The Mountain that Eats Men

For nearly 500 years, El Cerro Rico has given Bolivia silver and claimed millions of men. Now, a few fearless tourists are journeying deep inside.

The Mountain that Eats Men

A raw drizzle sets in outside the entrance to the mines. A group of tourists in orange fatigues, gumboots and hardhats drifts around the rusting hulks of upturned mine carts and sheets of corrugated metal. Two boys with drawn faces and torn rain ponchos wander about, trying to sell precious minerals out of a cardboard box. One stops to help a French woman adjust her lamp. Across the tracks, a boorish Aussie poses for a photo with a stick of dynamite like a fat white cigar in the corner of his mouth. His friend holds a fuse to the tip.

Twenty minutes earlier, at the market in town, the herd of tourists I’m with was funneled into small shops to purchase gifts for the miners. A bundle of daily necessities — a pack of gloves, a small bottle of 96-proof alcohol potable, and a liter of peach juice — cost about three American dollars. A stick of dynamite, 200 grams of ammonium nitrate, a detonator, and a meter of fuse cost the same. Shuffling past a sallow-faced military official, they exit, and cross the street to where a woman sells bags of fresh coca leaves and sweetened limestone for fifty cents.

A listless, freezing mist skirts the base of Cerro Rico and settles like a grey shroud over the city below. Potosí is a sprawling mess of hastily thrown-up brick shells and corrugated metal shacks radiating out from an ornate colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded in 1545 after the Spanish discovered silver in the mountain that looms above it. The mines they oversaw, using forced indigenous labor, funneled extraordinary wealth to the Spanish crown, and by the seventeenth century Potosí had become one of the largest cities in the western world. Nearly 500 years later, the mountain is still being struck for its silver (and now tin, zinc and lead). Despite the fact that state mines shut down in 1985, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Bolivians still go to work in the mountain’s numerous cooperatively owned mines everyday.

Cerro Rico looms over the colonial city of Potosí.
Cerro Rico looms over the colonial city of Potosí.

In a stone hut near the entrance to the tunnels, a group of miners sit drying their clothes above a small fire that leaps out of a tin can. We sit as well, the four of us on the tour, biting the stems off coca leaves and shoving them into the side of our mouths, watching the blue flames dance as more alcohol is poured into the tiny vessel. The miners pack clods of coca the size of golf balls into their cheeks and spin tales about the mountain. They say the upper reach of the mountain is near collapse, that it looks like a block of Swiss cheese. They say that enough ore has been extracted over the centuries to build a solid silver bridge between South America and Spain. (They say that eight million people have died in these mines, though no one can say for sure.) They call it “The Mountain That Eats Men.”

Our guide, Choco, asks us if we are ready to go in. We take leave of the few miners still lingering around the fire, and briefly step back into the frozen air outside. A line of rail tracks disappears into the small, unassuming entrance. We follow them, sloshing through the metallic grey sludge that runs between the ties, and enter the blackened mouth of the mines.

The main tunnel silently sifts its way through the rock without any semblance of uniformity or design. Small paths break off and bore their way into a startling darkness, the way splits without notice, and unfathomable holes drop out from beneath the tracks. There is no map to these mines. We stumble along, chasing the elusive light our lamps cast in front of us, the splash of our boots through silken puddles echoing against the walls. The mountain seems to grow heavier above us.

El Tio, arbiter of both fortune and death in the mines.
El Tio, arbiter of both fortune and death in the mines.

We turn right into a small alcove. Before us, sitting on a throne of volcanic rock, is El Tio. He is a red demon, ram’s horns jutting out of a scowling face, blank silver eyes, and a squat member. Dried coca leaves, cigarettes, and empty bottles of alcohol litter the ground beneath his feet. Hundreds of these effigies, of carved stone or dried mud, guard the mountain. They were introduced by the Spanish to scare indigenous miners into working, but over time El Tio (a bastardized pronunciation of Dios, the Spanish word for God) became the cult figurehead of the mines, arbiter of both fortune and death.

Our guide stops his monologue of broken English and looks at the sculpture. Dried llama blood is splattered across the stone above its head. “El Tio is hungry,” he says. “If we don’t give him blood, then he takes it for himself.” We drop a few coca leaves and continue onwards.

