“They have to choose money or life,” said Cruz, who is 27 and started mining here at 17. “When they choose to mine, they are risking their lives.”
This relic from the days of colonial Spain — for Bolivians, a painful symbol of the conquest of their country as well as their most storied mountain for mining — now brings young tourists such as Charles Newman, who on a recent day watched Indian Quechua miners endure 100-degree heat in shafts hundreds of feet below the surface.
“I thought the working conditions were pretty shocking, coming from Europe,” said Newman, a 19-year-old Briton. “It’s quite humbling, actually seeing what they do on a daily basis.”
Tourists, though, may not be able to travel into Rich Mountain much longer, at least if the engineers who have been studying it are right. They say that after 467 years of mining, the mountain is like Swiss cheese, pockmarked throughout and in danger of a catastrophic collapse.
The mountain is still as imposing as it was when Spanish soldiers, their armor clanking, first set eyes upon its red, rocky slopes rising 15,800 feet into the deep blue skies of Bolivia’s southern highlands.
But Nestor Rene Espinoza, a longtime engineer who recently completed the most extensive study of Rich Mountain’s stability, said the evidence of volatility is hard to ignore.
There are 600 mines, he said, and 65 miles of tunnels. Gaping, unmarked shafts drop to oblivion. Runoff turns soil to mush. Part of the mountain’s iconic cone already collapsed into itself.
“We’ve taken all manner of riches from the mountain, but we have not given it the love it now needs,” Espinoza told representatives from Potosi’s mining sector on a recent night. “I’ve said it before: The mountain is ill, and it requires medical care.”
Espinoza’s findings, which were released in August, showed that five large areas of the mountain’s upper levels are at high risk of collapse. The best solution, he said in an interview, is to pump cement into the abandoned shafts, an operation that would cost at least $300 million and take more than a year.
“The mountain has lost the capacity to support itself, so that means we have to intervene,” Espinoza said, noting that because the mountain is under the control of the miners, they are the ones who probably would have to come up with the money.
Such an intervention is not going over well in Potosi, where Rich Mountain employs one of every nine inhabitants and is a national symbol for its vital, if tragic, role in Bolivian history.