Weighing in at 4,090m in elevation (≈13,500ft), the city of Potosi is debatably the highest city in the world and is shadowed by Cerro Potosi (also known as Cerro Rico, “Rich Mountain”) whose peak reaches over 4,824m. Over 140,000 people currently live in the thin air of this mining town, which was founded back 1545 when the Spanish forced the local people (and later slaves from Africa) to extract the vast quantities of silver buried deep in the mountain. During the period of the New World Spanish Empire (the peak of production) Potosi had a population of over 200,000 people thus becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas, and even the world. Legend in the town holds that the Spanish extracted enough silver from Cerro Rico to build a bridge entirely made of silver from Potosi to Spain. Legend also holds that a second bridge could be built out of the bones from the many millions who had died. (The combination of the extreme labor conditions and the mercury poisoning that came from the silver refining process killed millions of workers.)
The mountain, which has since lost several hundred meters in elevation due to all the mining, was largely depleted of silver around the 1800’s and today is mostly mined for other minerals, though silver is still one of them. The mine is currently owned by the Bolivian government which takes 15% of all the profits.
Though government owned, the Potosi mine operates on an “eat what you kill” basis, where workers buy their own equipment, choose their own hours, and typically work in teams. There are no regulations on who can work in the mines though the miners themselves won’t allow women to work inside the mountain (they bring bad luck). The average wage in Potosi is around 1,000 BS (Bolivianos) per month, but most miners can make between 3,000 – 6,000 month depending upon their output and the number of hours they choose to work. Because of this, you can find miners as young as 12 years old working down in the depths. To say that all the miners “choose” to work down there would be a bit of stretch. For many, they have to work in the mines or their families will starve.
The mine itself still looks like it belongs in the 1800’s, with most of the tunnels being supported by old and often broken wooden beams, with no ventilation shafts to supply oxygen. Apart from pneumatic jack hammers (the only semi-advanced tools they have), the miners still use pick axes, shovels, and dynamite to loosening the rock, load it into steel carts, and manually push the one ton carts on steel tracks to the different levels. The levels of dust, asbestos, and other hazardous particulars floating in the air make it dangerous to eat, so the miners constantly have a thick wad of coca leaves stuffed in their cheeks to numb the pain and provide sustenance during the long work hours. When asked if what had happened in the Chilean mines had happened here, the guide (an ex-miner himself) replied “Everyone would be dead in 48 hours. Those mines are nothing like ours.”
The average life expectancy of a miner is 45-55 years of age.