Inside the Cerro Rico Mine

We were up before the sun, bumping through the empty streets of Potosi, which seemed much bleaker without people in them. Looming over us and the city: the scarred pink hulk of the fabled Cerro Rico, or "Rich Mountain," the source of Potosi's silver.

Julio Cesar, the 15-year-old boy who would take us into the mine, lives with his family on the top floor of a very simple two-story building on the edge of the poorest section of Potosi. The walls of the house are made of large red clay bricks, like cinder block. There are three or four rooms for the family on the top floor, each with three or four beds. Everything speaks of poverty.

When we arrived, the family was in a hurry to get to the mines and get to work. Julio Cesar's mother, Doña Alejandra, makes a few extra Bolivianos — the local currency — selling prepared lunches to miners early in the morning, and she was concerned that she would be too late to make any sales. Julio Cesar, his 23-year-old brother, and his mother walked down the steep dusty hill, past stray dogs and withered plants, to a paved road two blocks away. There they'd catch a "micro" (a taxi-van) to the Miner's Market.

Tiny shops selling or renting gear lined the streets at the Miner's Market. The pavement ended, and the bus we were following strained up the steep dirt track. Somewhere along the journey, Alejandra disappeared and headed to her destination. We were now at more than 15,000 feet above sea level. I joined the boys as they walked up the rocky red hillside to a mine entrance a few hundred yards above. Around us was a bleak, lifeless landscape.

We headed for a cluster of broken buildings on a sloping man-made plateau. Despite the rush, we were among the first to arrive. It was barely 8 a.m. To our left, was the mine entrance. A rickety narrow-gauge railway, lined with small cars for hauling rocks, led to a locked grate and into the darkness of the mountain's insides. I took several deep breaths, not just because of the strain of the altitude, but because I was dwelling too long on what lay ahead for us inside that dark tunnel.

Gradually, more and more miners began to arrive: each one of them carrying a clear green-colored plastic bag. Coca leaves. They sat together and talked or stared into the distance as their morning ritual began: They put a leaf between their teeth and pulled off the green, tossing away the spine and the stem. They repeated this constantly for more than an hour until each one had a bulge the size of a golf ball inside his cheek. The coca leaf, I learned, is indispensable for miners here. It does three things: suppresses hunger, suppresses fear, and gives the miners increased stamina to endure a long, hard day in the hellish insides of the mountain.

I interviewed Julio Cesar outside the mine entrance. He told me how much he feared the mine, how much he loathed going inside each day, how much he hated the work. But he also told me his family needed the money he earned. With his father — too ill from miner's lung disease to go inside — the three sons were left to support the family. Julio Cesar is still a boy, so he doesn't even get the meager wage men get here. Depending on his productivity, he might earn 30 or 40 Bolivianos each day. After expenses, he's left with 15 to 25 Bolivianos. Two or three dollars. That's all.

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