Potosi – money, mining and mountains

We arrived in Potosi following an awesome bus ride with amazing views. The scenery was of huge open spaces then valleys lined by hills of flaky phyllite-looking rocks, with lots of interesting road cuttings, I know how geeky that sounds and I am totally owning it.

Potosi is actually the highest city of its kind in the world apparently (what that kind is I am unsure of though… Mining?).
It is said in legend that the potential of the mountain was discovered by a shepherd who had lost some of his llamas. He tracked them to Potosi where he camped overnight. One version says that he noticed veins of silver shimmering in the moonlight. A second version says that the shepherd started a fire and that the silver from the ground started to spit out making a “pot pot” noise, hence the name of the town.
What proceeded can only really be called rape of the mountain, making Potosi one of the richest countries in the world for a while.
Silver sourced from Potosi’s Cerro Rico helped to fund the industrial revolution in Europe. It is thought that over 180 million tonnes of silver was sent to one cathedral in Spain alone. Although a lot of the riches plundered by the Spanish never stayed in Spain as a lot was transferred to England to pay off crown debts and other countries across Europe. A lot of the wealth stayed within the church who built the colonial buildings of Sucre and La Paz from the acquired wealth.
The indigenous people were forced to labour in the mine, they were supposed to work for four months of each year in the mines, but very often this turned into an indefinite sentence, resulting in their death. When indigenous workers were at short supply the colonial powers started to import black slaves. However, the black slaves were not suited to the work as many of them suffered from high levels of anaemia and could not adapt to the altitude, with many of them dying. In fact estimates reckon that eight million people have died in the mines of Potosi.
In the 1980s the drop in the value of silver and tin resulted in 21 thousand miners losing their jobs and recession. The mine is currently run by a cooperative of miners, although it is owned by the state. The miners are all allocated areas to work in and receive a rate based on weight of recovered material. Most of the high quality material has been removed and nowadays rock is broken up and brought out of the mountain to be crushed down for extraction of whatever silver may remain although the main minerals present now are Tin and Zinc.

View of Potosi mountain.

Our first afternoon in Potosi was raining and we went for lunch whilst it dried off. I had great pork chops in a beer and honey sauce, yummy!
We then went for a tour of the historical national mint building, with possibly the most miserable tour guide ever. She was actually pretty comical!
The buildings we went round were actually the second mint built in Potosi and it’s a very solid stone building, hence it’s also extremely cold inside! It was built in 1759-1773 and is just off the main square of the town. It cost the equivalent of $20 million USD to build, showing the wealth and importance of Potosi to the empire. Since 1930 the mint has been a museum.
The tour takes you around the five cobbled courtyards and through some of the main rooms.
We saw displays of coins produced over the years. The early coins were irregular in shape and were stamped with a design. However, these were impractical as their irregular shape allowed people to steel slivers of the silver and gradually the coins became too small. The coins were made round in shape to make it harder to counterfeit also, however this also made them more difficult to make and stamp.
We saw a room where the silver was rolled out into progressively thinner sheets. This used several large oak built machines, which had steel rollers in the centre. On the lower floor slaves or mules were used to turn a large crank which connected to the oak cogs above driving three machines each. There were three sets of three machines, which would thin down the silver ingots from around 20mm thickness to only a few millimetres. The silver was then cut into blanks using scissors and stamped by hand.
Later the machinery was driven by steam and then by electricity. They had displays of all the old engines, which I always think smell amazing. The old belt machines always remind me of the historical cutlery factories back in my home town.
They also had a room which has not been changed since it was used to melt the silver down into bars. The roof was still all blackened. Although the display is fairly made up as the guide admitted that they do not have any information about what happened there.
They also have a room of awesome mineral deposits which I thought was really cool. The samples were sent from different mines all around the country.
That evening we were all too full from lunch for a proper dinner, so we just had cake and wine. I had apple strudel, not what I expected to get in a cafe here! Also slightly odd as the pastry was sweet shortcrust.
The following morning I went on a tour of the mine with most of our group. Our guide was a guy called Johnno, who said he used to work in the mines before becoming a guide. He was bit crazy, his eyes were almost as bloodshot as his red overalls… I don’t know if this is from the 96% alcohol he kept drinking or whether he was a bit stoned as he was constantly chewing a big wad of coca leaves and was telling us all about how smoking weed is legal where he lives in the hills… Interesting guy!

