Scenic drive to Potosí
Potosí is a city of contradictions. The contrasts of both riches and defeat are deeply rooted into the high mountains; the history of the city is glorified in majestic architecture and the poverty weathered into the faces of the people. At first we knew little about the city other than there was a silver mine and it had an altitude unmatched by any other city of the world. We discovered a place exploding in culture and experiences that we will never forget.
Historic map of Potosí
The city is breathtakingly high in the mountains. We avoided the taxi stand and trudged up the hillside with our backpacks on. After a six hour bus ride a thirty minute walk at 13,500ft (4100m) seemed doable. We are a little crazy sometimes. At each block we sucked in deep breaths of oxygenless air and held onto our chests as our throbbing hearts tried to escape. A little light-headed and we arrived at our hostel ready to explore the city.
El Cerro Rico through colonial arch
Potosí has a history entwined with Spanish colonial dominance and the production of silver. Mid-sixteenth century a meandering llama shepherd on the mountainside discovered silver flowing from beneath his campfire. Within decades the Spanish had colonized and created the city of Potosí beneath the cerro rico (rich hill).
Silver extraction factory
The Spanish forced indigenous and African slaves to work the mines months at a time without seeing light. The population of Potosí grew so much in the 17th century that over 15,000 men worked in the mines at one time and the city’s population exceeded that of Paris. Potosí quickly became the richest and most populous city in South America.
The mines are still a central part of Potosí. They are less productive than they once were, but nevertheless over 1,500 men continue to work in over 500 mines that have swiss-cheesed through the mountain. Carmen and I decided to see the mines for ourselves. The unique part of visiting the mines is that tourists are supposed to bring gifts for the miners within. With our coveralls, rubber boots and headlamps we tromped our way to the miners’ market. We purchased a stick of dynamite, a detonator and nitroglycerine as an explosive gift (only $3!) and a couple liters of soda for the other miners.
Another purchase was a bulbous bag of coca leaves. Coca has been used in these mountains for thousands of years and it is drastically different from the connotations associated with cocaine. The miners chew and macerate 50-200 stemless leaves and they keep the wad in a huge ball in the side of their mouths. Throughout long hours of work the coca leaves provide energy, alertness and they suppress the need to eat. An added benefit is that they help ease the effects of altitude sickness. It takes 1kg of coca leaves to make 1g of cocaine along with many nasty chemicals, so chastising coca is similar to relating a cup of coffee to methamphetamines.
Enormous crystal of bolivianita
The mines were hot, 95°F (35°C) and wet and dusty. We started in the candeleria mine and we worked our way 1000ft (300m) horizontally into the mountain. The caverns were created 300-400 years ago and unfortunately I am taller than the smaller natives that dug the mines. I hunched and squat-walked through the water and muck. Then there was only a seemingly solid section of rock and an obscured cavity just larger enough to crawl on our stomachs. The air was thick and the walls wet and the rock dark with an occasional sparkle of silver or pyrite or a stripe of yellow sulfur.
“Vamos, vamos vamos!” Our guide yelled at us. We rushed along the tunnel to an opening and he pushed us against the wall. The slow rumble of the mine became louder; suddenly a two ton cart full of rocks rushes passed us with one miner clinging onto the back. Our guide stuffs a bottle of Fanta in the cart and a drawn out “graciaaaas” reaches us from the depths of the darkness.
We climbed to the inner depths of the mine. We would poke our heads down a little hovel then scale the dark cliffs within. At first we were all cautious of the 300 year old pieces of wood that braced the openings, but when looking into the abyss all of us scratched and clung onto every foothold and support we could find. Finally we reached the bottom, level four and 275 ft (80m) down. We found a thirty-two year old miner that looked over fifty that spent all day hammering two holes for dynamite. At the end of each day he would set off the charges and carry out the rocks in a backpack.
The city of Potosí
The lives of the men are hard in the mines. The expected lifespan of a miner rarely exceeds fifty years and most die from silicosis, falling rocks or misplaced explosives. Children also work in the mines; boys as young as ten years work to support their families. One thing is for certain, they can earn four times more in the mines than in the city of Potosí. So the men work extremely hard for a few ounces of silver and their lives remain difficult.
Inside the 450 year old Convento San Francisco
The dichotomy of life in Potosí extends to religion as well. Outside in the light is a community passionate about the Catholic Church. Potosí has several beautiful colonial churches and the San Francisco was constructed in 1547 as a slightly smaller version of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the darkness of the mines the people pray to a different god, “Tio,” the devil of the mountain. Their daily offerings of 96% moonshine-like alcohol and coca leaves to clay statues in the caves are a way of satisfying the mountain so that they remain protected and the veins of silver remain plentiful. The miners live these two lives: hours of darkness and heat in the mountain and a life of family and church in the city. After four hours of clambering around in the mines the light at the end of the tunnel was thrilling. Squinting and sweating I finally straightened out and looked into the city of Potosí.
Courtyard in Convento Santa Teresa
Potosí was also home to one of the strictest nunneries. The upper-class Spanish followed a regiment with the lives of their children. The first born married wealthy into the colonial upper class, the third born served the military and took care of the parents in old age. The second child was dedicated to the church. In the case of Potosí families paid an equivalent of $100,000 as a dowry for their daughter to become a Carmelite nun at St. Teresa’s. The rules of the nunnery were so strict that the nuns could only speak one hour per day and there was no communication to the outside world. Families could visit one hour per month and they were not allowed to see or touch their daughter.
La Virgen De Cerro Rico
We observed a trend in many of the religious paintings. The virgin Mary appears in many places as would be expected in a catholic country, but the shapeless mound that is typically meant to be non-seductive had been adapted in Potosí to be la sagrada virgin de cerro rico. During pre-colonial times each mountain was a god, with colonialism the traditions of the indigenous people merged with the icons of the catholic church.
Other paintings and figures show a bloody version of Jesus on the cross. This graphic imagery comes from the indigenous painters intertwining their own pain and suffering from the Spanish colonial rule into their faith in a new religion.
Traditional outfits on colonial streets
Cathedral by night
Walking the streets of Potosí we were constantly welcomed with a splash of history and tradition. A 400 year old church and a cobble-stoned path were all common sites. On one occasion we crossed a mother and children each wearing a traditional bowler hats. In the evening the brightly lit cathedral was a beacon of the city.
Barbershop in Potosí
I too needed enlightenment and getting a haircut seemed to be the easiest way to lighten the weight on my shoulders. I had been scared to get a haircut for many months because Argentine men have notoriously horrible hair styles. Throughout our travels we saw multiple rat-tails, lobster-tails and mullets and I refused to pay for something so wrong. In Potosí I found a nice shop, but I still shook my head vehemently when the barber pointed at a poster of boys with mohawks, fauxhawks and bowl cuts.
Kala purca at Puka Wasi restaurant
With my ears lowered we were in search of some food. We found a great little restaurant with some local quechua favorites. Kala purca is a local stew of meat and potatoes that arrives with a scalding volcanic rock bubbling and gurgling in the bowl. Another night we found a street side snack of lomito and milanesa sandwiches cooked out of tiny stalls. Each sandwich was doused with an array of sauces, topped with fries and spicy salsa.
Street food in Potosí
Potosí is a charming colonial city. Carmen and I loved the historic architecture and the rich culture throughout the city. From this one city, we were gaining an understanding of how Bolivia’s history affects its present.