A visit to the dormant coal mines in Lota is a great day trip from Concepción (Chile) - and probably the most interesting thing to do in the area besides killing yourself with overdoses of mayonnaise and bread. Lota means "little town" in the Mapuche.
The mine was established in 1884 and finally closed in 1997 when it was no longer proving to be profitable. It is the only mine in the world which has a natural ventilation. As one descends into the mine they can hear the whistle of the wind as it blows down into the mine and out through the other end. Hence it is called Chiflon del Diablo ("The Devil's Whistle").
It's a pretty awesome experience. Before descending in a cage-elevator (above) you get equipped with a hard-hat, headlamp and battery-pack (below) to illuminate your path. Unfortunately battery-powered headlamps and torches weren't available back in the mid-1800's. And due to the high levels of gas within the mines, candles, matches and anything fire related was not permitted due to risk of explosion. So the miners would work in complete darkness in spaces as little as one metre high - often wearing sandals - extracting a whopping 250 tons of coal daily.
Of course the oxygen ran low quite often - especially in the presence of the other chemicals floating around - so they kept a little bird in the mine and watched it cautiously as an indication of sufficient air and hence life. I didn't understand all the guide was saying in motor-mouth Spanish so I don't know exactly how they watched the bird in the complete darkness. I don't imagine it was singing with too much glee in the absolute absence of light.
The mine is 850 m deep and has 11 km of tunnels that go under the seabed. My friend said that if you listen carefully you can hear the ocean above you whilst you are passing through the tunnels. At the bottom of the mine the temperature never drops below 23°C.
The visitors are guided by ex-miners who worked there and - assuming you understand Spanish - you can learn about the uses, habits and work techniques. You even get to handle a few of the ancient instruments they used. The guides also share their stories and talk about their fears and difficulties in the mine, such as the constant danger of explosions and collapses. My guide also sang the song of the mine.
Opening hours: everyday, 9 am to 6 pm
From November to March, closing time extends to 8 pm.
Telephone: (56-41) 871 565 or (56-41) 871 008.
Take comfortable, closed-toe shoes. And don't wear white... It's a coal mine!
Entrance fee: I think it was about $3.500 (less than US$7) for a combination ticket for the mine, the lovely park and the interactive science-museum (which was so much fun).
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