Potosí, & Why I Didn't Stay There

‘Potosían society, sick with ostentation and extravagance, left Bolivia only with a vague memory of it’s splendours, the ruins of it’s churches and palaces, and of eight million Indian corpses.’

The Open Veins of Latin America – Eduardo Galeano

The ruin of Potosí serves as a microcosm of Latin America’s tumultuous and intermittently torturous history. Black and Indian slaves alike were slaughtered in the silver mines of Potosí, their bodies forming the foundations of our modern European empires. Crops cannot grow for miles around the city, poisoned by the same fumes that poison their would-be harvesters.

Wretchedly grandiose at the height of its riches, Potosí’s population rivalled those of Boston and New York, a density matching London’s in the same period. It’s overshadowed by the Cerro Rico, ‘the rich mountain’, known in Quechua as ‘the mountain that eats men’. ’A mouth of hell into which a great mass of Indians enter every year and are sacrificed by the greed of the Spaniards to their ‘god’,’ in the words of a Dominican monk visiting in 1550.

The city of silver, the largest gem in the crown of Latin American riches. The Cerro Rico, one of the richest mountains humans have ever uncovered. The once grand streets of Potosí, winding colonial alleys decaying. ‘Worth a Potosí’ is still a Spanish idiom for something that is priceless, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V branding the city’s coat of arms with the boastful idiom, ‘I am rich Potosi, the treasure of the world, and the envy of kings.’. A joke, these days. Bolivia, one of the poorest, neglected and underdeveloped nations in South America, produced billions of dollars of silver in Potosí.

The African slaves died quickly. They couldn’t handle the altitude. The mine owners had plenty of supply, with more slaves being forced to the coasts of Brazil every day, but the system wasn’t particularly efficient. The deaths were a tad inconvienient. Instead, they opted to draft Quechua people into forced labour. The Quechua people, the Indian race native to the region, were obviously well acclimatised to the altitude, so they may take that bit longer to be killed off in the mines. They would travel hundreds of miles from their homes in various parts of the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands, carrying their supply of candles and food for the year, which they provided themselves. They would enter the mines each Monday, and emerge on Saturday, though ‘If 20 healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday.’ They were only forced to work one year out of four, however four out of five employees were killed in their first year so it didn’t make much difference to them.

Modern Potosí is a decrepit shell, shattered along the spine, the twitching crab it once sheltered dying slowly in its bones. The silver dried up long ago, Potosíans continue mining cheap tin and zinc. Local woman trawl through the grounds of the Cerro Rico, raking their ancestors graves for any fragments of metal that may have been left behind, through ‘A crazy quilt of garbage’. The upper cone of the mountain itself has collapsed, symbolic of the city it shadows. The ‘culture of death’ that lingers in Potosí is renewed with every new generation born with sicknesses and defects from the mines.

‘You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out’

The department of Potosí is one of the poorest in Bolivia, and the town itself is not particularly safe. I arrived here on the bus from Uyuni, hoping to purchase a ticket to Sucre and leave straight away. A teenage boy showed me the way from the random highway petrol station that my bus dropped me off at, to the main bus station in Potosí. This was enough to let me know that I did not want to witness Potosí. The trademark leather-faced locals were sat, as always, by carts at the side of the road. They sold your typical bags of coca leaves, used to combat altitude sickness all through the Andes, but rather than the fruits or the saltenas or the cigarettes that you might expect of a roadside stand, here the cholitas sell safety masks and moonshine. People are harder in Potosí. Mal de mina, or scoliosis, is a rampant affliction in the city, it is considered ‘the miner’s birthright… without cure’, and you can see examples of it in the people you will pass in the streets.

Many people I met opted to stay longer than the time it took to haggle for a bus ticket. Their lists of planned activities did not appeal to me. The primary tourist attraction in Potosí is a half day tour of the mines, into the belly of the Cerro Rico. Large groups of gringos pay tour operators to take them to ogle the men hunched in the mines, though I never met a person who was given context about the dark history of the mine beforehand, meaning that the tourists mainly go in without much of an appreciation for how the mines they were crawling through had impacted Bolivia. I was told many confused stories of the ‘weird statue thing’, when tourists saw the idols of El Tio, the ‘god’ of the underworld, who granted death or unimaginable wealth. It was always with great excitement that people recounted throwing dynamite around in the mines, or buying pieces of dynamite to take home as souvenirs. I just think that mucking around and getting excitable about explosions in somewhere like that is a bit gross, personally. I decided it wasn’t for me, but I’m sure there are people out there that treat the tours with more respect. If you are interested in taking one, please just read up on the history before you go.

The Cerro Rico is an iconic symbol in Bolivia. It is representative of her twin histories of decadence and devastation. A living emblem of the indomitable indigenous Andeans.

‘The city that has given the most to the world, and has the least’.

If you’re coming to Latin America, you should read this book first. It’s an important account of the devastating history of colonialism and the modern ramifications of indigenous oppression.

Read here for more about my trip to Bolivia.

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Travel blog guide to visiting Potosí Bolivia