© iStock Oat_Phawat
© iStock Oat_Phawat
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Cerro Rico silver mines & the story behind

3 minutes to read

Back in the XVI century, 60% of the world's silver was being extracted from one hill called Cerro Rico, literally meaning “Rich Hill,” located in Bolivia.

© iStock/zanskar
© iStock/zanskar

A life-changing discovery in the Colonial Period

An indigenous man called Diego Guallpa, while wandering on the highlands, decided to spend the night next to Cerro Rico, where he lighted a fire to fight the cold weather. When he woke up, he saw some bright fluid. It was silver from the hill, melted by the fire. Very soon, Juan de Villarroel, a Spanish conqueror for whom Diego used to work, got informed about this, and, a bit later, the mineral extraction started. Nevertheless, there is something they didn't know yet: back in that moment, Cerro Rico was the biggest silver deposit in the world!

In that period, silver was a key currency all over the world. That is why the population around Cerro Rico grew rapidly. What started as a mining settlement, soon became a city called Potosí, which would not take long to be one of the most populated cities in the world, overpassing the population of London or Paris, back then.

In the beginning, the silver was extracted from the surface, and indigenous technology was used for underground mining. Later on, gunpowder was introduced, and, finally, mercury started to be used to purify the metal.

It is widely believed that the silver already extracted from Cerro Rico is more than enough to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain. This saying can be, of course, considered a product of pure fantasy, but in reality, the value of the minerals extracted from the hill is unthinkable.

© iStock/rchphoto
© iStock/rchphoto

Cerro Rico nowadays

During the Colonial Period, the mine seemed to be endless, and, still today, mining in Cerro Rico keeps going on after almost five hundred years!

Cerro Rico
Cerro Rico

During the wealthiest period of Potosí, around 140.000 people per year used to be brought to the city for mining. Many of them would, very soon, lose their lives on this task. Even nowadays, the life expectancy of miners is only 45 years old, and hundreds of them die yearly, not only by accidents but mainly because they work in a truly adverse and toxic environment that causes them a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.

El Tío

Miners have absolute respect for an image called “El Tío.” It is an unpleasant and scary face, representing the Lord of the Underworld. They believe that to stay protected when they are underground, they must keep him satisfied. As a result, they offer him alcohol, coca leaves, and cigarettes before they descend to a place that is as unpleasant and terrifying as the image of this character.

Visiting the mines

Currently, visitors can access the first 70 to 100 meters of the mine, though it is not a recommended experience for everyone. It is not a very comforting image. Miners do their jobs in adverse conditions. Inside the mine, the temperature can rise significantly; there is a lack of oxygen, and toxic minerals are in the air. Of course, you will be using safety clothes, but after a few minutes, anyone wishes to get out.

© iStock/Matthias Kestel
© iStock/Matthias Kestel

Entering the mines might be quite a strange experience for tourists. Anyhow, the objective of traveling is not only to enjoy beautiful places but also to learn what is going on around the world. In this case, visiting the mines of Cerro Rico might leave you thinking on aspects that you've never considered before.


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The author

Vanesa Zegada

Vanesa Zegada

I am Vanesa and I am from Bolivia. I am in love with my homeland. It never stops surprising me, even if I am a local. It is a place full of diversity, traditions, interesting spots that I want to share with you through my stories on itinari.

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