After a few hundred meters we split off the main tunnel, ducking beneath rock and collapsed wooden supports, and scraping our hardhats against the veins of silver that trace the mountain’s underbelly. The hazy edge of a lamplight reveals a sinister shadow of horns and smudged, hollow eyes burned into the rock with a gas lamp.

I follow Choco to a pile of rubble and loose stone and watch from below as his feet disappear up a vertical shaft. We heave ourselves up after him. Climbing up, the ceiling begins to sparkle. White, crystalline hoar frost gives way to blossoms of pale yellow and orange, and finally, dark red stalactites slowly dripping their way toward the earth. Choco breaks off a piece of the luminescent stone, sniffs it, and passes it to me. “Arsenic,” he says. I start, and drop it into the sand. He laughs, picking it up. “A Christmas present for my mother-in-law.” He casually tosses it aside.

Arsenic pools spread across the tunnel floors.
Arsenic pools spread across the tunnel floors.

The shaft flattens out, opening up into a small vestibule. A large puddle at its center stretches its fingers, darker than blood, into the receding darkness of scarred clefts. Our boots stir up yellow arsenic swirls mingling ruby in the poisonous pool. We go to see Walter.

At the top of a slough of crumbled stone and dried mud sits a thickset man ensnared in shadow behind a lone light. He holds a mallet in his right hand, and swings it rhythmically against the butt end of an iron rod stuck deep into the rock. The crack of the iron assumes a cold significance in the silence of the mines.

Hola, Goma!” Walter turns around to shake Choco’s hand, pursing his lips at Choco’s use of “Rubber,” a common nickname for the newest member of a mining group. The walls of the cave have funneled into a small cranny. His bent body fills the whole meter-wide space. We introduce ourselves, one-by-one, and settle into the slope leading up to Walter’s perch. Choco begins to mix a drink.

“Here in the mines we are very superstitious,” he says, pouring a dash of lurid orange peach juice into the bottle of potable alcohol. “Before you drink, you must sacrifice.” He tips out a few drops to El Tio and Pachamama, to Walter, and to the rest of us, then takes a swig and passes the bottle along. Walter puts his tools down and spills a bit of liquid onto the dusty floor, muttering in a low voice. We pass the bottle around, taking hesitant sips and trying not to forget any part of the ritual.

Walter continues to pound away at the crumbling rock, letting out a hollow grunt with the fall of each hammer stroke. Choco, who works evenings in this same mine, is busy assembling the ingredients for an explosion. He takes another swig from the bottle, and begins to hum a tune as he cuts the tip of fuse and pours the gunpowder inside into a detonator. My eyes follow his fingers anxiously. He bites the end of the detonator to close it, and pulls out a stick of dynamite. “You have to make sure not to push the detonator too far into the dynamite,” he says, as the small piece of metal disappears into the white tube. “Or else, ‘Boom’…Ciao my friend.”

Walter pounds away at a wall of stone and sand, searching for traces of silver.
Walter pounds away at a wall of stone and sand, searching for traces of silver.

The bottle comes back around. I lean into the rock and watch as Choco puts the finishing touches on the second explosive he is fashioning. He cuts open the side of the bottle of potable alcohol he has just finished, pours in a bag of ammonium nitrate, forces the dynamite down the neck, and packs it all closed with a clod of grey clay peeled off the wall. “A Molotov bomb,” he exclaims cheerily, and passes it to Walter. “Alright, anyone wanna take a picture? No? Good, let’s get out of here.” We throw on our packs and scurry down the slope and around the bend, then throw ourselves onto the ground before a sculpture of El Tio. “Goma!” Choco yells back to Walter, and a few seconds later we hear Walter heaving his way down the tunnel. We turn off our lamps, for atmosphere I suppose.

The darkness is absolute. And then the explosion comes, swallowing the silence whole. The mountain booms back. I shove my fingers into my ears and sink into the stiff beating of my blood and the monstrous sound of my breathing. We wait, but the second report never comes. I take my fingers out of my ears.

“Fucking Chileno detonators.” A light flashes on, and Choco is laughing to himself. Walter, who is sitting to my left next to another man who came in the darkness, starts cursing heartily and then walks away.

We flick on our headlamps. Walter comes back a few seconds later, coughing from the dust, and sets to work on another stick of dynamite. The other man, Walter’s uncle, stands up and goes to wash the arsenic off his hands so he can have a cigarette. There is no water in the mines, so he sterilizes them with his urine.

