Potosí: The Envy of Kings

A mining town might be a strange final destination in Bolivia for me to choose, but as it says on the city’s coat of arms, “rich Potosí, the treasure of the world, and the envy of kings” is no ordinary mining town!

The city was founded in 1545 after rich silver deposits were discovered by the Spaniards in the aptly named Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) nearby.  Even the town’s altitude (4,090m, the world’s highest city!) couldn’t stop Spanish greed and the Potosí veins of ore quickly came to be the world’s most prolific, lucrative and valuable.  By the end of the 18th century Potosí had come to be Latin America’s richest city and one of the largest in the world at that time, and that history has left the city with a wealth of lovely colonial architecture to boot.  The silver from Potosí was of such importance that it underwrote the Spanish economy and its monarchs for over two centuries.  I love that, even today, anything invaluable or lucrative is described in Spanish to be vale un Potosí (worth a Potosi).  This should be a fascinating couple of days…

Another rough and bumpy six hour bus ride brought me from Uyuni to Potosí (which included one break-down which required some running repairs to the radiator with what looked like chewing gum) and the route took us across some beautiful mountainous but arid countryside.  I’m amazed that the shocking dirt track into Potosí was the best they could have come up with after 450 years!!

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Our busted-arse bus.                               Llamas!

Once I was dropped off at the bus terminal I walked up a gasping couple of blocks (I’m acclimatised but the altitude still takes its toll…) to a nearby hotel and checked myself in.  I then went off to explore the city a little bit at last light.

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That was yesterday.  Today I’ve been exploring the city and trying to see some of its museums, churches and other historic buildings.  Turns out that Sunday isn’t the day to do anything around here as most things are shut (including many of the churches?!).  But I had a good wander around nonetheless.

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A few street scenes.

Inside the old fortress-like Mint where the silver was melted into coins.

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Convento de San Francisco.                     Torre de la Compañía de Jesús.

The true highlight of a visit to Potosí is a trip down into the mines themselves, and I’ve signed up for a tour tomorrow with an agency after spotting their “guaranteed at least one dynamite detonation” advertisement (“Really?  Where do I sign up?!”).  Forget your sterile “western-style” mine tour with all that fancy safety equipment and zero risk of danger, this one should be like going back to the Dark Ages…

Most of the mines in Bolivia are co-operatives that are owned and worked by the miners themselves, and methods down there haven’t changed much in centuries.  Most of the work is still done by hand in appalling conditions (4,200+m altitude, temperatures varying from below zero to 45 degrees Celcius, many noxious gases etc.), and a miner typically lasts less than 10 years before dying of silicosis pneumonia or losing so much of their lung capacity that they can no longer work.  Here’s the most shocking statistic I’ve found: it’s been estimated that in three centuries of colonial rule – 1545 to 1825 – as many as eight million Indian and Africans (slaves, brought over by the Spaniards) died as a result of the mining.  The slaves would work 12 hour shifts for four months at a time underground before being brought to the surface.  Incredible!

Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) looms right above the city.

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