Thursday, April 05, 2007


We almost didn't stop in Potosí, but I am so glad we did. Just like Bolivia on a whole, it unexpectedly ended up being an incredible experience. Potosí was once, along with Lima and Mexico City, one of the most important cities in colonial South America because of its fabulous wealth. Overlooking the city is the Cerro Potosí, more commonly known as Cerro Rico, or "Rich Mountain." The local Quechua people mined the silver on the surface of the cerro prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Starting in 1546 however, the Spaniards began large-scale mining. The cerro has been mined continuously ever since and it shows. Not a single inch of the cerro is untouched and the battered and beaten mountain and the miners it swallows (hundreds every year even now and millions during the colonial era) stand testament to the greed that fueled colonialism...and fuels society today.

At one time, the silver that was mined from Potosí was 99% pure right out of the rock which resulted in the saying "valer un potosí", "to be worth a potosí" meaning to be worth a fortune. Most of the veins of mixed silver that are visible today were ignored in colonial times simply because much purer silver was abundant. However, today, the productivity of the mine has diminished significiantly and the miners mine the mixed silver as well as zinc and lead.

Our experience going into the mines began in the miner's market where we bought gifts for the miners we were about to encounter. The miner's market is a street when the miners buy (or the tourists buy for the miners) bags of coca leaves, rough, filterless hand rolled cigarettes, 96% pure sugar cane alcohol and dynamite--all the "necessities" of mining. I felt conflicted buying supplies for such an unhealthy, chemical dependent lifestyle, but it was explained to us that miners simply won't mine without the coca leaves (they numb the cold and prevent the miners from feeling thirst or hunger since they anesthetize their stomachs) and the cigarettes and alcohol are used not only for celebration and relaxation but for offering to the gods that govern the mines. And, of course, the playdough-like mixture of nitroglycerine and wood pulp that is dynamite is a necessary part of the business (there are hundreds of explosions each day on the cerro) that the miners have to pay for themselves since although they are technically part of a cooperative, they each work for themselves and are paid for the minerals that they mine individually and every gift of dynamite lowers their expenses. So, after we bought the supplies and got suited up we headed up the cerro for a demonstration explosion (all the tourists who wanted could have their pictures taken with the lit dynamite...not me however!) before we entered the mines.

Cerro Rico, not a single inch unscathed

Hi-ho, hi-ho, off to the mines we go!
Inside the mine was not a very pleasant experience. A few times I had to conciously remind myself not to panic when I realized my pulse was starting to race. It was the sound of an explosion from the inside and floating dust I was breathing in that bothered me the most (particularly the thought that it is the same toxic dust that I was breathing that causes silicosis in the miners lungs) but the climbing down rickety ladders, hunching through low passages and and scooting around black holes leading into the unknown deep wasn't exactly my cup of tea either.

We talked to some of the miners at work, one of whom was only 16 years old. They told us that they enjoyed their work in the mines. It seemed to be a source of pride. They also informed us that they mine about 9 bags of minerals a week worth on average 80 Bolivianos each, which translates to about $100us a week which I think is relatively good money for Bolivia. Apparently though, the miners are known for being hedonistic with the money they earn since it isn't all that likely they will live past 50.

El Tío watching the miners' every move

In colonial times, the local native population provided the labour needed to mine the silver which was needed to finance the Spanish monarchy and their costly European wars through a system known as mita, which in reality was virtual slavery. As the local population diminished as a result of hard work, disease and general demoralization, African slaves were brought in to make up the labour shortfall, however it was found that the African slaves were even more susceptible to the horrid underground conditions (workers lived underground for months at a time) and died at a disgustingly high rate. The Europeans themselves could not stand the conditions either and only monitored the output of silver from above ground. Eventually, without any direct supervision, the labourers stopped working very hard. To motivate the workers, the Spaniards tried to instill the fear of god into them and set up life size figures underground representing Satan, who was always watching them. The workers decided that if Satan was a punisher and enemy of the Catholic Spaniards he must be a friend of theirs and began offering him gifts, like the cigarettes and alcohol that tourist now bring, in hopes that he will fertilize Pachamama (mother earth) resulting in the minerals that are their livlihood. Syncretic religion and superstition is major part of life in the mines. Every year a llama is sacrificed at the entrance of the mine and it's blood smeared on the rocks to pacify the hungry Pachamama in hopes that she will be satiated and not hungry for miners.

After all was said and done, going into the mines was a fascinating experience even though at various times througout the tour I had to wonder if it was a good idea. The city of Potosí itself is studded with grand churches and we were lucky enough to be there over the Easter weekend. We witnessed a procession where Jesus (in several different forms) was paraded through town although oddly enough, the procession was military in character as much as religious.

Creepy looking Jesus statue on the Easter parade through Potosí

We also went to a museum here where Potosí's silver was made into coins, although the most interesting part was the anthropology section displaying remnants of life, including these dead Spanish babies found in the cemetery here. They are remarkably well preserved down to the baby fuzz on their heads.

Mike with the machinery once used to make coins


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