Potosi, Bolivia


Riding a bus into Potosi is like sitting in a lunar module, the ridges and mountains you cross are craggy, red, dusty, like some barren distant planet. You wonder why you’ve chosen to go there, knowing it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but thinking it’s only so because of some glorious past that owes itself to silver mining.

Then you come down off the last ridge, and Potosi sprawls across the almost burgundy scape below, at an incredible 4060 metres above sea level, easily one of the highest cities in the world. The cathedral and church spires poke into thin blue sky that you feel you had to break through to get there. But despite the stark barren cold seeping into you, and knowing the night will be worse, you start to realise that the journey might well be worth it.

As soon as you are on the ground, walking through the plaza, the air, or lack of it, catches up with you and you need to take deep inhalations just to keep moving. It’s winter time, too dry for snow. The wind is caustic, burns into you. The Indians wear ponchos, the mestizos overcoats, and almost everyone’s in woollen hats of some description. It’s a frozen world, the sun disappears and stars come out and lights come on. The lights kind of surprise you, remind you that Potosi is on planet Earth, in Bolivia, a city of over 150,000 people.


It was once the richest city in the Americas. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th Century, the Incas were already mining Cerro Rico (the rich mountain). The conquistadors took over the practice, extracting silver for Spain, a process that continued for another 300 years. The mountain still stands, like a gigantic red anthill. The city spreads right to the foot of it, a series of terracotta roofs and a plethora of churches. For, where the money was, the church was never far behind.

The Andes split north of Potosi into two Cordilleras or mountain ranges. Between these two ranges is the altiplano (high plain), a vast region several hundred kilometres long, almost as wide and at least 3000 metres in altitude. It’s an unsympathetic landscape, yet the locals toil away, unbothered it seems. Farmers, herders, weavers, their friendliness is astounding.

In Potosi, I found a room, went out to eat, no shortage of choices; empanadas, breads, soups and meats, potatoes always offered. A wooden door had a sign up, advertising the soccer Cup America. I went into the bar. Men were sitting on chairs around tiny tables, drinking limonadas, hot lemonade and liquor, a far better option than cold beer. The barman chewed coca, a tennis ball lump in the side of his mouth, the evidence. Coca leaves, of which cocaine is a derivative, is common, completely legal, chewed as a mild stimulant, or drunk as a tasty tea that alleviates the effects of altitude sickness and reduces hunger. The Spanish used that too to their benefit, forcing the Indians down the mine with little but a bag of leaves to keep them going 20 hours a day.

My hotel had a view of the mountain. It was lit with a row of lights that outlined its shape and emphasized its bulk. They revealed there were actually two crests, a church standing on the lower peak. There were another twenty churches within walking distance of the plaza. The styles overlapped – Baroque, Mestizo, Renaissance. And the colours varied too, yellow and orange paints.

rooftops from San Fransico, Potosi

I went up onto the roof of San Francisco, the views across town stunning, despite the howling, icy breeze. There were catacombs beneath the floor of the altar, bones lying scattered across the dirt. A depiction of Christ on the cross, life sized with real hair and beard threaded into wood, grimaced down at me. The guide insisted that the statue had bled real blood in the year 2000, a miracle. She had seen with her own eyes.

Potosi’s heyday, from the middle of the 16th century until the beginning of the 17th , had long since passed; the mountain nowadays only yielding tin, zinc and lead. But it was still the only thing saving Potosi from poverty. I wondered when 500 years of mining might take its toll, and the bare mound collapse in on itself.

I went along to a tour of the mint, constructed in 1575 to cast silver coins for Spain, a practice that continued until the silver all but dried up and other mines were found around the world. Three generations of presses were all still there in the museum. After a long period of irregular shaped chisel and hammer minted coins, the Spanish shipped silver rolling mills of green oak wood from Cadiz in Spain to Buenos Aires. From there they were carried overland to Potosi. Powered by four mules, the clock-like system, flattened silver bars. They are still in good condition, reportedly the only examples still existing world wide. In 1869, steam machinery took its place until it in turn was replaced by electricity. The mint stopped work in 1951.

It was ironic, the guide, a mestizo woman in a long green overcoat and a soft voice explained, that the Spanish now made some of Bolivia’s coins, a far inferior quality to the 98% silver they had supplied Spain. Lower denomination coins were made in Canada and Bolivian notes in France, she said. Potosi was a miniature model of the Latin American world. Reaped for all its worth and then abandoned.

I took a break for lunch, went across the road and up some steep stairs into a restaurant with a balcony onto the street. The almuerzo, a 3 course set lunch, common throughout Bolivia, made me warm again, walking later on the narrow winding streets, people out, the plaza full, the sunshine often warmer than inside, heating a luxury that many Bolivians couldn’t afford. There were markets to look at, Indigenous art shops of alpaca and llama products, hats, jewellery. But I felt I couldn’t ignore the influence of the churches, and decided to go on another tour.

At the convent Santa Teresa, with a promised tour of an hour and a half, I wandered through a maze of rooms, trying hard to concentrate on intricate details of Catholic history. Eight sisters still lived in the convent but between the 17th and 20th centuries, 21 sisters were present, the second born daughter of local families required to attend for the rest of their lives. They were only allowed to talk for one hour per day, during needlework. The guide, a young woman with a woollen hat and an energetic passion, would have found it hard.

The tour went on and on, each room locked behind us with a heavy iron key, more people joining constantly until we were a huge group looking at every aspect of the convent life including the chains the young women used to flagellate themselves. Two and a half hours later, I was back in the present. It was a quirky tour, one that left the sense that Potosi was much more than a mining town, and certainly one of the most important to the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

And there was still the mine. It can be visited, climbing down dark claustrophobic shafts, breathing in toxic chemicals that give a lot of miners silicosis pneumonia. At least nowadays, they work as a co-operative. Some small consolation. The cost of a tour includes a head lamp, overalls, a hard hat. You start by going down into tunnels that the Incas originally dug. The temperature rises as you go down. There is no ventilation. When the Incas converted to Catholicism, did they ever think that it was hell?

The miners expect a gift of cigarettes, coca leaves or dynamite in exchange for watching them work. They’ll set a blast, blow a hole in the rock while you look on wishing you were back on Earth. And that reminds you where you started, thinking Potosi was like some other planet, inhabited by ant-like people burrowing into a moonscape. But by you are certain now of one thing. You know that it was worth it.



~ by Drifting, Rambling on February 19, 2008.

2 Responses to “Potosi, Bolivia”

  1. […] tim axelsen wrote an interesting post today on Potosi, BoliviaHere’s a quick excerptA wooden door had a sign up, advertising the soccer Cup America. I went into the bar…. […]

  2. Hi Tim

    Looks great

    I havent had a chance to read all of them but its great. Sam hasnt been writing for ages now – he has a girlfriend instead

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