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Published: April 4th 2008
Potosi & Cerro RicoGetting high in Bolivia
View of Potosi and the famous Cerro Rico, taken from Torre de la Compania de Jesus
If you're the type of traveller who likes statistics or ticking things off a list then Bolivia is the perfect country for you. Amongst other world's highests, Bolivia contains the highest capital city, the highest salt flats, the highest navigable lake, the highest ski resort and in Potosi, subject of this blog, the world's highest city. There are probably many more highests that we don't know about in Bolivia but I'm sure we'll find more of them as we explore the country.
Potosi is situated at a breathtaking 4000m above sea level. The city was founded in 1546 to exploit the silver veins in Cerro Potosi (later called Cerro Rico), the mountain overlooking in the city. Potosi's growth was phenomenal: just over a century later it was one of the largest cities in Latin America with almost a quarter of a million inhabitants. To put that in context Potosi was bigger than both Paris and London! Silver Rush
It's unclear when exactly silver was discovered in Cerro Rico; one story goes that a llama herder lost one of his flock and had to spend the night on the mountain. He light a fire and exposed
some of the silver. Whatever about the origins there is no doubt about the importance of the mine in the Spanish conquest of Latin America. From the 16th century until the end of Spanish rule approximately 45,000 tonnes of silver were extracted. The Spanish used slave labour to extract the silver and it's estimated that 8 million people - mostly locals and African slaves - died either in the mountain or from illnesses related to working conditions.
The fact that all these people died in the mines is shocking. But perhaps even more incredible is that even today people continue to work in these death mines, in atrocious conditions that aren't too different to colonial times, using old fashioned technologies for mineral extraction. Most of them develop silicosis and die at an early age. Even worse, many of these workers are children who are forced into this work to support families. Many of them do not live to see 30.
Most tourists who come to visit Potosi visit these famous mines in Cerro Rico. We had read a description of the typical tours which all sounded just a bit too claustrophobic and scary. So instead of going into
Bacchus & the Fountain
Entrance to the Casa de la Moneda, where the extracted silver was minted. The Casa is now a museum.
the mountain we decided to try climb it. At 4800 metres it's certainly not a walk in the park, but we were starting from 4000 metres, plus we had a day and a half to acclimatize in Potosi beforehand so we were confident we'd make it.
We had also had a good amount of acclimatization in Uyuni. The journey from Uyuni to Potosi is supposed to be one of the most scenic in Bolivia but both Ruth and I felt sick throughout so instead of enjoying the views we attempted to sleep, and tried to ignore the bumpy, slow road by telling ourselves it would soon be over. It was supposed to take six hours but as we've learned by now, estimates for journey times in Bolivia are best case scenarios, and rarely match reality. Our six hour trip turned into 8.5 hours as we had one breakdown for an hour, one flat tire (another 30 minutes), and another hour delay on a switchback road, stuck behind Bolivia's equivalent of Fr Dougal or Frank Spencer. He was driving a lorry with a JCB on the back up a narrow road but on one nasty turn he had let the
Ruth climbs the scree
Nearing the summit we had climb along scree fields. Potosi is the city in the background.
back of the lorry slide too far and now he couldn't move it without risking losing the JCB over the side. A huge traffic jam developed on both sides and the minds of a good number of Bolivian truckers, bus drivers as well as gringos were consulted as to how best solve the problem. Eventually a solution was worked out and we could move on! The guys we spoke to on the other bus going from Sucre to Uyuni were having their own nightmare journey, running 5 hours late! Adjusting to the heights
After 3 days in Uyuni we thought we'd be well adjusted to the altitude, but Potosi is a few hundred metres higher and it's full of steep streets so the first evening we were a bit breathless as we walked around. We immediately liked the city, however. Tupiza and, especially, Uyuni seemed to exist almost solely on tourism and the backpacker market whereas in Potosi backpackers were much less noticed and noticeable, and there seemed to be much more local activity. In short it seemed like a proper Bolivian city!
That first evening the main square was mobbed as Real Potosi were playing a big
Ruth takes a rest
A previous "Ruth" had left her mark on Potosi
match against San Lorenzo from Buenos Ares in what seemed to be the South American equivalent of the Champions League. Ruth was feeling sick still so we didn't do too much sightseeing. Potosi's altitude makes it difficult to breathe by day, while the related cold made it difficult to sleep at night. We had enough blankets for an Antarctic expedition but it still felt cold. And our promised 24 hour hot water turned out to be occasional lukewarm water - that was if I got there before Ruth of course! Still, once you were up and about and the sun was shining everything felt fine.
We spent the first full day in Potosi sightseeing. Ruth still didn't feel 100% but she still came along to see some of the sights. The best was the Torre de la Mirador de Jesus, from whose roof we had super views of the city and of Cerro Rico. We also went to see the Casa de la Moneda, formerly the mint where all the silver from Cerro Rico was processed. It wasn't the most interesting tour. Our guide book said the tours took 2 hours and after about an hour both Ruth and
Potosi Street Signs
Nicely designed street signs, another impressive sight in Potosi.
I were ready too sneak off but luckily it soon ended. While the museum told the story of the mint, it neglected to mentions the estimated 8 million Indians and African slaves who died in the mines, fuelling the Spanish Empire in Latin America. The rest of our day in Potosi we spent wandering around town exploring the old buildings, squares and churches which are abundant in Potosi. Attempting the summit
So on to Cerro Rico. Well, it's a fairly straightforward hike. You can see the summit from town (we could see it from our bedroom window), and indeed from most of the climb. There is no single route to the top so we just set out from town towards the base of the mountain. Little villages have developed on the slopes of the mountain near the mining areas and there were hundreds of miners and a huge amount of extracted rock lying around - it was very different to our usual hikes.
The rough roads which the miner's trucks use run a good way up the mountain so we followed these though there were many obvious shortcuts which were steep but quick too. As we climbed higher
Casa de la Moneda
Courtyard in the Mint
we left the miners behind though there were still people living up quite high on the sides of the mountain. We also came across a few abandoned mines, though we did little more than walk a few metres inside them. If you got lost or if the roof collapsed it might be a long time before anyone found you!
At about the 4600 mark we had to start scrambling as the path disappeared and this is where the going got tough. Ruth had felt sick a lot of the way but amazingly she kept going on! I don't think I'd have had the same willpower. The air was thinning, we needed more rests and we took fewer steps between breaks. It wasn't quite as hard as Cerro Toco (from a few weeks back) but we were still very relieved to get to the summit.
Conditions at the top were great. We sat on the summit, took the usual pics and had our lunch. We had it to ourselves for about 20 minutes until we saw two electricity workers arrive. Cerro Rico is lit up every night (it looks spectacular from town) and these guys were fixing some of
Uyuni to Potosi: Unscheduled Stop 1
Wheel change about an hour from Uyuni, almost par for the course during a bus trip in Bolivia.
the broken lights. We normally celebrate any significant summit with a few drinks once we return but that evening we both felt a little bit tired from the altitude so it was only diet cokes this time!
That brought our time in Potosi to an end. We'd been staying above 3000 metres for almost 2 weeks now so we were both looking forward to descending to Sucre to take a breather.
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