Posted by Cassie, September 14th, 2011

Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4070 meters. The reason for its location is the mountain Cerro Rico, Rich Mountain, which was the richest silver mine in the world during colonial times. Now, most of the silver has been mined, and almost all of it was exported to Spain to finance their wars.

We took a tour of the mines with the agency, Real Deal Tours. The tour was very interesting, but it is definitely something you only need to do once in a lifetime. The Real Deal Tours is a new company that was formed by ex-miners that used to work for the other tour agencies in Potosi. However, they were tired of the corruption of the other agencies, so they decided to form their own agency. The other agencies say that they give 10% of their profits to the miners, but most of the time, this didn´t happen. Also, before entering the mines, the tours stop at the miner´s market where the tourists can buy gifts for the miners. However, the other agencies would take their tourists to shops that they owned, and they charged higher prices than the other shops in the market where the miners actually buy their materials for working the mine.

The miners work independently in cooperatives, so they must buy all their own materials themselves. This means that anyone can buy dynamite in the miner´s market in Potosi. Totally crazy! We bought a stick of dynamite as a gift for the miners, but it was unnerving to carry it in a bag on our backs throughout the mines until we finally gave it to one of the miners. The other main supplies for the miners are coca leaves, which they chew all day to suppress their appetite and to help cope with the difficult conditions in the mine. All the miners we saw had a ¨picchu¨, the Quechua word for mountain, of coca in the cheek. The other main supply for the miners is alcohol that is 96% proof, and it is almost like rubbing alcohol. It seems crazy that the miners are consuming drugs all day in the mine while they are using dynamite.

The conditions of the mines are horrendous. We spent two hours in the mines, and I can´t imagine spending 10-12 hours in the mines like the miners do. As we entered the mines, there was an electrical line running along the ceiling of the shaft, but our guide told us not to touch because it was live. There were also pipes carrying compressed air throughout the mine shafts to operate the equipment to drill holes for the dynamite. Our guide told us not to touch these either because they might be connected to the live electrical line. Then, our guide said that it would be better not to touch anything. Once inside the mines, it was really dark and muddy, and it was very difficult to breathe due to poor ventilation. As we descended, the air became warmer. The mountain is actually a volcano, so it gets very warm the farther you descend. Deep underneath the mountain, it gets so hot that the miners actually work without any clothes on, but we didn´t go there fortunately.

Once inside the mines, we stopped at clay figure of El Tío, the god of the mines who owns the minerals. We stopped to give a challa or offering of coca leaves and alcohol to the god for our safe passage through the mines. Apparently, we did not anger El Tío because we made it through the mines safely. It was amazing we made it through safely because there were so many accidents waiting to happen. Some of the beams that were holding up the shafts were broken. There was a lot of sulphur in the mines, and at one point we walked through a large pool of water. Our guide told us to walk slowly and not to splash the water into our eyes because it was acidic. Finally, I felt the air becoming fresher and colder, and I knew we were getting close to the top. Then, I saw some sunlight, and I was so happy to be out of the mines!

It was crazy to visit the mines after reading so much about them in my Latin American Studies classes. The Spaniards forced the indigenous people to work in the mines, and many indigenous people died due to the horrendous conditions in the mines. It is estimated that 8 million people died in the mines. The Spaniards would keep the indigenous slaves working in the mines non-stop for four months. When the indigenous slaves emerged from the mines, they had to cover their eyes since they were unused to sunlight.

The mines today are still very dangerous, but there are surprisingly few deaths per year. Only about 22 people per year die in mining accidents, but many more die due to lung disease from the silicone dust. Many boys start working at the mines at an early age, 10 to 13 years old. Our guide began working in the mines with his father when he was only 10 years old. However, our guide said that child labor is the mines is less now than it used to be.

After visiting the mines, we went to soccer game at the highest soccer field in the world. The Potosi team was playing the Santa Cruz team from the lowlands, so it wasn´t a fair match. The Potosi team won 5-0 since they had much more energy than the Santa Cruz team at the high altitude and dominated the game.

The next day, we visited the Casa de la Moneda, where all the silver from Cerro Rico was made into coins and ingots to be sent to Spain. It was a huge building with lots of well-preserved machines that were used for making coins. This was another place where indigenous slaves were forced to work, and the worst place was the ovens where they melted down the silver. Since there are no trees around Potosi, they had to use the pampa grasses and llama dung to heat the ovens, but this didn´t get the fire hot enough to melt the metal. So, they had slaves operating bellows to increase the temperature of the fire. This was difficult, hot labor, and the slaves did not last long in the job. The Casa de la Moneda also had several enormous machines for pressing the silver into sheets for making coins. They used mules to power the machines, and the mules didn´t last very long with this work either. They only  survived about 3-6 months, so they had to import thousands of mules from all over to power the machines.

Because Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world during the colonial period, there are many colonial era buildings, and there are many parts of the city that are very charming for walking. There is a pedestrian area near the central plaza that reminded us of places we visited in Europe. We enjoyed our trip to Potosi, and we´re very glad it worked it to go there on our second trip to Bolivia.

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