Bolivia’s Deadliest Job

Cerro Rico is both the home and workplace to some of the boldest men in Bolivia. Casting a shadow over the town of Potosi, the Cerro Rico Mountain was discovered in 1545 to be rich in silver, zinc and tin transforming the city into one of the wealthiest in Bolivia. Today, the mine is still active and continues to be one of the most dangerous ways to make a buck in Bolivia.

Cerro Rico, full of brave Bolivian miners

At any given day, the mountain has over 10,000 miners hammering away at her insides. The youngest workers in the mine are just ten while the average life expectancy is between 45 and 55. For many miners, their careers in Cerro Rico only last 10-15 years but for the few who make a lifelong career, pension pays out for miners once they turn 55 years old.

Bolivian miners will go a 12 hour shift without eating and only chew coca leaves for energy

The mine is run as a cooperative and owned by the miners. In order for a miner to buy into the cooperative, he has to have five years of mining experience and pay US$1000, which is a small fortune for most Bolivians considering the average salary each month is less than US$100. Each day, miners are expected to haul 60 tonnes of rock out of the mountain. That translates into about 12 hour shifts in the mines. Yet, when a mineral vein is discovered, the pressure is on and most miners will work 24 hours without leaving the mine.

Our team ready for action

Entering the mines of Cerro Rico

Crawling through the mine is an experience like none other – the temperature jumps from just above freezing to 30 degrees Celsius, the air is thick with dust yet you struggle with every breath and at certain times the path becomes so narrow you are forced to crawl on your hands and knees. According to our tour guide Diego, on average 30 – 40 miners die a year. Whether because of a cave in, dynamite explosion or leaking toxic gas, everyday of work in the mines is a gamble with your life.

Crawling through the caves requires a lot of finesse

Will and Dev catching their breath in the mines

One miner we met, Don Martin, first started in the mines at age 11. Now at 38, he has over 27 years experience working with dynamite and a hammer and chisel to chip away at the rock walls. Four years ago, Don Martin was able to save enough money so he could buy into the cooperative. Today he owns just over 30 meters of rock gallery – a narrow passage way just large enough to crawl into and mine for minerals.

Leah and Diego watching Don Martin chisel away at the rock face

Entering the mine is like entering a new world, a world where superstition reigns supreme. When miners are outside the mine they pay homage to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Every June, llamas are sacrificed to Mother Earth – their blood is spilt so that the miners’ lives will be spared.

The blood of llama is splattered on the buildings outside the mine as an offering to Pachamama

Once you enter the mine, a whole different power is worshipped and revered – the devil.

In the mines, the devil is known as “Tio” (Spanish for uncle) and is feared, worshipped, praised, paid homage to and is a constant companion for all the men toiling away at the rock. Even before entering the mine, respect is paid to Tio – a sip of Bolivian whiskey (96 proof) is poured on the ground for Tio and a sip is taken by the miner entering the mountain.

"A splash for Tio and a for me" - An offering of Bolivian Whiskey is made to the Devil before entering the mines

Life in Cerro Rico is difficult and often short. The day to day struggle just to discover a rich patch of minerals keeps the miners focused and working. But the sense of pride each man takes in his work is what makes Bolivia’s most dangerous job something to admire. With each day comes new opportunity for the miners at Cerro Rico, an important lesson for anyone tired of their air-conditioned cubicle.

Our team, the Llama F*ckers and our team leader, Diego

Gill and Leah showing Diego some love for bringing them home alive