Potosi

Posted by on Jan 30, 2013 in Bolivia, Play-by-plays, South America | 0 comments

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At 4,000 meters above sea level, Potosi claims to be the highest city in the world, but its actual claim to fame is Cerro Rico, a mountain where silver was discovered in 1546 and put Potosi on the Spanish Crown’s map. The wealth of the Empire actually seesaw’ed with the output of the mine and the Pirate activity in the Caribbean. It is even said that the Spanish have more wealth under the sea than in the country (definitely true for today’s Spain).

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At the height of its silver boom, Potosi was as wealthy as any European city but has since fallen into a bit of a rut, although the recent spike in commodity prices is bringing back interest. (I’m later visiting Manaus, Brazil in the Amazon, which met a similar fate with rubber production. And then maybe Detroit in the States for the “has been” city hat trick). Many of the mines today are cooperatives, and while it’s a bit controversial, you can visit them for about 100Bs. Our tour was headed by an ex miner, Daniel. His father and stepfather had worked in the mines for decades and amassed decent wealth by Bolivian standards. He had only worked there for three years and then moved on to guiding tours to save his health. The miners actually call his job “women’s work”, even though he is still in the mines on a daily basis.

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Visiting the mine isn’t for everyone–the air is poor and dusty (including silica dust which eventually leads to silicosis and kills the miners’ lungs), the temperatures reach 35 degrees Celsius in some parts, and you have to crawl and bend down in some of the tunnels–Bolivians aren’t known for height. It is also harrowing to see the conditions in which these miners are working, everything is done manually, so it almost feels like you’ve gone back 400 years since the operations of the mine have hardly changed.

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A typical tour starts with a visit to the local market to buy some things for the miners: Fanta, coca leaves, dynamite and the like (coca leaves and dynamite above). Yup, a stick of dynamite costs under $3. Then the visit continues to a smelting “plant” where the ore aka rocks are broken down and purified into actual silver. I believe 3 tonnes of ore yield about a kilo of silver on average, or some similarly ridiculously small number. The money the miner makes depends on this yield, but as the years go in and the mountain gets more and more pillaged, the yields seem to only diminish. Actually, the height of the mountain has dropped about 300m in the several centuries of mining because of tunnels and cave ins.

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The purification process (above) is also outdated and since Potosi doesn’t have the best environmental infrastructure, all the chemicals released from the ore (such as mercury etc) are dumped into the local rivers. So not only do the miners have to deal with horrid conditions in the mine, the outside environment isn’t exactly cake either. Double whammy.

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Then the tour proceeds to the actual mine. Women are thought to bring bad luck and make Pachamama jealous, so only few of the mines allow them in. And in general, the tours enter someone’s workplace, a dangerous one, so it is best to go with a guide who has a great relationship with the miners and knows the intricate tunnels as well as safety measures as accidents do happen. Not too far inside, there is a shrine of sorts dedicated to Tio, the ceramic figure of the devil, since he is thought to rule the mountain and the mine. For the reason, the miners offer him gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, etc.

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We were inside the mine for two hours and I was very happy to get out to fresh air. Later in the afternoon we visited Casa de la Moneda (40Bs entry, extra 20 if you want to take photos and mandatory guided tour), where the silver used to be stamped into coins. The Casa is night and day compared to the mines. It is a beautiful building and boasted the newest technology of the day which progressed from mules to steam to electricity. It is ironic that the technology didn’t reach the mine itself.

Next up is Uyuni, the salt flats, and eventually crossing into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

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