CNN Traveller - Heart of Silver
May-June 2006

Bolivia is a land of unlikely heroes and its new president, the former coca grower and llama farmer Evo Morales, may prove to be no exception to the rule.

This is a country where legends are made. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in mysterious circumstances in the small town of San Vicente in the mountainous Altiplano – either by suicide, or more dramatically, in a hail of army bullets. Guerrilla fighter Che Guevera also met his end here, executed in the deep subtropical south after trying to incite Revolución.

Bolivia is frontier country and a land of unlikely heroes. It has an extreme intensity and diversity in its landscape, from the steamy Amazonian rainforest in the northeast which inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the rugged peaks of the Andean mountains, vast salt plains, cliff faces impressed with dinosaur tracks, great swathes of cactus deserts and Titicaca, the highest lake in the world.

The country is difficult to navigate and tough to access. Landlocked in the very heart of the South American continent, Bolivia has the highest airport in the world in La Paz meaning pilots sometimes need to ascend to land on the runway. Airports are frequently closed, blinded by cloud.

Its geographical isolation is one reason why Bolivia has the highest proportion of indigenous Indians in any country in South America. Outside influence has been limited except, that is, when it comes to the top job in the country, which, until this year, has always been held by a man of Spanish descent. Now President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, has become the first indigenous leader in South America. That marks a real transformation in a continent where the Indian population did not even have the vote until the 1950s.

Morales is a different kind of hero to those of the past. For a start, he is homegrown. A former llama herder and coca farmer, he has become the People’s President, a man who wears striped woollen jumpers to high-level talks with the besuited leaders of Europe. At his inauguration in January, he wore a jacket bearing pre- Hispanic motifs and no tie. This is something novel in a continent more familiar with dictators and military rule.

Morales is championing the rights of coca farmers, challenging US efforts to eradicate production of the shrub, which has been part of traditional Bolivian society for thousands of years. The leaves – either chewed with lime or drunk as an infusion called maté de coca – help increase energy levels and relieve altitude sickness. As an appetite suppressant, coca is particularly useful in a country where the average GDP per capita income is a paltry $2,600 a year. As one miner said to me in the southern city of Potosí: ‘No coca, no work, no life.’

Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world and was once the largest, wealthiest city in the Americas thanks to the tonnes of silver inside the great hulking mountain, Cerro Rico, that overshadows the city. My tour guide, Oscar Pino, a former miner himself, told me the mountain has long been a mythical place for Bolivians: ‘Once you could not see the difference between Cerro Rico and the night sky. Both shone with silver stars.’

We drove up towards the summit, where the air thins at almost 5,000m above sea level and the light dazzles, glinting off the reddish peak of the mountain. I suited up in a thick rubber jacket and trousers, donned a miner’s helmet with lamp attached and put on big black boots. Then Pino led me deep into the mountain through narrow unventilated shafts into an underworld where it is even harder to breathe.

In the first tunnel, we went quickly from walking bent-double to crawling on hands and knees. It was oppressively dark as I felt my way, splashing puddles with my hands and smashing my plastic helmet against overhanging rocks. We found the vertical shaft down to the second level, wriggling through a space not much bigger than myself, loosening rubble as we lowered ourselves down.

Cave-ins are one common cause of death in the mines, along with mismanaged explosions and noxious gas poisoning, but it was the fine dust I found most alarming. The air in the mines is thick and choking and I wheezed my way further into the mountain, sipping water regularly to swallow away some of the dust and fumes.

Pino explained that workers here don’t usually make it to 35 years of age. If they are not killed in an accident, they die of silicosis, a common pulmonary disease among miners. ‘But you live with hope,’ he told me. ‘Each time you come to work, you think it might be your last day in the mines: if you find a fortune or then again, if you die.’

We burrowed deeper and deeper into the mountain, about 40m vertically down, squeezing past miners who would stop their work to accept presents I had bought that morning at the so-called Miner’s Market: a bag of coca leaves; fizzy drinks; sticks of dynamite; fuses. Many of the men were drunk or high, the whites of their eyes blood-red and glazed over. One miner, Orlando, 27, said that was the only way of getting through the day: ‘In the town, people play the lottery. But we live the lottery.’ He turned away from me to continue his work, chiselling out a hole and inserting a stick of dynamite, hoping the explosion might reveal a seam of silver. But after 450 years of mining, Cerro Rico has little to give.

Back in town, the old colonial architecture, dozens of ornate churches and the impressive Mint are a testament to a city that was once the world’s biggest source of silver. The Mint, now a museum, is more like a fortress with thick walls and hefty stonework. Inside, huge wooden presses still function, brought over from Imperial Spain in hundreds of pieces and assembled in situ. This is where the silver was turned into ingots and taxed at 20 percent to the Spanish Crown.

Along the winding cobbled roads, many of the churches are now being restored after the UN declared the town a World Heritage Site. When they open again, there will be another powerful reminder of Potosí's prosperous past. The churches are stocked with silver in the form of chalices, monstrances, and candelabras. Locals pay less than $1 to see these exhibits, but not everyone can afford it. One family, who had travelled here by bus from Sucre, three hours to the north, turned away at the entrance. The father told me they could not afford the ticket: ‘The silver cost so many millions of our lives, but now we can’t even to see it.’

It is sentiments like these that helped President Morales win the election. He is promising more job opportunities for the poor, in particular the country’s 4 million Aymara and Quechua Indians, many whom work in mining and coca cultivation.

That may well bring him into confrontation with Washington, which is watching matters closely. During his campaign rallies, Morales cried out: ‘Long live coca, no to the Yankees’, which has given rise to some worries in the business community. One company owner in Sucre told me: ‘I hope that Morales can give us a green light to work normally. He must know if we don’t work together in a team, we won’t even scrape by.’

Morales’ populist rhetoric may not be the same thing as his method of governance. What’s certain is he knows a lot about first-hand poverty and he is determined to try to change that for Bolivians, who feel they have long been bullied and exploited. Upon taking office, the new president called for a minute of silence in memory of Inca rulers who fought against Spanish rule, the revolutionary Che Guevara and coca farmers who died in protests.

Bolivians have a strengthened sense of direction now and are exploring questions of their identity. Already you can find a revival in music using traditional instruments, a renewed appreciation of colourful hand-woven textiles and greater interest in pre-colonial history. The hero of this tale may actually end up being the Bolivian people themselves.