After arriving in Oruro, following our midnight train from Uyuni, Erik and I decided to visit San José mine. The San José mine has been an operating precious metal mine for about 400 years. Apparently tours are offered to the occasional tourists who show up.
When we arrived and stepped out of our trufi we found ourselves on the edge of a small, impoverished-looking mining encampment above Oruro. After walking about looking for someone to talk to about a tour, struggling through conversations assuring people that we were indeed tourists and that we wanted to visit the mine, numerous phone calls to send for a guide and about half an hour we were ready to go. We were lucky to have Juan, a middle-aged Quecha miner, as our gregarious and thoughtful guide.
After putting on coveralls, hardhats, and headlamps, we made a visit to the local general store for 98% pure alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves before walking through the gated entrance of the mine. Juan told us that nowadays the miners pack everything out on their backs in woven plastic backpacks from each of the three or four levels of the mine using ladders which is especially impressive considering it extends 800 m down. On our way into the mine we met several dirty, tired and sweaty miners coming up the ladder. The sense of camaraderie among the miners was evident.
We made our way through the tangle of black tubes that transport compressed air down to the miners deep below and stepped through a passage to a brick hall dominated by a giant statue of the devil at the far end. The sudden heat and humidity hit us like a blast as we entered the hall and sat down next to the statue. Our guide talked to the statue referring to it as ‘Tio’ (Uncle) and talking to it as if it was a respected and very important relative. We offered some coca, liquor and a cigarette to Tio and another cigarette to Pachamama (mother earth) and talked about the mine.
So how do you offer a cigarette to Tio and Pachamama, you might ask? Well, you light two cigarettes and place one in Tio’s mouth and another in a crack in the wall, and you wait until they have been smoked. All the while you engage Tio in light and friendly conversation. Tio is the devil (a reference to the hellish conditions deep in the mine—hot, strenuous and very dangerous) but Tio is also the protector of the miners, and daily offerings to Tio are intended to help keep the miners safe.
Our guide explained to us that the mine was previously state-owned and run but years ago the state abandoned the mine and it became a miners’ co-operative of about 800 men. The miners work in groups of about 8-10 and every group has blocked off their own area to hammer and blast. The different groups divide the earnings between themselves equally and completely fairly. We waited until Tio’s and Pachamama’s cigarettes had burnt down, gave them each one more, and set off into the working area of the mine.
As we walked through tunnels we saw the closed off areas where the separate groups of miners worked, veins of silver mixed with lead and what we speculate was pyrite or mica and pequeño (small) Tios outside doors to other work areas. At every Tio we stopped and offered coca, liquor and a cigarette before continuing. Near every statue of the devil it was a lot hotter and more humid than the rest of the mine and our guide told us that they placed the Tios where hot air vented out of the earth.
We only went into level zero of the mine. The lower levels are a lot hotter and airless and, we expect, more dangerous. Our brief tour provided us with a glimpse into the working lives of these tough and friendly San José miners.
Photo credit: The Walrus magazine (we didn’t have our camera with us, unfortunately)