Potosi--Wild Colors and Faded Glory

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February 15th 2013
Published: October 30th 2013
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Potosi from Tupiza

Yeah, it´s now all paved!

colorful Bolivians dancingcolorful Bolivians dancingcolorful Bolivians dancing

taken in Valparaiso, Chile, not in Carnival here as I'd hoped
My asthmatic lungs wheezed out a tune as I climbed the steep hills of one of the world's highest cities, Potosi, at 4,090 m/13,420 ft. For a couple of weeks, I explored the labyrinthine, narrow streets, ferreting out rich churches and monasteries encrusted with gold and silver, colorful, balconied 17c colonial palaces, and church roofs for grand views over the city and surrounding countryside.

Travel Drama

I'd come from little, wild west Tupiza on the only bus traveling the five hours by day. Everyone else was continuing to the capital, and the driver forgot about me, passed the terminal, and let me off only when I started shouting. By then we were in a dodgy part of town from which I had to walk uphill with all my things to find a taxi; this wouldn't have been ok in the middle of the night!

The drama continued as the hostels were full for a festival, and it took me forever to find a place. I then visited the tourist office where I got a fabulous map of all the colonial streets and structures and set out on a pilgrimage to visit them all--things were looking
Ojo del Inca Hot SpringsOjo del Inca Hot SpringsOjo del Inca Hot Springs

with undulating, colored mountains

How the Mighty Do Fall, and the Traveler Benefits

The scale and wealth of the city's architectural gems were completely out of proportion to its current incarnation as a busy, traffic-choked, provincial backwater catering primarily to the surrounding indigenous communities. Some of the colonial churches and mansions had been restored in bright colors; others were dilapidated and peeling, showing their adobe construction. Somehow, the mighty had fallen.

I love cities that were rich centuries ago and have gorgeous architecture from that dizzying time, but then fell into obscurity, meaning there was no money to modernize and destroy these gems of the past. With Brugges, Belgium, the river for trade silted up and the city was frozen in the middle ages. For the towns along Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Enlightenment ended the popularity of medieval pilgrimage, and one finds many of the oldest medieval churches in Europe.

With Potosi, the silver in the Rich Mountain, Cerro Rico, gave out at the time of independence from Spain in the early 19c. The center of power moved far away to the capital, La Paz, and Potosi was forgotten; its population plummeted from 200,000 to 10,000.

However, in the 17c, Potosi was one of the biggest, richest cities in the world thanks to huge deposits of silver discovered a century earlier in Cerro Rico, the reddish, multicolored pyramid of a mountain that looms over the city. The silver gilded the city in beauty and was the source of wealth that supported the Spanish Empire for 250 years (the riches of the Incan gold were a pittance compared to this).

Slaves and Miners

Obtaining the silver ore came at a high price--tens of thousands of enslaved indigenous people and Africans died working in the mines in inhuman conditions. Unfortunately, thousands of Bolivians still toil in the mines, mostly for tin and zinc, in extremely dangerous conditions.

Miners work in cooperatives, and while they earn more than the average Bolivian, they have short lifespans from the hazardous conditions. In the dark, claustrophobic bowels of the mountain, using only hand tools, they work at 40C/100F with little ventilation, breathe the clouds of toxic dust that leave tourists gasping and jam their cameras, crouch all day in low tunnels, and suffer from accidents from caved in tunnels, runaway ore carts and dynamite explosions. There are no safety precautions, and most die by the age of fifty or less.

A tour of the mines is popular, but I couldn't enjoy an attraction looking at others´misery. Before I came, I saw the excellent film, The Devil´s Miner, about the lives of Potosi's child miners, most of whom start working at age 14. I didn't need to enter the mines to feel compassion and know that conditions needed to be improved. A young German engineer in my hotel was doing an internship in the ore processing plants, helping them become safer and more efficient, but so much is needed!

Fabulous La Moneda

A popular attraction that I did enjoy was a visit to Potosi's finest museum, the 18c Casa Nacional de la Moneda (National Mint House) that takes up an entire block and houses an outstanding, wide-ranging museum in its cavernous rooms.

While its focus is on minting, it also had Baroque paintings of the Potosi school, minerals, archaeological findings including bizarre, mummified Incan and Spanish babies who were perfectly preserved by the cold, dry air and everyday objects made of silver for the colonial wealthy.

Our knowledgeable, English-speaking guide explained the workings of the huge pieces of machinery that were used in the many steps of the minting process. The earliest 17c machines from the city's first mint used mule and slave power that chewed up lives at an alarming rate. Later, steam and then electric ones were used until it was all phased out in the 1960s. Now, bills and coins are produced in Canada and China.

Like so many developing countries, Bolivia sells its raw materials, here minerals, at low prices to developed nations who use the materials to manufacture goods that are then sold back at high prices. The lack of technical expertise effects many areas of Bolivian life--in the cathedral, they told me there's no one in Potosi who could play the newly-restored organ.

Monasteries and Miradors

Miradors--what could be better? I love heights--getting that bird´s eye, red-roofed perspective and integrating it with my map and street images. My favorite was atop San Francisco where we not only climbed bell towers, but also walked around on the roof. Later, I visited the cathedral and got to linger on its roof alone as long as I wanted. I love countries that aren't
selling flower petals for the many celebrations selling flower petals for the many celebrations selling flower petals for the many celebrations

the petals were artistically laid in front of doorways
afraid of liability lawsuits!

In its heyday, Potosi had nearly a hundred churches and many monasteries and convents. Two of the latter were open to the public. I took a Spanish-language tour of the 16c San Francisco church and monastery, the oldest in Bolivia, where the highlights were the rooftop visit and the huge, glassed-in cloister.

