El Teniente Mine: Plunging into its coppery depths

Should I turn left? Right? Keep plummeting forward into the mountain's dark insides? Any wrong turn and I could be trapped within the mine’s maze of tunnels forever. What was once a leisurely trip to one of Chile’s most important landmarks has suddenly turned into nightmare. Will I ever escape El Teniente?

Photo courtesy Ben Schneider
Photo courtesy Ben Schneider

Abruptly, the guide’s piercing voice jolts me from my reverie. Rather than venturing through the copper mine’s twisting shafts on my own, I have joined a tour group and knowledgeable guide to explore this massive facility producing approximately 400,000 metric tons of copper each year. Its impressive output qualifies it as both the largest subterranean mine in the world in both production and physical area.

Photo courtesy Ben Schneider
Photo courtesy Ben Schneider

Given copper’s crucial role in the Chilean economy, El Teniente consequently constitutes one of the most important landmarks in the country. Yet, it generally does not welcome just any tourist; an influx of guests, after all, could complicate mine operations. Anyone hoping to tour the facility must consequently petition for permission to explore the mine from CODELCO, the state agency controlling it.

Once granted authorization to enter the underground chambers, all must don mining attire including oversized neon orange jackets, rubber boots, and hard hats as a safety precaution. Although amusing, this seems rather unnecessary in retrospect; the tour seems to visit very few areas in which guests could possibly sustain injury. Regardless, the costumes do give some insight into the daily woes of the miners, although the hard hats prove infuriatingly heavy when worn for several hours.

After we all put on our bright ensembles, we piled into minibuses to trek to the mine itself. The half hour drive twists through mountain roads before finally entering the mine shafts. Some 2500 kilometers of tunnels wind through the interior of the mountain and we only had the opportunity to observe a small sampling of them before arriving at our first destination: the control area.

Each chamber appeared to be the same; a handful of men crouched around computer screens staring at rocks and hitting buttons.

Photo courtesy Ben Schneider
Photo courtesy Ben Schneider

While this could quickly prove boring, the workers engaged us by teaching us how to operate the controls and even allowing us to try ourselves. The controls might have been infuriatingly complex, but crushing rocks via an electronic monitor felt empowering.

Following a crash course on how to run the massive machinery, we continued plunging farther into the mountain in order to view the equipment actually crushing the rocks. Dust and dirt swirled throughout the room as rocks tumbled into the machine. The actual mechanism only briefly captivates the attention, but the firsthand glimpse into the miners’ work environment gave us something to look at. When coupled with the mandatory attire and the lunch in the dining casino, the visit to this room allows visitors to better grasp the daily realities faced by the mine's 5,000 employees.

Soon thereafter, the tour escapes from the filth and pauses in a revamped subterranean chamber to examine some of the beauty found alongside the rock and dirt. The exhibit showcases several gems found within the mountain. Not only does the display highlight their impressive size, but it also skillfully uses lighting to emphasize their color and beauty.

Nothing rivals the gems' vivid shades, but the adjoining mining town, Sewell, features dozens of similarly bright buildings. Historically, the private company once operating El Teniente housed all the workers within the village, while concurrently requiring them to abide by its rules and shop only at the company store.

Photo courtesy Ben Schneider
Photo courtesy Ben Schneider

As the mine’s ownership switched, the town was abandoned and eventually transformed into a tourist attraction featuring a relatively small museum that explores Sewell’s roots and its relationship with the adjacent mine.

While the comprehensive exhibits address the basic facts surrounding Sewell, the town is best discovered with a guide. In addition to seeing the buildings, the expert provides comical insight into the town’s past and spirit. After all, stories such as that of the thirsty residents who altered the plumbing system in order to avoid losing their alcohol when it was poured out by overzealous officials cannot be adequately captured by an exhibit.

While chuckling over their ingenuity and standing amid bright sunlight, Sewell seemingly stands at a stark contrast to the adjoining mine. Both facilities have, however, evolved from their somewhat sordid pasts. El Teniente no longer represents a terrible work environment for those toiling within, although it would still be a nightmare to become trapped inside.

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