Cerro Rico (‘Rich Hill’ in Spanish) is a mountain located in the Andes in southern Bolivia. In Quechan it is known as ‘Sumaq Urqu’, which means ‘beautiful hill’. Its highest peak is 4,800 meters above sea level but it is said that when it was discovered, before its exploitation at the hands of the Spanish colonialists, its highest point stood at 5.100 meters.
At its peak, Las Minas de Potosí (The Potosí Mines) is located and has been one of the most important and largest silver mines in the world since the sixteenth century. It is a mountain that has not stopped being excavated and exploited and which, today, finds itself perforated with thousands of tunnels and galleries where miners have searched for silver, the most valuable mineral.
Legend has it that a Quechan shepherd named Diego Huallpa decided to spend the night at the foot of Cerro Rico along with his herd of lamas and to warm himself up he built a fire. The next day when he woke up, he found himself surrounded by fine threads of silver melted by the heat of the fire, revealing the shining grains of silver. Once Diego informed the authorities and they were made aware of the situation, the Spanish took control of the mountain on the 1st April 1545.
The mines are still currently in operation, with miners extracting what little the mine has left to offer, mainly minerals such as zinc and tin. The much sought-after silver is found in very small quantities due to its vast exploitation that took place at a time when, during hundreds of years, the mine provided the Spanish Empire and the rest of Europe with more silver than any other place in the world.
It was one of the main contributors to the growth of the American continent, though not for Potosí (the town surrounding mountain) nor its miners, who remain poverty-stricken while they continue to risk their lives on a daily basis.
Cerro Rico has taken the lives of thousands since it was first mined and has shown no signs of letting up. Life expectancy is below 45 years old due to terrible working conditions, the dangers inherent in their work and for the substances they breathe in while carrying out their job. The majority of them suffer from Silicosis locally known as ‘miner’s disease’ and is caused by inhaling silica dust which affects the breathing apparatus and is lethal.
The mountain is the main source of income for the area and every day around 15,000 miners make their way through its insides. Among them we can find children of 12 and 14 years old. It is said that though the ingots shine, it doesn’t mean that they are not stained with blood.
Once inside, God doesn’t exist. Only the devil known as Tío (Uncle), who is considered to be the owner of both the mine and the mountain. Everyday he, along with Pachamama (Mother Earth), receive all kinds of offering from the miners and their families, such as coca, tobacco or alcohol, to care for and watch over them.
“Inside the mine, God doesn’t exist but the Devil does”