Published: July 31st 2008July 15th 2008
Cerro Rico and Potosi
As seen from the top of Torre de la Compania de Jesus
A dirt track just over 200km long connects Uyuni with Potosi, the nearly 6.5 hour bus ride sufficiently time-consuming that even a Laotian might raise an eyebrow at the average speed. With a dozen backpackers clogging up the seats, I'm sure the locals were none too pleased either as it was standing room only before we'd even left Uyuni. The journey was expedited, and people's bladders tested, by just one stop along the way, and there was relief all round when we arrived in the 4,000m+ altitude of Potosi. A taxi so old that it was a Datsun delivered me to my accommodation.
I'd never heard of Potosi before reading the RG, yet it deserves to be a poster child for the devastating effects of colonialism and I was astonished that there was no museum or exhibition devoted to what had happened in the town. Overlooking it is Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), whose mining potential had been recognised by the Incas, though an explosion there had convinced them that the gods wanted the mountain left untouched.
In the 16th century a llama herder caught at night on the mountain lit a fire for warmth, and was surprised to find
Casa Real de la Moneda
the next morning that there were streaks of silver in the embers. When word inevitably reached the Spanish overlords, they were not slow to take advantage and Cerro Rico became the richest source of silver the world had ever seen. Potosi grew from this wealth until, in its heyday, its population exceeded that of contemporary Madrid, London, and Paris. But of course the profits never accrued to the native people, and the human cost was a major contributor in the depopulation of the Andes region over the next three centuries, with estimates ranging up to 9 million deaths for the toll taken in the mines.
The sheer quantity of silver produced became apparent when I visited the Casa Real de la Moneda, the site of the old Mint in Potosi, housed in a fortress-like building. The size of the mule-driven devices that had flattened the silver ingots to a thickness from which coins could be stamped was impressive, wooden clock-like mechanisms of interlocking wheels that were eventually replaced by steam and then electricity-powered versions. Two of the largest treasure caches ever discovered were on ships wrecked on their journeys to Spain carrying Potosi silver. A display in the Mint
Plaza 10 de Noviembre
showed the wide range of silver goods created in Potosi, from cups to chamber pots to handbags.
Nowadays, Cerro Rico is mined predominantly for its zinc and tin, but conditions for the miners are still appalling. For a few dollars each day, they work long hours in an environment rich in dangers both short-term and long-term. Roughly 5% of the workforce is children. A bizarre industry has grown up involving visits to the mines, giving tourists the opportunity to breathe the same contaminated air that bestows on the miners an average life expectancy of 15 years from when they first start underground.
In general, since colonial times, government corruption has squandered Bolivia's enormous paper wealth in terms of natural resources, with foreign companies and countries usually being the beneficiaries - a new colonialism. The Bolivian currency, both coins and notes, is produced overseas in Spain, Canada, and France.
There were few signs that Potosi had once been the generator of great wealth. The streets and pavements were too narrow for its current population of 150,000, and it must have fairly bustled when it had the nearly-200,000 residents of its prime. Many of the local buses were recycled
Casa Real de la Moneda
Japanese or Chinese vehicles, presumably donated. Oddly, Potosi had a Japanese language school but no Japanese food. And the restaurants I found called Hong Kong and Beijing, that held promise as places to down a chop suey, were both fried chicken houses.
At night, like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, the triangular profile of the mountain is picked out by lights. Thus there is a reminder at all hours of the day of what has given Potosi its tragic history.
The city claims to be the highest in the world, and the altitude left me short of breath when doing anything remotely energetic. After having read in different places that Diet Coke exacerbates altitude sickness as well as that it can help mitigate it, I decided not to alter my usual addict's intake in order to combat any possible dehydration.
A couple of other general observations about Bolivia so far. Many businesses have posters of scantily-clad women in their offices, including concerns such as bakeries and photocopying shops which I wouldn't necessarily have associated with T&A in the workplace. And Winnie the Pooh (fully clothed) seems to be a popular character here.
There are more photos below