The mine entrance is an ominous black opening halfway up the mountainside, surrounded with a bricked frame and topped with a crucifix, all of which is stained black. On first impression it appears that the bricks and cross have been painted, but the truth is far more unsettling. The paint is in fact blood, dried llama blood, the product of thousands of ritual sacrifices carried out over the years by superstitious miners hoping for redemption in the unforgiving gloom.
The miners are of predominately indigenous blood, although some are mestizo. They speak the ancient dialects of Quecha and Aymara, which have to be translated into Spanish by the minority who were fortunate enough to attend a few years of school. Long ago these people adopted the Catholic religion of their invaders, unreservedly and fervently, but the ancient traditions of their ancestors remain nevertheless. When human lives are of so little worth, the reconciliation of these contradictory beliefs feels utterly natural. The llama blood is a sacrifice to please their most important deity, Pachamama, mother earth herself, goddess of the flora and the earthquakes, of fertility and the harvest, and strongly linked with the Christian Virgin Mary.
Outside the mine entrance is a ramshackle building which sells necessities and gifts that visitors can purchase for the miners. You will be hard pressed to find a more unusual combination of items under one roof. Tools, bottled water and biscuits are perhaps to be expected, however paper-wrapped cylinders of various grades of dynamite are not a regular purchase for most, and yet here visitors are encouraged to fill bags with a large amount of explosive. The other necessities sold in this shop are small, clear plastic bags filled with dried green-grey leaves.
These bags are a familiar sight all over Andean South America. They contain coca leaves, the raw ingredient for cocaine and indeed early versions of coca-cola. For the local people these leaves are sacred. They have been cultivated for generations and are inextricably linked to the Inca culture and religion, dating back over centuries. Used as offerings to the gods, they are also consumed daily either infused with boiling water as ‘mate de coca’, or chewed along with a catalyst and absorbed through the gums. The effect is wholly unlike the refined alkaloids presents in modern day cocaine; they are instead used as a mild stimulant to overcome pain, thirst and hunger, and have similar societal connotations as coffee would have for a New Yorker, or wine for the French. Travellers to the region are encouraged to consume coca tea as an antidote to altitude sickness, and so it is readily available in most hotels and cafes, despite some international protest at the cultivation of the raw ingredient of a devastating drug. At the crux of the debate is the question of whether the problem lies with the continuation of a spiritual and ancestral tradition of some of the poorest people in the world, or with the illicit consumption of an addictive narcotic by some of the wealthiest. My inclination is that the problem lies with the latter and that the former should not be made to suffer for it.
As the mine is entered, it takes several minutes for the eyes to become accustomed to the dark, the light from the entrance fading into a tiny glimmer in the distance and then disappearing altogether as a corner is turned and you are swallowed into the mountain. This dark is dusty and stifling, still and fetid, the dim light from torches no match for the all-consuming gloom. The tunnel, at first on a gentle incline downwards, soon forks and twists chaotically, the ceiling sometimes so low that you are forced to stoop, bent double against damp rock, before abruptly rising into a yawning cavern so vast that the torch light will only illuminate a tiny proportion at a time, the remainder a shadowy unknown. Negligible planning has gone into this mine; there is nothing systematic about the haphazard passages. They are an organic warren formed by generations of individual miners selecting a location to excavate, sometimes following a vein in the rock, sometimes following nothing more than their instincts. The ceilings are sometimes buttressed, and in other areas the strength of the tunnels are at the whim of the mountain. The floor is desperately uneven, with arbitrarily-placed gaping holes waiting to consume anyone who is not paying attention to their footing. It is through one of these holes that you descend, climbing, scrambling, gripping the rock with sweaty hands as the blanket of darkness that was once as cold as the mountain exterior becomes noticeably warmer. You are now entering the bowels of the earth; this is undoubtedly the layer of El Diablo, the escalating temperature fuels the impression that you are approaching the burning fires of hell.
You will meet the miners as you descend, working individually or in small groups of twos and threes. It is not uncommon to find a family working together: grandfather, father and son hacking at the walls with a pick axe. Although children are not legally permitted to work in the mine, they will often join their parent, gathering stray chunks of rock that have been scattered in all directions. The miners will be glad of any gifts that you bring from the shop outside. Their shifts last twelve hours, and the abhorrently low pay does not usually allow for them to bring much in the way of food and water, and so they subsist on coca leaves, the magical plant that offers the only way to get through so many hours of dangerous, exhausting, hungry work. There is no hedonism in the consumption of these leaves, they are an absolute necessity. These people are no different than you or I, but this unjust world has dealt them a cruel hand.
They will cheerfully demonstrate the use of dynamite in the mine, handing you a chisel and mallet and gesturing wildly with their hands to show you how to bore a hole into the rock, before kindly taking over and with expert hands revealing the skill needed to complete this task. Then they insert the colourful stick and prepare the fuse. They usher you down the tunnel to a safer area, where you uneasily sit in anticipation of the explosion that you know is imminent, the hairs on the back of your neck rigid in the darkness. And then the blast comes, a boom as loud as thunder, the shock reverberating through the walls and floor, and right into the core of your being. The pressurised air rushes down the tunnel, forcing its way into your lungs so that you are compelled to gasp with the shock of the detonation, a sensation similar to the gut wrenching feeling of falling from a great height in nightmares. The miners smile as you regain your composure, before heading off to inspect their bounty; dirty chunks spread around the ravaged wall.
If you ask, the miners will show you their place of worship, deep in the oppressive heat of the earth. In a chamber at the bottom of a labyrinth of tunnels there are two god-figures carved into the rock, quite a distance apart at each end of the long underground room. Colourful streamers decorate each statue, along with scattered leaves, signs of black llama blood, and adjacent to one of the figures a collection of alcohol in dusty, unopened bottles. The floor crunches with each step; the whole space is covered with a thick carpet of sacred coca leaves, dispersed throughout this sanctified hole. And the identities of our pair of deities? One is the indigenous Pachamama, serene and beautiful, watching over her people. The other is of Christian origin, the black horns, red skin and cloven feet are unmistakable: the devil grins menacingly as he sits upon his throne, sovereign of his murky kingdom. In his mouth is a small, round hole in which the miners will place a cinnamon laced cigarette as a mark of respect, the smoke curling and dancing up through the stale air.