PLACEInside mysterious BoliviaBolivia, once...


May 02, 1999


Inside mysterious Bolivia

Bolivia, once the source of massive wealth in silver and a home of the Inca empire, now hides, poor and quietly beautiful, in South America. The "cerro rico," or rich mountain, towering over the colonial city of Potosi is still mined by "indigenas." A friend and I hiked up the slope of this famous mountain, Cerro Potosi, to take a four-hour hike through one of its 5,000 mines.

Leading us was Eduardo, a short, rough-looking former miner whom my companion and I met through the staff at our hotel. His cheeks ballooned on either side, packed with coca leaves and smudged with dust from his mining gear. The cooperative mines have not changed much since the 15th century. There are no elevators, no electricity.

The miners still carry kerosene lamps to see inside the mines. The lamps serve both to save the miners money on batteries for flashlights (which few can afford) and to signal deadly carbon monoxide in the air (the flame changes color). They tap at dull lines of precious metal with ancient picks and use their bare hands to shave off excess traces on the rocky walls.

Eduardo holds out a rock to me and sweeps his palm across the surface, exposing tiny veins of silver encircling the stone like fragile threads. Leading us to the edge of a cavern, our feet just inches from a massive drop-off, he promises us an explosion to cap off our tour, and slyly pats his parcel of dynamite.

We nestle inside a tiny, closet-wide space that's dimly lighted by our lanterns, and sit crouched together, staring at the papieri-imache statue of the devil covered in pas- tel streamers and burnedi-iout cigarettes.

The miners worship the devil inside the deep tunnels, reasoning that this hot underground world is so similar to hell it must surely be devil territory.

The miners place a lighted cigarette in the statue's mouth and pour liquor over it as an offering to their underground god.

The sun setting over one of the highest cities in the world tells a thousand lies about the beauty and naivete of this cold and rugged place. It sparkles, as if new and undiscovered, as if the secret in the belly of its great mountain were not yet told across the waters of the sea.

Nora Pierce lives in Joppatowne.


G'day, mates!



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Pub Date: 05/02/99

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