A Travellerspoint blog

June 2008

A first glimpse of madness

Loving Bolivia, where lunacy still roams


View MAP OF THE JOURNEY on AnnaMickus's travel map.

Potosí, the highest city in the world at almost 4100m, is quite an interesting place. We thought we already had been accustomed to the altitude, but walking up and down these hilly streets reminds us that we are nowhere close to used to the altitude. When you take a few steps up the street you get exhausted and you have to stop to catch your breath. The weather is beautiful and sunny during the days, but the nights are cold as on the North Pole. We’re glad we have been carrying our secret weapon this far: a portable heater that blows nice warm air into our ice cold room.

One of the most interesting places to visit in this town is the Cerro Rico Mountain that rises just next to the center. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver ever in the world, which made Potosí one of the richest and largest cities in the world in the 17th century. To give you an idea, the size of the city was comparable to that of London at that time.

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The Cerro Rico mountain

Well the wealth came at a price. A lot of indigenous people and African slaves had to work in hideous conditions and many had to give their lives in order to achieve this richness of the Spanish empire. They had to work for up to a week at a time without seeing the sunlight and with hardly any food, breathing in toxic gases and sand dust. It is said that 7 of every 10 men never returned once they were sent to work in Cerro Rico.

The mines are actually still worked, so we decided to take a tour and see for ourselves what it is like. We started by doing some shopping at a local market because we needed to get some supplies for the miners. So what did we bring them? Well, some normal stuff they could need in the mines: soft drinks, bottles of 99% alcohol, coca leaves to chew on... and yes, of course, some dynamite! Luckily everything was available from one stand so we didn’t have to walk that much.

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After getting the supplies we drove up to the mountain and entered the mines. The mines are a huge collection of labyrinth tunnels covering a great part of the mountain. We walked deep into the mountain and descended a few levels sometimes the tunnels being so narrow and steep that we had to crawl to get further. In fact, the people who now work in the mines still work in quite terrible conditions. It was very hard to breathe because of the lack of oxygen and the very dusty air. You tried to cover your mouth with a cloth to avoid the dust, but that made you gasp for air, so you had to remove the cloth to get air, and that just made the sand enter your lungs again. At some point our guide stopped us and pointed at some white stuff on the wall and handed some of it to me and a couple of others in the group. ”Can you guess what this is”, he asked. ”It is arsenic, so be careful not to put your fingers in your mouth after this”. Great! How interesting! I wiped my fingers quite fast after that. Only in Bolivia...

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Mickus with El Tio, the Uncle, to whom offerings like alcohol and coca leaves are brought. He is believed to own the metals of the mountain.

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We got to participate in the hard work the people do there every day. And I tell you, it was some really hard work. The further in and down in the mine we got, the hotter it got and the harder it was to breathe. But at what a remarkable pace they were working! New minerals were pushed along rails in huge carts, dumped on the ground, shoveled into big rubber baskets and heaved up a few levels. And this just went on and on at an amazing speed. Some of the workers stay there on days on end hardly eating anything, just chewing the coca leave and drinking the soft drinks the tourists bring them. And the amazing thing was that many of them were happy and smiled at us when they saw us. What incredible people. And let me tell you, the life expectancy of these workers is not anything to cheer for.

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Today tin and other metals are worked instead of silver, but the conditions and the techniques used are about the same than the ones more than a century ago. A former worker of the mines told us for example that they don’t want any engineers messing up their work; engineers just want to make too much plans and draw up to many technical drawings: we just dig where we dig using our years of experience. Individual groups of miners dig their tunnels where they want just ”knowing” that they won’t hit other tunnels... erh.. that sounded really reassuring given the fact that we were several hundred meters in the mountain and several levels down in a small tunnel where we could hardly breathe.

After spending about 2 hours inside the mines we started to climb and crawl back out. It was VERY hard. You could hardly breathe, it was hot, it was dusty and it was awful. I cannot understand how people can work there let alone stay there for hours and days on end. When we finally reached the outside we were all really exhausted and relieved that we had made it. But the fun didn’t stop there: I had hardly caught my breath when a piece of dynamite was shoved in my hand. And it was lit! Holy crap! A few of them were circulating through the group so that everybody could hold one. After a while the guides grabbed the burning dynamites and ran like crazy a bit away and placed them in the ground. After a few seconds we got to hear an orchestra of exploding dynamite. Cool! Only in Bolivia...

Holding burning dynamite:
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The dynamite exploding

Another cool place that we visited, although not cool as the mines of course, was the colonial royal mint where the silver was once turned into coins. We got to see the machinery and tools that were used to process the silver into coins, which was pretty remarkable. Worth mentioning are the huge machines that were used to press the silver into sheets. They had been manufactured in Spain, shipped to America and carried over the Andes all the way here to the highest city in the world.

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A child mummy

Apart from the machinery there is another cool sight in the building, El Mascaron, a famous symbol of Potosí that is creepily watching you as you enter the building, maybe you recognize it. Nobody knows where it came from or what it means, but it’s freaking awesome:

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Posted by AnnaMickus 09:03 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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