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Inside Cerro Rico

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The mine tour in the Cerro Rico de Potosí is not to be missed if you can handle the physical demands and the tight spaces involved.  I’ll provide more details later, together with my recommendation for a tour guide, but for now, just a few reflections about the tour and the mountain, itself.

Legend has it that the name Potosí comes from the Aymara word for “thunder”. The story depicted in the famed anonymous painting of the Virgin Mary as the Cerro Rico has the Inca Emperor at the mountain. According to legend, when the Emperor’s servants attempted to extract the silver which lay native on the mountain a loud clap of thunder scared them off.

The same painting also depicts the discovery of the silver by the Spanish, who were apparently luckier. Out chasing run away llamas, the Spaniards lit a campfire, only to find rivulets of silver running from it.

Whatever the truth of the discovery of the riches of the Cerro, it is clear that they brought greater luck to the Spanish than they ever have to most locals. The Spanish extracted huge quantities of silver from the mountain, financing their empire for more than two centuries. In contrast, some xxx indigenous slaves died in the hard labor of the mines, wielding picks, shovels and later, black powder. And by the time of independence, the highest grade ore was gone.

But the mine, now mines, as there are 420 today, continue to operate. When the Bolivian government shut them down with the fall in tin prices (besides silver, Cerro Rico has been an abundant source of tin, zinc and lead), the miners reopened the mountain reorganized into cooperatives.

Today, the cooperatives rule the mountain, literally. The 420 mine entrances are each controlled by a cooperative. That said, the very real power of the cooperatives should not lead anyone to believe that the mining is done on anything resembling a cooperative basis.

The cooperative members operate much like small business owners. They make the decisions about the operation of their portions of the mine, hire, supervise and pay their employees, and, perhaps most importantly, shoulder all the economic risk.

Most cooperative members have two decades or more experience in the Cerro. They decide where to drill and blast in their areas, and when all the operating costs and salaries are paid, they take home any remaining earnings.

Usually, a member, otherwise known as a first class miner, will hire a second class miner to drill and blast and a number of third class miners to do the manual labor of transporting the ore out of the mine. Salaries change over time mostly in response to changes in the prices of the metals (and thus the ores) being produced. As of July, 2013, the daily rate for a third class miner had fallen to Bs100 (US15) from Bs150 six months earlier.

The work and the conditions of work probably have the greatest impact on visitors.

Tours : options

Religion : el tío vs Catholicism – Pachamama

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