Potosi

September 10 - 12, 2014

Potosi

You wouldn't know by looking at it, but the city of Potosi was once the economic center of the world. According to legend, the Incas were to begin excavating Cerro Rico in 1462, but a supernatural voice told them that the silver was not meant for them, but for the others who come from a distance place. In 1544, Potosi was discovered accidentally by an Incan shepherd named Diego Huallpa who after chasing a loose llama up the mountain Potojsi (Quechua translation for thunder). Exhausted, the man built a fire at the foot of the hill only to discover that the ground before him became molten silver. His encounter caught the eye of the Spanish, who were consumed by the precious metal and enslaved the local people into mining the silver within. Even the famous novel Don Quixote pays homage to Potosi. Something "worth one Potosi" meant it was deemed priceless and far superior to even the most valuable treasure. The source of the silver came from the mountain Cerro Rico, serving as the economic heartbeat to the Spanish colonial mint for centuries.

 

Rising more than 15,800 feet high, Cerro Rico is now an ant farm of tunnels from the thousands of mines. This mountain supplied the currency for the Spanish crown and throughout Europe in the 16th century and was the single most abundant source of silver in the world. But not all was prosperous to the 8 million miners who died in vain to make Potosi on the map. Working in the Potosi silver mines was quite literally working in Hell. The miners today continue to offer gifts for protection to El Tio, a supernatural lord of the underworld. It is believed that he owns the mines and the minerals inside. Statues of a demonic, devilish figure are littered with cigarettes, booze, and coca leaves. It is believed that without it, El Tio himself will take his wrath out on those in the mines. In the past, villagers would sacrifice a llama and smear its blood at the mine's entrance to appease him. This deity has a connection with the Christian belief of the Devil. Miners would worship Christ and the Virgin while above ground, but as they entered the mines, they would pray to El Tio to protect them from the harsh world below.

The dangerous conditions within the mines cause many miners to die from mercury poisoning, pneumonia, and accidents. Ley de la Mita was implemented by the Spanish for mandatory forced labor to all indigenous and African slaves over the age of 18 years old. The miners were forced to work for 12 hours of more for four straight months. Their eyes need to be covered when emerging from the mines to prevent permanent damage from the sun. The turnover for dead miners grew to the point where the Spanish began important African slaves to compensate their losses. Life expectancy in the mines was less than seven years. Yet today, miners continue to mine Cerro Rico in hope of fortune, but centuries of excavation have drained most if not all of the silver. An estimated 9,000 miners work within Cerro Rico's 20,000 tunnels including children. Many miners suffer from black lung disease before the age of 40, risking their lives for less than $4 a day. It is cheaper to buy equipment for mining than the supplies necessary to enroll in school.

Today, Potosi is a mere shadow of its former glory. It went from being the largest city in the world with over 200,000 inhabitants to half the population today. At its peak, Potosi had more inhabitants than Paris, Madrid, and London. Sitting at 13,500 feet high, Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world at over 13,500 feet.  When the silver has long been depleted and Spanish influence dissolved, the city of Potosi faded into history.

When Jesse and I arrived in Potosi from Uyuni, we reserved a stay in La Casona Hostel, a 200 year old restored colonial house. The walls were painted yellow and had a beautifully open atrium. Many tour operators take you into the mines of Cerro Rico to give you a glimpse of the working conditions inside. The mines can reach temperatures of 115F and contain chmeicals and gases as well as abestos and arsenic. The average miner's lifespan after entering the mines is within 10 or 15 years before they die. It is recommended in multiple guides to avoid tour agencies that allow you to throw dynamite for obvious environmental and safety reasons. Coca leaves and alcohol is a preferred gift to buy from the miners market before the tour begins. I unfortunately can not stand being in claustrophobic spaces in the dark tunnels and decided to not visit. Jesse did however, and I bet he appreciated life a little more after entering the mouth of hell.

Instead, I visited two churches called Catedral and Convento de San Francisco. Catedral had white columns orated with gold, red, and blue trim. My guide was a little obnoxious, constantly quizzing me on Bolivian history and saying "come on, Caaaaaseey". I got a high five for every correct answer. Convento de San Francisco was much more organized with catacombs that smelt damp and musty. Founded in 1547, it is the oldest monastery in Bolivia with quite a collection of religious paintings. The most famous painting is The Erection of the Cross by Melchor Pérez de Holguín. The guide told me that he included himself in the painting helping carry the cross. We went to the roof where you can see Cerro Rico towering over the city.

The elections were occurring at the time we were in Potosi, which makes this a grand total of three elections over three countries. The city was a ghost town since nothing was open and no cars were allowed on the roads. We took a tour of Casa Nacional de la Moneda where we were greeted by a terrifying plastered mask of a smiling European face known as El Mascaron. No one really knows how it got there or what its purpose is, but the caricature is iconic to Potosi. 

This enormous fortress was where the silver was processed to make coins for the Spanish. The building was built around 1753, taking an entire city block. The structure has over two hundred rooms and five enclosed courtyards. Some of the original machines are still in good working form after all those years. Each process of the coin making was quite fascinating and tedious with many workers losing limbs from the dangerous environment. It was interesting to see the paintings that incorporated elements of Catholicism blend with mountain Cerro Rico. The richly detailed image of the Virigin Mary took shape of the mountain and has elements of the Andean earth goddess Pachamama. Our guide was convinced that the modern currency symbols originated from the word "Potosi" and used flashcards. Potosi is one of the three cities in Spanish America other than Lima and Mexico City authorized to produce coins.

After the elections, Jesse and I left for Sucre, but not before signing our name on the hostel's map. It must of had over a thousand names from all over the world. Fond du Lac, represent!

SOURCES:

  • Benchwick, G. Lonely Planet Bolivia: Lonely Planet, 2013. Print.

  • Blore, Shawn. Frommer's South America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Print.

  • Davidson, Kief. "The Devil's Miner." PBS. PBS, 2006. <http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/devilsminer/mountain.html>.

  • Keeling, Stephen, and Shafik Meghji. The Rough Guide to Bolivia. 2015. Print.

  • Mutić, Anja, Kate Armstrong, and Paul Smith. Bolivia. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet, 2010. Print.

Casey FrenchComment