Deep Inside a Bolivian Mine

What would life be like inside a Bolivian mine? Photojournalist Jason Lang (who you may remember from here) gives us a taste of a miner's life through his incredible photos and startling story. (This was originally for a story/photo pitch to National Geographic.)

The Cerro Rico Mountain Mine has been in operation since before the Spanish Colonial Period. It is said that eight million African and Indian slaves lost their lives in the mine. Today, the men work without modern technology or specialized equipment, a hammer and chisel are their primary tools and protective respiratory masks are completely non-existent.

“You are a monkey man,” Johnny said as he brushed his hand along my beard. “Bolivians have no hair like this, we are nice, like a baby.”

I just smiled and nodded. I hired him earlier in the day to take me through the infamous Cerro Rico mountain mine in the Bolivian city of Potosi. Johnny was in his mid-twenties but looked ten years older. He was short and stocky, with thick black hair and small mischievous black eyes. He brought me to a small store at the base of the mountain to buy the miners gifts. Helmets, gloves, boots and flashlights lined the shelves, but we were after something else – cocoa leaves and dynamite.

The gifts, Johnny said, were the only reason the miners tolerated the tours. I made the purchase, then watched in disbelief as Johnny put a stick of dynamite to his lips, pulled a lighter from his pocket and tried to ignite it, pretending to smoke it like a cigar. He yanked the dynamite from his mouth and threw it onto the floor. Laughing, he told me that the dynamite would only explode if it were combined with another compound, a detail he clearly enjoyed leaving out until after his demonstration.

I was a little worried, given Johnny's strange bravado and lack of professionalism. He was, after all, about to lead me through an actual working mine deep inside a mountain in a country not known for safety or regulations. However, backing out was not an option, I had heard too many stories about the mine and knew it would make for a once-in-a-lifetime photo op, so while questioning the sanity of it all I climbed into his old van and we drove up the mountain, eventually we stopped at one of the many open shafts. Before we entered, Johnny grabbed my arm, his permanent grin had vanished and he sternly said to be careful, that it was going to be very dangerous. That was the extent of his instructions, but it was all I needed. We headed in through a dilapidated entrance strewn with twisted metal and crumbling rock.

Once inside, Johnny walked with an expert stride while I clumsily tried to keep up. I was hunched over and dripping with sweat almost instantly. It was extremely hot and impossibly dark, the dim lights on our helmets only slightly illuminated the shaft. Everywhere I looked there were large holes in the ground, caved in dead ends and abandoned equipment. After five minutes of walking, we arrived at our first challenge, a steep rock slope twenty feet in length. We were going to slide down it and Johnny would show me how. He simply sat down, laid back and pushed off into the abyss. I heard him land with a loud thud, then he called up for me to follow. I sat down on the edge of the slope and looked down, but could see only blackness. I took a deep breath and told myself everything would be alright. I pushed off into the unknown; I slid fast and landed hard, right into a bed of rocks. We were now officially in the mine.

I could see lights and hear the blunt noise of the miners. Three men were moving rocks into a cart by hand while another man pounded his hammer and chisel into a large hole in the shaft wall. We greeted them humbly, without hesitation Johnny handed one of the men a bag with the cocoa leaves and dynamite. He told me that the men all came from families of miners, and that they would die from the mine – just like their fathers had. Johnny said the men had been working in the mine since they were little boys, and they were lucky to have such good jobs.

After a few minutes, I sensed we were wearing out our welcome when a heated argument erupted between two of the miners. Johnny flashed me a quick wink and a smile then he said goodbye to the men and we started out along the same tunnel. After a few hundred yards we arrived at an ominous looking ladder, which led down into another black hole. Johnny descended first and instantly disappeared. It was then that I realized just how alone I was, so I hurried down after him and nearly fell when I put my foot on a loose step. Getting through each obstacle while holding my camera was a challenge and again I started questioning the sanity of the tour. The air was thick, my heart had been racing since we entered the mine and with each breath I could feel the chemicals burn in my lungs. Johnny saw me struggling. “It's too hard for you? We end the tour now?” He asked with raised eyebrows and another small smile.

I said no and we carried on, eventually making our way to a small clearing where we sat and watched a group of men pushing carts full of the rocks along a track. It was eerily quiet, then without warning a loud explosion shuddered out from somewhere deep inside the mountain. I looked at Johnny.

“Dynamite,” he said.

I took another deep breath and silently assured myself everything would be okay.

Johnny stopped a man and gave him a bag of gifts. He introduced me to the worker and again told me how hard the men were, how they all came from families of miners and how they all knew they would die at an early age, almost certainly in their forties and almost always of siliceous pneumonia. Johnny pointed out the natural asbestos growing on the walls of the shaft. It was everywhere. I could see the poison particulates floating through the air. In that moment, I decided not to take any more deep breaths. Johnny laughed and slapped me on the back, then he said, “don't worry, you will like what is next”.

With his hands on my shoulders, he guided me to a small hole in the wall, slapped me on the back again and suggested we crawl through like a snake. The hole was narrow, my chest and stomach scratched against the rocks as we maneuvered through it.

Once on through the slight passage, we rested for a minute then navigated down a narrow corridor, where the shaft seemed to come to an end. Johnny said that if I wanted to, I could crawl to the end of the path where I would find two men drilling a hole. I went without even thinking about it, struggling along the small, jagged, rock filled path, I spotted the two men, both were shirtless, dripping with sweat and ferociously pounding a power drill into the ground. The heat and humidity in the shaft was almost unbearable, my camera lens instantly fogged over. I decided to wait, not wanting to miss the photo. After a few minutes, one of the men became agitated by my presence, he motioned for me to leave but I wouldn't, I had to have the photo. With my dirty sleeve, I rubbed off the foggy lens and shot a couple quick frames. That only made the man angrier, so without knowing whether I had the shot or not I waved to say thanks and crawled away.

The last stop of the tour was a large room, Johnny told me to go inside and meet the Devil. Thinking I misheard him, I entered the room and came face to face with a five-foot high menacing statue of a Devil figure sitting on a throne. The red stature had an erect penis and a maniacal smile, cocoa leaves, confetti and small ornaments had been placed on it, everything was covered with the mine's poison dust. The workers occasionally bestowed gifts upon the statue because the Devil is the God of the underworld, and they are the men of the underground.

After the tour, Johnny lit two sticks of dynamite with five-minute fuses, he took the camera from my hands and replaced it with the smoking bombs. He saw how nervous I was and smiling said, “Okay, now I am photographer,” then took a photo of me holding the burning explosives. He took the dynamite and ran down the side of the mountain with it, burying it with his foot in the rocks a short distance from where I was standing. After the dynamite was partially buried, he ran off in the opposite direction.

I worried when he was further away from the dynamite than I was…. but was still running. I started to panic, thinking I was too close. I turned to run but before I could get more than two steps the dynamite exploded, sending a violent shock wave through my body. Small rocks and sand landed all around me, I almost fell to one knee, my ears were ringing and my head was clouded but I was alive.

I finally took another deep breath.

Jason Lang's website

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