Choco is prattling. My heartbeat feels somehow dense. I watch Walter’s face tighten as he pinches the detonator, his uncle’s cigarette glowing red in the darkness behind him. He finishes assembling the explosive and runs down the tunnel to place it. The second charge rumbles through the mountain, pushing all the air out. I am breathless, for a moment.

Walter comes jogging back a few seconds later, panting and tugging at his slipping pants. He sits down to lunch; a bag of coca leaves to stave off the hunger. His expression is still sullen, so Choco makes a crude joke about his use of the iron chisel to ease the tension. This garners a sour face from the only female in the group. “Joking, joking,” he says quickly. “We are always making jokes here. Right, Goma?” Walter laughs. But then Choco suddenly turns to us with a rare expression of seriousness on his face. “You have to make jokes. You have to take life lightly.” He says. “Because there is no future in these mines.”

We thank Walter and his Uncle for their hospitality, leaving behind a few supplies, and make our way back to the shaft. We inch our way down, one-by-one, using hands, feet and head to keep from sliding.

Deep within the mountain, a miner waits for an explosion in the dark.
Deep within the mountain, a miner waits for an explosion in the dark.

There is not much time to collect ourselves when we reach the bottom. Choco starts off at a jog, and we scurry after him, passing through patches of blasted boulders and coarse sand, our lamps searching for edges in the immense darkness of the cave. Choco leads us up a ladder at the far end of a rough-hewn hall, and into a tapering shaft. A near vertical wall sits before us.

One of the Canadians we are with expresses concern. Choco just shrugs. “It’s not so difficult,” he says, already beginning to climb. The step holds are less than the width of a foot, and sink out from beneath us. My fingers clutch nervously at the rock, trying to find something solid, but all around is only crumbling clay.

Two more shafts follow, made of small pebbles of chipped rock and dried mud that slide in mini-avalanches upon everyone below. Halfway up I begin to pant heavily. We are at 4,200 meters, and the twisting passageways seem to squeeze out all the air, leaving only empty, hot space. By the time I reach the top, I can no longer catch my breath. I crawl on hands and knees towards the end of the tunnel, choking on the fine dust my trembling limbs kick up.

At the end of the passage, a man in a baggy coat is kneeling into a trough of water, pounding at the hard rock before him. I prop myself up against a damp wall and try to slow my heartbeat.

Choco introduces his uncle (everyone is family here), but the man in the corner never looks up from his work. Occasionally he nods in agreement with something Choco has said, but doesn’t spare a glance. He has been working here for forty years now, which puts him a little over fifty; ancient for a miner. Most don’t make it much beyond thirty. The silica dust they pound out of the rock forms a sediment in their lungs after a few years, and most die of silicosis. The man in the corner has avoided that fate by working with an iron chisel instead of a pneumatic drill. A thin vein of silver, little more than a dull, dark shimmer, traces the wall beside me. He has been following it for twenty years.

“You have to make sure not to push the detonator too far into the dynamite,” Choco says, as the small piece of metal disappears into the white tube. “Or else, ‘Boom’...Ciao my friend.”
“You have to make sure not to push the detonator too far into the dynamite,” Choco says, as the small piece of metal disappears into the white tube. “Or else, ‘Boom’…Ciao my friend.”

I take this all in distantly, feeling its weight and watching as arsenic drips slowly onto my arm from a blushing stalactite. There are a lot of ways to die in these mines.

I don’t remember the man’s name.

We slide on our backs back down the shafts, each one of us nearly falling through the hole at the bottom where the ladder rests. The walk out of the mines is quiet, besides Choco’s laughter when he asks which way is out and everyone points in different directions. He pulls out a lighter. It flickers and pulls to his left. “Follow the wind.” After a few minutes we see that infamous light.

I stop to take a picture of it pouring in through the tunnel opening. Choco comes up behind me and asks if the flash is on. “Don’t need it,” I say.

“True,” he says, “Even a grey sky looks bright from in here.”

On a damp overnight bus out of town that evening we pass by the base of Cerro Rico. It seems a heavy shadow before a darkening, ruddy sky. I try to take a photo but it comes out hazy, obscured, as if it is suspended somewhere between reality and legend.

Bolivia isn’t the only place with a supposedly haunted attraction. From the scene of a bloody mass murder in a small Iowa town to a West Virginia insane asylum that shuttered in the ’90s, our partners at share the Five Most Haunted Places in the U.S. (Photo: Flickr/Ryan Moomey/