DixPix Photographs

     

SOUTH CORDILLERA

 
     
  Lifestyles-  MINING AND EXPLORATION  

 

The mining industry is a major financial backbone in the Southern Cordillera, especially for Chile, Peru and Bolivia.  The exploration for minerals and their extraction have become an important lifestyle for a significant portion of the population.  These range all the way from those employed by major national or international companies, to the hardscrabble and often dangerous life of the "gypo miner" whose style of operation is described under disappearing ways.

 

The pit and plant at Chuquicamata, arguably the world's foremost copper mine.  Located in northern Chile, copper has been mined here since before the Incas, and is now operated by the government.  This style of mining is referred to as "open pit" for obvious reasons.  For scale, that's a city in the background. Click to see big picture (640x480 pixels; 117 KB)
A closer view of an open pit, in this case Mina Aguirre, which is right on the outskirts of the city of Santiago, although few of the inhabitants know of its existence. Click to see big picture (640x438 pixels; 116 KB)
The big open pit mines use huge excavators and trucks.  Here the bucket of one is being hauled to its site, dwarfing an ordinary flatbed truck. Click to see big picture (640x415 pixels; 92 KB)
From the mine, crushed ore is usually sent to some sort of mill, where the economic minerals are concentrated.  Most look better than this one near Copiapo. Click to see big picture (333x480 pixels; 63 KB)
In smaller operations, the ore is first sorted by hand so that only the best need be transported. Click to see big picture (637x480 pixels; 158 KB)
Near the surface in the desert areas, copper can easily be seen by its colorful oxides.  This blue one is azurite, green is often malachite.  Some of the desert minerals are actually soluble in water, as rain is very rare. Click to see big picture (545x480 pixels; 134 KB)
Gold ore for small mines tends to be crushed with mercury.  This is a rocker-style trapiche in which a large stone is rocked back and forth to crush the sample.  Gold is recovered by evaporating the mercury (not healthy). Click to see big picture (640x430 pixels; 119 KB)
The more typical trapiches have wheels turning in a big dish.  In some cases this is turned by some animal walking in a circle. Click to see big picture (573x480 pixels; 121 KB)
Nowadays most trapiches are motor-driven, and are used in some mills of respectable size. Click to see big picture (640x449 pixels; 90 KB)
Eventually ore concentrates will be purified in a smelter or equivalent plant.  This one is at Potrerillos in northern Chile. Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 102 KB)
Here a tailings pile for a plant in Peru is being used as a football field. Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 93 KB)
Bolivia has a long and particularly brutal mining history, exploitation of slaves by the Incas followed by enslavement, inhuman treatment of all indigenous peoples by the Spanish for gold, silver and tin.  This is the entrance to an old Incan tunnel in the Cordillera Real of Bolivia.  Guess which one is the gringo. Click to see big picture (614x480 pixels; 125 KB)
A tribute to the miners near Oruro, Bolivia. Click to see big picture (624x480 pixels; 100 KB)
Even today, many national mine owners do not treat their workers too well.  This is the entrance to what would become the important El Indio gold mine (Chile) when it was still a prospect in 1975.  Guess which is the mine owner. Click to see big picture (640x440 pixels; 127 KB)
The base and precious metals are by no means the only riches extracted.  Here lithium and other salts are being refined from brines in the middle of the Salar de Atacama, a huge salt flats in northeastern Chile. Click to see big picture (640x397 pixels; 84 KB)
Argentina does not have a mining tradition such as the other countries of the southern Cordillera, but it does have oil and gas in abundance, and despite protests, the mining of minerals is following. Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 80 KB)
Before you can mine you will need a prospector or geologist to find you a deposit.  Here the ideal geologist is immortalized (in Cuba).  These types are hard to find nowadays, however.  Click to see big picture (330x480 pixels; 68 KB)
You will likely have to settle for someone with a smaller hammer, who scribbles notes into a field book, and runs up bills at the analytical laboratory. Click to see big picture (332x480 pixels; 59 KB)
GOLD!  It's what every prospector would like to stumble across. Click to see big picture (640x312 pixels; 97 KB)
One of the traditional ways of finding gold deposits is by panning, Where gold grains in creek sediments can be be isolated in this fashion, it may be possible to trace them up drainages to their source.  Gringo's tend to use plastic pans, even here in South America. Click to see big picture (574x480 pixels; 141 KB)
More traditional pans around the world use wood, this one displays gold from near Puerto Inca in eastern Peru. Click to see big picture (620x480 pixels; 91 KB)
A largely Chilean invention is the poruno, made from a black cow's horn.  It is especially useful for testing crushed ores where water is scarce (ie. the Atacama Desert), although this gold is from the Chubut Province of Argentina. Click to see big picture (640x351 pixels; 78 KB)
Sometimes the sediments have sufficient gold to be an ore in themselves.  Here clay-rich sediments are being broken up and run down a simple sluice near Tingo Maria in Peru.  Gold, being heavy, tends to stick to the floor. Click to see big picture (255x480 pixels; 66 KB)
Whether exploring for gold, copper or whatever, larger companies prefer too look for hard-rock deposits, and that means drilling. Click to see big picture (640x418 pixels; 101 KB)
A closer view of a drill-crew bagging samples in the Atacama. Click to see big picture (334x480 pixels; 80 KB)
But wherever a deposit is found that the "informal" miners can get their teeth into, you can expect an instant rough-and-tumble town to appear, such as this one in the desert of Peru. Click to see big picture (640x421 pixels; 122 KB)