We got up early and left the Gran Hotel in Ilo to drive to Minas de Toquepala (the mining town where Lucy and I were born). As we drove closer the terrain became ever more desolate until there were no plants at all for miles, just rocks and sand hills and ravines. This was quite a contrast after the lush jungle-like green of the mountain country we had experienced before. As we drove up that dry brown dusty road I suddenly had the feeling that my mother (deceased back in September) had joined us on our pilgrimage back to our beginnings. It made me consider that 52 years ago she made that same journey with four tiny children. She must have been wondering "what have I gotten myself into?", but she bloomed where she was planted and made a wonderful home for us all. After checking in at the front security gate (the whole town is owned by Southern Copper so we had to apply for special permission to even get in. However once the permission was granted they treated us like visiting royalty!
The first place they took us was the mine. It's an open pit copper mine that has been operating for nearly 50 years and has another estimated 40 years of life left. They blast out layers of ore containing their two primary products, copper and molybdenum (there are other trace elements such as silver and gold but they are in much smaller amounts). The rocks are loaded onto giant earth moving trucks, dumped through crushers and either carried away by conveyer (gravity pulls the crushed rock along the down-hill conveyor - in fact they generate electricity from the turning conveyor) or by train car depending on whether it's low-grade or high-grade ore (they use very different processes to extract the metals depending on the grade of the ore).
Our guide was Teresa, the director of public relations, and she was so kind and informative.
What you see below is the crusher into which the trucks load the low-grade ore before it is taken away by the conveyor.
These trucks are HUGE. Each one costs about $4M (each tire costs $35K and is used for about a year). You can see that the whole family is standing in front of the bottom half of one tire.
In the low-grade ore process (which they've only used for the last 10 years or so) they are able to recover some of the highest purity copper (99.9996% pure) in the world they leach copper out of the rock by sprinkling acidic water over the stone for years and alternately letting a special stone-eating bacteria degrade the ore. The acidic water with the copper in is concentrated through chemical separation processes and then put in large tanks where electrically charged meter-square stainless steel plates are dipped for 5 days. When they pull the plates out of the electrolysis a half-centimeter copper plate has formed on each side. They clean and flex the stainless steel plates to remove the copper plates. This process alone generates 100 tons of copper per day.
The high-grade ore is crushed and then ground until it's a powder (the final set of grinders are giant tumblers filled with the soft-ball-sized steel balls that you see below) mixed with water that flows with the consistency of a thin shake. Then it is separated in a bubbler where the minerals rise with the foam. The molybdenum is removed and the remainder is dried in a kiln to a powder. This copper rich powder is loaded on train cars and sent to a smelter in Ilo (down on the coast).
After the mine took us to a cafeteria for lunch and we saw the mailboxes the kids used to run to to get the mail.We also so the old American school where the four oldest went when we lived there.
We went to what had formally been the Mormon church built by the efforts and funds of our family and many others back in the late 1950s. It's now a company training center.We found the house we had lived in, and though we weren't able to go inside (the current resident was on vacation) we did take pictures in front of it, listen to the older ones reminisce about their memories, and went to the ravine behind it where dad had built them a playhouse (now gone).
I was born two months before they finished the hospital so mom went to a small clinic down near the entrance at a place called Incapuquio. The building is now gone and there's a golf course there now.
My sister Lucy was born a year-and-a-half later in the Toquepala hospital. We stopped by and took pictures of the outside but didn't see the entrance and it was late in the day so we loaded up the van again to leave. At that point I noticed a window that said something about hospital records so Lucy and I went over to ask about whether they had our records. They said that records that old were archived and would take some research, but the man in the office insisted that we visit the hospital itself.
He took us up to the top floor (there are three) and got a nurse to find the key to the delivery room. When he opened that door we realized that THIS was the very room in which our mother had gone through delivery and where Lucy had first seen the light of day. We went back to the van and called everyone to come join us. I took a picture of dad and Lucy in the delivery room and then suddenly I felt mom with us again. The tears started to flow and we found ourselves feeling that this was a sacred moment.
This trip to Toquepala was the primary purpose of our trip to Peru and it didn't disappoint. Prior to this the fact that I was born in Peru was purely academic. Now I feel connected to the place. I feel Peruvian.