Potosi - Bolivia

May 24 2014


otosí is a city, the capital of the department of Potosí in Bolivia. It is at an altitude of 3967 meters and has about 115,000 inhabitants. It is claimed to be the highest city in the world. It lies beneath the Cerro Rico (“Rich mountain”), a mountain of silver ore, which has always dominated the city. Potosí with Cerro Rico founded 1545 as a mining town, it soon acquired fabulous wealth. In Spanish there is still a saying vale un Potosí meaning “being worth a fortune” and, for Europeans, “Peru” was a mythical land of riches. It is here that most of the Spanish silver came from and Indian labour, forced by Francisco de Toledo through the mita institution, came to die by the thousands. After 1800 the silver mines became depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. During the War of Independence (1809-1825, see History of Bolivia) Potosi was frequently passed from the control of Royalist and Patriot forces. Major blunders by the First Argentine Auxiliary Army (under the command of Castelli) led to an increased sense that independence was needed and fostered resentment towards Argentina. During that occupation there was anarchy and martial excess, and Potosi became unfriendly to the point where it could not be defended. When the second auxiliary army arrived it was received well, and the commander, Belgrano did much to heal the past wounds inflicted by the tyrannical minded Castelli. When that army was forced to retreat, Belgrano took the calculated decision to blow up the Casa de Moneda. Since the locals refused to evacuate this explosion would have resulted in many casualties, but by then the fuse was already lit. Disaster was averted not by Argentina who at that time were fleeing, but by locals who put the fuse out. In one stroke the good feelings Belgrano delicately built were destroyed. Two more expeditions from Argentina would seize Potosi. Zacatecas, Zacatecas, in Mexico was the other big silver mine of the Spanish Empire.


our hundred years after Bolivia’s silver mines financed the Spanish Empire, director Charles Vaughan meets the miners who still risk their lives scraping a living from the mountain’s exhausted and toxic seams. Called Cerro Rico (rich mountain), this barren conical hill is 4824 metres above sea level and the world’s highest city, that of Potosi, sits at its base at 4090 metres altitude. It is estimated that 70,000 metric tons of silver were produced over a 400 year period. In fact it’s the site of what was the largest silver mine in the world during the 17th Century. Long ago the silver of Cerro Rico ceased to supply the wealth of the Spanish Empire. But it still yields some sort of living for the thousands of Bolivians who work there. Cerro Rico is one of the world’s finest examples of economic geology, as well as a testament to the harsh working conditions that Bolivians deal with on a daily basis. The guide gave us a complete explanation of dynamite, so watch the video to listen and see it with your own eyes.


e were given the opportunity to tour the Cerro Rico mine through Baobab travel. This tour was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness first hand a working mine, whose operations consist mainly of manpower, for there are few machines doing the dirty work. The temperatures are extreme, the walls are muddy and slippery, and tunnel floors are flooded. The ceiling is just a few feet above the floor at many points, and the only way through is on your belly. Men and boys pull carts full of rocks, shovel rocks into sacks which are heaved up several levels for removal, all by hand. The miners constantly chew coca leaves, helping them stand the overwhelming heat and prevent them from being hungry. Typically, “tourist” activities are designed so anyone could tag along, but the Cerro Rico mine tour is definitely an exception. Upon first entry into the mine you feel a cool draft, but within 50 meters of the entrance the heat begins to rise, and within minutes you are sweating profusely. The mines has been mined for nearly 500 years. Indeed, so rich did Cerro Rico prove to be that the Spanish colonists dreamt of building a bridge of solid silver all the way from Potosí to Madrid. Far-fetched perhaps, but by the early 17th century it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world and, at a tremendous human cost, supplied the Spanish Crown with untold riches.To feel a bit of our experience watch the video made of the mines.

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