I heard a loud bang right next to me. I was the only one who jumped.


We reached the exit after another thirty minutes. The light was blinding. I’d been inside the mountain for three hours.


We hitched a ride on the back of a truck and passed old women sifting through the discarded mountain innards trying to pick up any silver-containing pebbles that had passed unnoticed. We reached the bottom, entered the house where we’d left our clothes and changed. There were two barrels of water in the yard: one dirty, one clean. I washed my hands in the clean barrel and then heard the Gerónimo’s voice from behind a partition.


“By the way, don't touch the rainwater; the people in the house use it for drinking”.




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