Men's Journal | November 2011
Play with dynamite, explore mines, and bike while high on coca leaf in Bolivia, the new capital of danger tourism.
by Matthew Power
Air bags, seat belts, cigarette-pack warnings, airport security, speed limits: These safety measures offer great advances for the health and welfare of our modern lives, but they have left a void. Evolved for risk, and, in its cubicle-bound absence, we feel compelled to invent its simulacra: bungee jumping, roller coasters, shark cages. No place on Earth has made danger more a part of its brand identity than the impoverished Andean nation of Bolivia.
In the past decade, Bolivia has emerged as the thriving new adventure capital of South America, pioneered by intrepid backpackers chasing after budget thrills and fleeing the tour-bus hordes at places like Machu Picchu. With its glacier-capped mountains plunging to trackless jungles, Bolivia is an amusement park of extreme landscapes where the young and fearless come to test their limits.
Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road” is one such destination, a 40-mile dirt track that hairpins its way from the Andes to the Amazon on the edge of a 2,000-foot-deep canyon with no guardrails. Roughly 300 people a year are killed on the road. But as it has grown in popularity, it has become considerably less deadly. To get something more authentic — the kind of experience that brought me to Bolivia — danger-seeking tourists now go to the mines of Cerro Rico.
At 14,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes, each breath feels drawn through a soda straw, and my brain can scarcely form a rational thought. I am halfway up a mountain of blasted red stone, staring into the mouth of a hand-dug mine shaft, carrying a backpack filled with nothing but grain alcohol, coca leaves, and dynamite. My companions include Colorado frat boys, dreadlocked Aussie hippies, and Israelis fresh off their compulsory military service. All are in their 20s and 30s, and all have come, like me, to get a firsthand glimpse at one of the worst jobs in the world: subsistence mining in Cerro Rico — Spanish for “rich hill” — a 14,000-foot peak in the town of Potosí riddled with thousands of mining tunnels. In the 16th century, this was one of the largest mining areas in the world. Over the centuries, millions of indigenous miners have worked the mountain, with untold thousands perishing from silicosis, cave-ins, and sheer exhaustion. For the 15,000 miners who toil there today — many of them children — conditions are brutal and safety protocols haphazard; scores die annually. The silver is mostly played out, so miners tunnel ever deeper for tin, lead, and zinc ores to earn up to $400 a month, roughly triple the Bolivian average wage.
Group tours are led into the crumbling shafts for a taste of zinc subsistence mining. For $20, I signed up with GreenGo Tours, which outfitted me in dark green coveralls, knee-high rubber boots, and a battered mining helmet. Daniel Cruz, our jocular 25-year-old guide, is nursing a hangover from his father’s 50th birthday party the night before. (Cruz now takes tourists on similar tours through the La Casona hostel in Potosí.) His English, which he claims to have learned from “kissing tourist girls,” is excellent. Our tour’s first stop is the miners’ market to stock up. Indigenous Aymara women, with long braids and petticoats, sell coca leaves out of huge bags — completely legal in Bolivia. For centuries coca has been chewed by Andean natives as a stimulant, appetite suppressant, and folk-medicine cure-all. Coca’s leaves are also processed into cocaine, of course.
“You Americans chew coca like llamas,” says Cruz, before showing me the proper technique, stripping the oval leaves from their stems with his teeth and forming them into a large wad in his cheek. The flavor is slightly herbal and sweet, and in a few minutes there’s a pleasant numbness in my cheek and gums, as well as a mellow alertness, like a triple espresso without the shakiness. We also pick up a jug of grain alcohol, 192 proof, which goes down smooth as kerosene. Daniel immediately takes a swig, claiming it’s the best way to cure a hangover. Finally, we buy dynamite, which is stacked next to the cash register like a display of Slim Jims. Explosives are almost completely unregulated in town, and for less than a dollar you can buy several sticks, as well as fuses, detonators, and bags of ammonium nitrate, an explosive fertilizer. Fully stocked, we board a tour bus and climb the steep switchbacks up the ravaged flanks of Cerro Rico.
Tourists in Bolivia pass around a bowl of coca leaves. Photo: Idealink Photography/Alamy
We follow Cruz into the mine entrance, bending low to avoid hitting the four-foot-high ceiling while sloshing through muddy knee-deep water. We proceed into the dark, guided by our dim headlamps and Cruz’s banter. Directly overhead, surrounded by bright green and yellow stalactites, splintering wooden rafters bend beneath the weight of tons of loose stone. Side shafts drop away into deeper blackness; a kicked pebble can be heard bouncing down for an unsettling length of time. In some shafts there are narrow rails on the floor. We soon hear a low rumble, and Cruz shouts for us to press ourselves against the wall.
Out of the blackness an ore car the size of a Dumpster comes barreling past, pushed by two burly miners. The car jumps the tracks, and they struggle to lever it back in line. Each man has a golf ball–size wad of coca in his cheek; they smile with green teeth when we offer them more leaves. The boom of a distant dynamite blast rings the mountain like a gong, and the air fills with stirred-up silica dust, which over time can scar the lungs and lead to silicosis, causing permanent breathing difficulties and heart failure. None of the miners we encounter wears a mask, almost guaranteeing silicosis — if they escape cave-ins or the deadly gases produced by explosions.
The mines are far more dangerous for those who work there daily than for tourists. A month earlier, an Israeli girl fell and broke her arm, and Cruz had to carry her out, but he knows of only a single case of a tourist perishing in the mines: a Japanese man who stepped back to frame a photograph and plunged down a 210-foot shaft. I peer into one such shaft. There is no safety gate, and it drops straight down 1,000 feet, swallowing my lamplight in blackness.
After a long scramble through the tunnels, we emerge into the thin, gray daylight. It is cold and drizzling, but we are all relieved to be out of the underworld. To celebrate, we take out sticks of dynamite. Daniel shows me how to tear open the paper and form the Play-Doh-like TNT into a ball, with the detonator and fuse poking out. We jog our bombs out to a spot on the hillside, light them, and get under cover. Two minutes is a long time to wait for an explosion, and just as I suggest we had better go check our fuses, the hillside explodes with a heart-stopping whump! and a cloud of smoke. Dirt rains down on us as we jump and shout. This is every mother’s worst nightmare. It is also wildly fun.
There’s no limit to the idiocy of first-world tourists unleashed on a place with so few regulations. I am told that a few months earlier, a couple of drunk Brits had decided to bring some of their dynamite back to their hostel. The explosion, which they opted to set off in the courtyard, blew out every window in the place. The British consul ended up having to fly in from La Paz to bail them out of jail.
We head down off Cerro Rico, leaving the miners to their labors, thanking Daniel for bringing us through and not blowing us up. It is difficult to shake from my memory the miners’ coca-stained grins and dusty faces, a combination of grim strength and occasional flashes of humor. If there is a lesson to be learned from an otherwise unnecessary flirtation with danger, it comes from witnessing work in the mines: We’ll return to our ordinary lives with a deeper empathy for these men and the suffering they endure. Long after I leave, I imagine them there, blasting away in the depths of the mountain, dreaming of a glittering new vein in the darkness.