Editor's Note: The following article was put on hold due to the damage suffered by the tourist attraction during the February 22 earthquake. Although we understand that there are higher priority rebuilding efforts underway, we have decided to publish this article in hopes that visitors will be able to visit the mine again one day in the near future. Individuals interested in visiting the area should contact the mine directly using the contact information listed below.
Have you ever had a job that you hated? Was it that co-worker next to you? The pay? Your boss? The hours? Regardless of your answers, its pretty much a sure thing that it pales to the conditions that miners worked under for years in El Chiflón del Diablo (The Devil’s whistle), a coal mine turned tourist stop in the south of Chile.
Photo by Colin Bennett
The mine’s entrance is a short distance from the sea in Lota, located to the south of Concepcion. It is the world’s only naturally ventilated mine, a fact that any flyer or website about the mine won’t fail to mention. During its peak, some 250 metric tons of coal were dragged out of its mouth by man, horse and cart.
El Chiflón del Diablo is nothing like functioning mines, such as El Teniente, which receive visitors for tours. It was not only the natural depth of the mine -which actually reaches some 850 meters below the sea floor- that gives meaning to this mine; the mine’s reputation comes from the way the owners treated the miners and the sub-human standards the miners were forced to work under.
The mining company ran shops where miners spent tokens they earned during the week, in other words, they were paid only with basic goods to feed themselves and their families. Housing resembling a mix of an urban ghetto with a farm was provided.
The mine started producing in the early 1800s when conditions were even worse. But even its modern counterpart was no picnic. Most of the corridors are too small to stand upright in and the temperature does not go below 74 F--only higher. The miners experienced toxic, odorless gas, long shifts with no light and poor oxygen.
In 1997 the government decided the conditions were too detrimental and shut the mine down for good.
The only problem was that Lota, a town of 50,000 people, was completely dependent on the mine to keep its economy moving. So through funding from CORFO, a government agency dedicated to innovation and investment, El Chiflón del Diablo became a tourist attraction, using former miners as the actual tour guides.
Lota is not only trying to attract tourists through the mine; a historical museum, parts of the miner’s village and a city park built by the former owners of the mine, the Cousiños family, are other tourist destinations. You can buy a ticket to all the attractions for about CP $15,000, a worthy attraction if you are in the area.
We took our tour with Don Marco, a serious looking miner who told us he lost his left arm after defending a friend from thugs; they stabbed him and cut it off with a machete. Don Marco’s tour isn’t your average city tour.
He pours his heart into the experience, and tries his hardest to make you feel the weight of how bad things were in that mine. The tour even reaches a sermon tone when he shuts off all the lights leaving the visitors completely blind and lost, even if only for about a minute.
“What would you be without your eyes…treasure them,” He told us more than once.
Of course the tour comes with hardhats, a lantern and safety vest to get everyone in the mining vibe beforehand. Almost all the equipment provided was bought for use when the mine still produced coal. Some of it, like the 1930’s-era Siemons telephone system, has been around for quite a while.
To find the mine, head south from Conception. Tours are also available from Conception, and don’t forget to check out the other historic sites in Lota while you are there. It’s all worth a visit to see just how bad that crappy job could really be.