Inside the Cerro Rico Mine

I also talked about the oppressive atmosphere in the mine and our decision not to proceed deeper. The mine is said to have 400 levels, some of them reaching miles underground. There are no elevators, there is no piped-in air.

And then, the second camera started sputtering and showing signs of imminent death. We had been inside a few hours, clearly the cameras were even less resilient than we were. Not that that says much.

Al, who had brought along a heart rate monitor that he wore for much of our high-altitude assignment through Bolivia, confessed his heart was racing at an alarming rate, peaking at a staggering 176 beats per minute. I was worried it might explode. At 15,000 feet above sea level inside this airless, dusty mine, this was no small concern. I checked my own heart rate, it was just 110 bpm. But I was worried about Al.

We headed for the exit. Al grabbed shots as best he could as we slowly trudged up the muddy incline — gasping for air much of the way.

Deep in the darkness behind us, we heard a distant rumble. There was yelling.

"Careful, get off the tracks," said one of the guys.

As we stood at the entrance to a side tunnel, a faint light began to grow from the darkness below. So did the rumbling sound. Two men — one at each end — were pushing one of the small bucket cars, loaded with minerals, at an incredibly high speed along the tracks.

They rumbled by and disappeared up the hill.

We followed but there was no way we could keep up. Eventually, I spotted a shaft of daylight piercing the darkness. The tunnel opening. I could feel myself smiling inside. I could feel the tension escaping through that bright distant opening. I couldn't have run if I had wanted to. The ground was thick with mud, it took fierce concentration to place each step and move forward. But it didn't matter.

As we exited, my head was muddled. Roxanna and Al were dripping in sweat and suddenly chilled by the cool mountain air.

I thanked the guys who had taken us in. I gave them energy bars that I'd stuffed in my pockets just in case of an emergency. They devoured them.

"That wasn't even a quarter of what our life is like in there," said Luis Alberto, Julio Cesar's older brother.

I believed him. And I couldn't begin to imagine how he could do this every day. With the group out of earshot and the second camera now dead, he confessed he, too, was desperate to get out of the mine. He dreams of being a doctor, he told me. But at 23, he still is two courses short of his high school diploma. And his family needs the five or six dollars he makes each day to put food on the table.

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