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Potosi

Written on: Friday January 4th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Potosi, Bolvia 

Author: Julie 

Hola! 

We?re running out of time and have to get to Uyuni as quickly as we can but when we arrived to Potosi in the mid-afternoon we couldn?t muster the energy to take the 6 hour bus ride to Uyuni leaving that evening at 6 PM. So, not really having planned to spend a night in Potosi we quickly pulled out the Bible (ie Lonely Planet?s South America on a Shoestring Budget) and headed off to the backpacker hostel named Koala Den. It won out against all the others when the book described it as ?warm and cozy?. At the altitude of 4060 meters (it claims to be highest city in the world) we knew the nights would be cold, but we were reassured when on entering our double-bed room with private bathroom we saw the gas-powered heater in our room. As well, the receptionist assured us we would have hot water 24 hours a day, which we?ve heard in the past only to walk into the room to discover an electrical water heaters attached to the shower head. Yes, you do get hot water with those contraptions, along with an electrical shock if you touch the taps while standing in water, but only if you lower the water pressure to a trickle. So, imagine you?ve got just enough water to create a rivulet of stream down one arm, yes it is hot water, but the remainder of your body is freezing from being exposed to the cold air. But we didn?t need to worry in this room because it had boiler heated water, the best kind of all. I took a long, constantly hot shower, which felt amazing after 2 weeks of cold water then Kevin went and spent the next hour in the bathroom. I could understand the great feeling of the shower but for an hour? Only when he opened the door did I understand that he had done his laundry at the same time. We slept that night with our room draped in drying clothes hanging from our travel clotheslines, over the heater. We slept like koalas in their den.

Unfortunately, other than walking from the hostel to the main plaza for a bite to eat we didn?t see much of Potosi. I really wanted to spend some time there but we couldn?t afford any. Here is the background on this important city: Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its history is tied to silver. It was founded in 1545 after the discovery of silver-ore deposits in the rainbow-colored mountain, the Cerro Rico (?rich mountain?). By the end of the 18th century, it grew into the largest (over 200,000 people) and wealthiest city in Latin America, helping to underwrite the Spanish economy for over two centuries. One theory holds that the mint mark of Potosí (the letters "PTSI" superimposed on one another) is the origin of the dollar sign ($). It is from Potosí that most of the silver shipped through the Spanish Main came. According to official records, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. Of this total, 7,000 tons went to the Spanish monarchy. Indigenous labour came to die by the thousands, not simply from exposure and brutal labor (36 hour work days made possible with the chewing of coca leaves), but by mercury poisoning: in the patio process the silver-ore, having been crushed to powder by hydraulic machinery, was cold-mixed with mercury and trodden to an amalgam by the native workers with their bare feet. The mercury was then driven off by heating, producing deadly vapors. To compensate for the diminishing indigenous labor force, the colonists made a request in 1608 to the Crown in Madrid to begin allowing for the importation of 1500 to 2000 African slaves per year. An estimated total of 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí throughout the colonial era. African slaves were also forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda as acémilas humanas (human mules). Since mules would die after couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves. After 1800 the silver mines became depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline.

Still, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment and exposure to a myriad of noxious chemicals and unventilated shafts), the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis pneumonia and dying around 40 years of age, 10 years after entering the mine. It is estimated that, in the past years of indigenous labour, roughly 8 million indians died, "eaten" by the Rich Hill. To protect them in their hell below, they worship their devil, known as Tio (?Uncle?). Every day they give the statue representing their devil gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, or beer in exchange for protection against the harsh environment. Working practices are medieval with it being done by hand, with basic tools, and underground temperatures vary from below freezing to a stifling 45C. They work the mine as a cooperative, with each miner milking his own claim and selling his ore to a smelter through the coop. Travelers can pay 10$ a per person for a 3 hour tour through the mine to meet the miners and scramble and crawl through low, narrow, dirty shafts and climb rickety ladders. After the tour, they can go to the Cerro Rico where guides (usually ex-miners) give dynamite demonstration blasts as well as visit a mineral refinery. It would have been amazing to visit the mines that once produced most of the silver that was used to mint coins around the world and to see how the conditions hadn?t improved since it?s heyday. We talked to a few travellers who did the tour and said that it wasn?t to be missed, unfortunately we had no choice. Uyuni here we come. To learn more, rent the US film The Devil?s Miner.