The 17c convent of Santa Teresa was the richest in the city, where the elite sent their second daughter (and a hefty dowry) to be a cloistered nun when she turned 15. The tour was fantastic, visiting the church and many rooms filled with exquisitely-carved and gilded altarpieces, beautiful paintings, crystal chandeliers, carved and tiled ceilings and a couple of flowered patios and cloisters.

This richness was not quite the setting imagined by St. Teresa of Avila who preached poverty. So they didn't enjoy their lives too much, the nuns also had a private room with barbed metal whips, hairshirts and other instruments for self-flagellation and torture. It was only in 1976, that this medieval way of life was loosened.

While the little jewel-box church of Santa Teresa was where the elite had worshiped, it was now
mostly filled with indigenous congregants. After a long harangue, I was allowed to enter for mass where there were alter girls--unusual in South America, a mumbling elderly priest, the now-visible nuns and a shaggy dog who sauntered down the aisle, getting pets from children and peeing on a pew; no one flinched.


I was in Potosi for Carnival and had high hopes since I'd seen fabulous Bolivian costumes and dances at the St. Peter and Paul Festival in Valparaiso, Chile. However, it was a huge disappointment as most costumes were just purchased from stores. For adults, a mask of Edward Munch's The Scream was popular while children were either princesses or superheroes. My favorites were the Quechua, but since the dancers were being hosed from all sides, most were wincing, not smiling.

Carnival's focus was on pelting everyone with water from balloons or industrial-sized guns, spray foam and confetti, as well as setting off firecrackers and listening to brass bands blaring the same tune day and night. It was, however, a bonanza for the industrious, indigenous women and children who sold these dousing weapons and snacks to the crowds.

In the steaming Amazon basin, in Santa Cruz, the country's second largest city, it was worse as people threw paint-filled balloons at the crowds. On television, I saw a bit of the famous Bolivian Carnival at Oruro where spectators weren't allowed to spray the dancers, who thus had beautiful costumes and smiles. My first photo is from Valpo; in Chile, where I saw the best of the Bolivian Carnival.

Ojo del Inca Hot Springs

My favorite day in Potosi was outside the city at the natural hot springs, Ojo del Inca (Eye of the Inca). I walked to a market square about a half an hour through the crowded, smoggy streets and was packed into a minivan of Quechua speakers.

We drove up into the mountains of fancifully-eroded red rocks, isolated adobes in green fields, and big machines mining along the riverbed, dropping people off along the way. This was one of many times in Bolivia when my sensitive nose was challenged by the smell of body odor, tobacco and manure.

I tried to keep my focus on the winding mountain road and the antics of the wild driver who passed everyone, even on blind curves. Arms
Carnival dancers in the plazaCarnival dancers in the plazaCarnival dancers in the plaza

no costumes, but having fun
were flying as the women crossed themselves like mad on every near collision. Miraculously, we made it.

I got dropped at the side of the road, followed a path across a bridge, and got lost, but didn't mind--I was in nature, walking on the earth and out of the traffic-choked city. Finally, I found the circular, celadon pool surrounded by grass and undulating, multicolored mountains. I paid my $1.50 and changed in the foul bathroom. Then heaven...

I had a delicious day swimming across the large, natural pool and floating in the center where bubbles from deep in the earth tickled my backside. It was cloudy, so I'd not worn sunscreen and ended up with a bad burn that peeled, the second in two months. The sun is deceptively fierce at these high elevations, and I vowed to be more careful.

For the moment, though, life seemed perfect as I headed back to town to get ready to travel to Sucre, Bolivia's civilized White City. The hot springs were a perfect end to Potosi.

Additional photos below
Photos: 52, Displayed: 29


indigenous womenindigenous women
indigenous women

one selling the (stale) popular grains, the other looking like a professional with her briefcase
ancient, indigenous womanancient, indigenous woman
ancient, indigenous woman

still active and climbing steep streets
Santa Teresa church, with many gold altersSanta Teresa church, with many gold alters
Santa Teresa church, with many gold alters

and a rich convent. Wealthy second daughters only need apply.
street with Cerro Rico and the tower of San Franciscostreet with Cerro Rico and the tower of San Francisco
street with Cerro Rico and the tower of San Francisco

and colorful, balconied colonial houses
gilded cathedral ceilinggilded cathedral ceiling
gilded cathedral ceiling

Cathedral being restored with lots of gold; hopefully they'll recap the costs in tourist visits

30th October 2013
 bell tower of San Francisco with Cerro Rico

Love this photo!
There is something about the framing and contrast between light and shade that makes me adore this image.
30th October 2013
 bell tower of San Francisco with Cerro Rico

Through a window, not so darkly...
Thanks, Shane. I love images through windows, maybe it's the contrast you mentioned.
30th October 2013
colorful Bolivians dancing

If joy could be bottled this would be a picture of its contents
30th October 2013
colorful Bolivians dancing

The joy of dance!
I so agree, Dave. That's why it was sad seeing the wincing dancers here. Joy to all dancers, including the Dancing One.
1st November 2013

Obscurity & gems of days gone by
The forgotten Potosi sounds marvelous and the festival grand. Loved every photo! The vibrance of life. Lingering in the bell towers--- I have a fear of falling so I hold on tight. Your blog makes me want to grab the next plane and head to Bolivia! I would not like balloons filled with water or paint. Guess I'd better stay away from that event.
2nd November 2013

Wonderful Bolivia!
I think you would love Bolivia, and Potosi, while challenging, was amazing. I generally avoid festivals in Latin America because of the drinking, but water/paint balloons were even worse. Glad you liked the photos!

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