Sometimes you just need an adventure to cleanse the bitter taste of life from your soul.Unknown
Three and a half hours from Sucre on the bus is Potosí, sitting tall at 4060m above sea level. Famous for its silver mine, and what was once one of the richest parts of Bolivia. Sadly the exploitation and wealth gain from some left the majority poor. A tale we’ve all heard many times over, and unfortunately the world over. That doesn’t stop Potosí being a beautiful and worthwhile place to visit.
Potosí is not as well preserved as Sucre, and sadly is now one of the poorest places in Bolivia, but it is rich in history. It still has grand churches and ornate colonial architecture.
Cerro Rico, a ‘Rich Hill’ or Rich mountain – full of silver – a stunning sight in Potosí. The city was founded in 1545 and as soon as the silver was discovered it was swiftly extracted and bankrolled the Spanish empire. The phrase still exists today ‘vale in Potosí’ – worth a Potosí.
During the boom years the metal seemed inexhaustible and Potosí became one of the wealthiest cities in all of The America’s’. Once the silver dried up however the city went into decline and the citizens sadly slipped into poverty. The mine is still going today and the locals work in abysmal conditions.
Whilst the tour of the mine was interesting, it was also a horrible experience. You can’t help but feel for the workers and be grateful for what you have.
Potosí had a huge impact on the economy in the old world. Silver was exported to Asia and Europe. The Spanish crown received many of the benefits. Corrupt authorities took some of the silver and the bulk of it was shared between a few individuals. A number of ships carrying silver ended up as shipwrecks and had the silver stolen.
The famous claim is that you could have built a bridge from Bolivia to Spain with the amount of silver that was exported to Spain. That bridge could then be covered in the bodies of the indigenous people that were forced to work in the mine; called ‘the mountain that eats men.’ Many of them died. African slaves were brought over to work in the mine but struggled due to the altitude and cold weather so many died very quickly.
Big Deal Tours
If you can I recommend using Big deal tours for your trips in Potosí. It’s run by ex-miners and is really beneficial to the locals. Our guide was Wilson, a real character with a great sense of humour! http://bigdealtours.blogspot.com
First of all we stopped at the market to buy gifts for the miners. I purchased dynamite to help them with extracting the silver. Other options include coca leaves, juice drinks or cigarettes. You can also buy alcohol from sugar cane, 96% proof!
I didn’t purchase the cigarettes as the miners have enough other contributions to shortening their lifespan. They work 12-16 hour shifts, in torrid conditions. Running heavy wheelbarrows full of rocks back and forth in small, dark tunnels. There are huge holes everywhere, in terms of health and safety the UK or The States, they wouldn’t let you anywhere near the place to wander round as part of a tour, nor work there.
Last year 12 miners died, 4 were new the rest died from age – but old age in Potosi has a different meaning to what our expectations are. Or they died from infections caused by the dust and fumes, or inhaling dynamite. Sometimes new miners are lost due to accidents, particularly with the wheelbarrows, or sometimes caused by the dynamite.
Next we went to suit up, a dust suit top and trousers over our clothes. A belt, a helmet and a head torch. Wellington boots, a face mask and a small bag for your belongings and gifts for the miners. The face mask was generally unbearable to wear, with the altitude and heat.
We experienced being deep inside the dark mine when dynamite was let off. And having to quickly get out of the way of the miners with their heavy wheelbarrows. It really is an experience but not necessarily a pleasant one. As I said, it makes you grateful for what you have. They work all day long, without stopping for lunch. Breakfast and dinner sees them through a long shift; that and the coca leaves which help them keep going.
Thankfully these days there are some rules. They no longer allow workers under the age of 18. Wilson our guide started working in the mine when he was just 8 years old. He worked there for 29 years and now he is a guide and sometimes does a shift in the mine. He taught himself English though he speaks pleasantries in many languages. He said they use a lot of bad language in the mine, it’s a hard job and it helps keep them upbeat.
Wilson also took us on a walking tour of a Potosí, also with Big deal tours. Its a beautiful city and he really is an interesting and charismatic guy with a lot of information to share and a great sense of humour!
You can visit the market area where widows go to meet people once they are alone. There is also a Central market, San Francisco Church is impressive and you can do a tour. And you can also do a tour of the Mint house.
It’s a lovely place to wander around and experience Bolivia and the local people.
Bolivia is now rich in something other than silver, it has the biggest lithium reserves in world, in the region of 50-70% of the worlds lithium. Other foreign governments want to extract snd export it. The previous government was apparently pushing lithium to China, Iran and Russia. Hopefully they can keep the money for there own benefit this time rather than being exploited.
There was a local football game on during our visit – photo of some of the fans getting ready below! I can’t imagine running around on a pitch at that altitude!
Food and drink
A great local restaurant with some traditional specialties is El Tenedor. Local dishes include llama, and chicken tongue!
A great cafe style pub when lovely food and some nice local red wine is 4060. It also has WiFi but the manager has to input the code into your phone herself.
There’s some good cafes too, Cafe De La Plata – sophisticated and cosy, good for coffee and cake! Trufa Negra is another little cafe with delicious food.
The Practical Stuff
The altitude gets you, if you’re coming from La Paz or Peru you’ll already be acclimatised. If you’re coming from Sucre as I was it’s significantly higher. I recommend the tablets mentioned in my Sucre blog to help you cope with the altitude. That and appreciate that you’re not going to get anywhere quickly! A short walking up a little incline will have you panting for breath!
Bolivia is cheap and eating and drinking out is great value. As usual I recommend a Starling bank card for great rates and its easy to withdraw cash when you need it or pay on it as a debit card but with no fees and great rates! https://www.starlingbank.com/
Next stop Uyuni, a desert crossing then the famous salt flats!