As an essential stop on the Bolivian backpacker trail, a trip down the notorious Cerro Rico mine is as humbling as it is insightful. Once the primary source of income of the marauding Spanish New World Empire, the scarce minerals that remain are tirelessly chipped away by some of the world’s most underprivileged workers. From horrifying historical facts to essential logistical info, here are 10 things you need to know before delving deep into the mines.
The Incas found it first
Long before the arrival of the Spanish, the Incas discovered Cerro Rico‘s potential and forced the local indigenous inhabitants to work underground in a system of slavery known as mit’a.
The mine is prophetic
The Incas were planning on increasing mining capacity to fund their colonial efforts until a booming cry from below relayed a harrowing premonition. According to legend, a voice sprang forth from the depths demanding the Incas abandon the mine because the silver was intended for “others,” presumably the Spanish who would arrive sometime later. Consequently, their nearby settlement was named Ptojsi, after the Quechua word for “spring forth.”
It was once the world’s biggest industrial complex
During its heyday in the 17th century, up to 60% of the Earth’s silver was mined from Cerro Rico. Such was the abundance that the streets were said to be paved with silver and the expression “Vale un Potosi” (to be worth a Potosi) came about, which is still in use today.
Millions have perished underground
The book Las venas abiertas de América Latina (The Open Veins of Latin America), by renowned Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, states that up to 6 million slaves died while working the mines during colonial times.
It’s terrifyingly cramped
Travelers who suffer from claustrophobia should reconsider because the tours require spending several hours in dark and narrow tunnels with no natural light. Claustrophobia aside, travelers report feeling deeply saddened upon witnessing the horrifying working conditions these valiant miners must face every day.
The miners are still dying at an alarming rate
Although conditions are undoubtedly better than under Spanish rule, they remain far from ideal. On average, 14 miners die each month, mostly from a lung condition called scoliosis which is contracted from inhaling deadly dust particles. The average life expectancy of a Cerro Rico miner is just 40.
Gifts are welcomed
Before entering into the mines, tourists are taken to a miner’s market where they can purchase dynamite, coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to give to the miners.
It spawned some of Bolivia’s colorful folkloric dance
Tinku, a dance which represents fighting, is said to have originated from bored slaves who would spar each other to pass the time. Likewise, the black masks and the bell-clad boots of Morenada symbolize African slaves who were forced to drag around a ball and chain.
The locals want visitors
Some travelers may feel reluctant to indulge in “poverty tourism”, a sector that has caused controversy throughout the favelas of Rio and the slums of Mumbai. Rest assured, however, that the workers appreciate the extra income, and many tours are led by former miners themselves. Koala Tours is a well-regarded outfit and charge a standard rate of 120 BOB (US$17).
Expect to run into the devil
To ensure safety in these horrid conditions, workers have created effigies of El Tio, a devil-like figure who safeguards the underworld. In order to keep him happy, miners visit daily with offerings of coca leaves, alcohol, and cigarettes.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.