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Cerro Rico Silver Mines of Potosi, Bolivia
Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) is mountain that rises over the city of Potosi, Bolivia. This massive, cone-shaped mountain stands at 5,183 meters (17,049 ft.). It was once the world's largest silver mine in the colonial times and the mines of Potosi in Cerro Rico made the city of Potosi a large and wealthy city in those times.
Most people come to Potosi for the incredible experience of touring the silver mines of Potosi in the infamous Cerro Rico. The conditions in the mines are rough and the mines are uncomfortable, hot, claustrophobic, dusty and dangerous. Where tunnels are narrow and steep and you have to navigate through a series of tunnels and shafts at different levels.
Most tours begin with a visit to the miner's market where the tour guide suggest that you purchase some gifts for the miners for letting you come through the minds. Gifts such as, bags of coca leaves, a few sticks of dynamite or some bottles of soda.
In the mines of Potosi you will see poor local miners hard at work in appalling conditions, using old techniques and see some dynamite explosions. You'll also meet El Tio, the statue of the underworld god.
The discovery of silver dates back to the Inca era and according to Inca legend, the Incas were about to extract silver from Cerro Rico, when the Incas heard a loud supernatural voice that warned them away from this mountain. The supernatural voice said the gods were saving the silver for others who would come from afar.
Then around 1544 silver was apparently rediscovered by a llama herder named Diego Huallpa. It is believed he was in search of a stray llama and the sun had set and so he decided to set up a fire on the slopes of Cerro Rico to keep himself warm. As the fire grew hot, he noticed a shiny trickle oozing from the ground beneath the fire and realized it was silver.
News of the discovery soon reached the Spaniards and the silver rush was on its way. For the following few centuries, the silver mines of Potosi almost single-handedly funded the expansion of the Spanish empire for close to 200 years.
Cerro Rico became the richest source of silver in the world during its prime. The silver extracted from this mountain turned Potosi into one of the wealthiest and largest cities in the world and in the early seventeenths century it was home to close to 200,000 people, which was about equal in size to London or Paris at that time.
However, this wealth was achieved at the expense of millions of indigenous people and African slaves who were forced to labor inside the mines of Cerro Rico and died working the Potosi silver mines of Cerro Rico.
The working conditions of the mines were horrible and many perished from accidents, silicosis and from working with dangerous materials, such as mercury, in the smelting mills. Its been estimated that from 1545 to 1825 as many as eight million Africans and indigenous Bolivians died from the appalling conditions of the mine.
It was said that you could build a bridge stretching from Potosi to Spain with silver from the mountain of Cerro Rico and could build two bridges there and back of the bones from people who have died working the Potosi silver mines.
Today, the once great city of Potosi has dwindled down in population and even though Cerro Rico has passed it prime, there are still around 500 functioning mines operating in the area. Most of the remaining mines are "cooperative", meaning that they are run by the miners. Although most of the sliver was extracted centuries ago, some silver is still found but most of their profits come from zinc, tin, lead and other metals found.
Though mine conditions have only slightly improved since the colonial days, they are still appalling where you can find young boys as young as 12 years old working the mines. There is so much toxic dust inside the Cerro Rico mines that they say that a boy will have lung disease by his late 20s, will be too sick to work by his late 30s, and will die in his 40s. While making just a few dollars a day for this type of dangerous work.