We got all our mining gear on… Over trousers, wellies, jackets, hard hats and belt with battery pack for your head lamp.

We then headed to the market and bought some supplies for the miners. It’s legal for people to buy dynamite in La Paz! Some of us, including myself, bought sets of Dynamite sticks, igniters, fuses and gelignite. Others bought bags of protective gloves and packs of coca leaves. The guide was a bit mad and lit a stick of dynamite in his mouth like a cigar. He was also drinking 96% proof drinking alcohol which is mixed with sugar cane. He actually got a few members to try it too, which I thought was pretty stupid given that we were about to head down an extremely dangerous mine!

What sexy bunch…

We had to wear scarves or bandanas to protect against all the dust.

The entrance to the mine with the view of the mountain in the background. The entrance was less than 2m high and you had to walk hunched over most of the way… Often ducking to miss the spectacularly dodgy roof support.

The devil of the miners is located just inside the entrance to the mines. Inside the mines the miners leave Catholicism behind and indigenous beliefs take over. The miners make offerings to the devil, including sacrificing llamas, putting lit cigarettes in his mouth and decorating with streamers. Importantly the miners make offerings of coca leaves and alcohol, these are symbolic offerings to the devil and also Pacha mama. They put the leaves and alcohol on the head, the two hands and the floor. They drop alcohol in all the same places, also drinking a sip and repeat twice. This is to ask for safety and productivity in the mine and for their families and colleagues.

Working hard geologising….

Contemplating the abyss…
There were lots of times where we had to scramble up or down very narrow sections which were really muddy and slippery. We had to walk over a loose plank with a 6m drop underneath and then scramble up a steep slope covered in loose exploded material….
We went in to see some miners clearing out a seam in a top section. They were just pushing the rock down and out to where we were climbing up, so we had to shout so they stopped for us to come through. The guide then proceeded to ask us about ourselves whilst the miners cleared lose rock and asked the guys about their jobs (women don’t have careers don’t you know) and tried to marry all the girls off to miners…
We then scrambled down… Literally sliding down the slope on our bums, it was so steep you almost couldn’t stop yourself and had to hold to the sides of the walls. Then it turned out there was only a huge hole at the bottom that the guide had to bridge so you could get over it! That might have induced a bit of swearing… There were lots of loose unsafe looking tightly constrained slopes and muddy rickety ladders and planks, fun in the near dark.
We then headed down to another section and up into a very narrow space where two miners were working. The senior miner had drilled into a seam and then set the holes with dynamite in front of us. We then climbed out of the space and he detonated the dynamite. Only six of the seven explosions we were waiting for went off… So they have to wait for 24 hours until they can re-enter that section of the mine (although I reckon they don’t wait that long). When the explosions went off you could feel all the walls around you shaking.
All in all it was interesting, confronting, hot and uncomfortable. It was extremely dusty and quite hard going physically from all the scrambling around. It didn’t help having your face covered with a scarf for the dust combined with feeling the effect of being at 4150m altitude.
I have visited old tin mines in the UK which showed the bad conditions the worked used to work in over a hundred years ago. This was a whole other level worse. I can honestly say that I think that this was the most dangerous place I have ever been in my life, although tourists visit every day. I think our guide went a bit off plan, having worked there and knowing the miners in the section we were in. Another group went in at the same time as us and I don’t think they had the same experience at all as they came out saying that the only but that was hard was a bit of dust at the end!
It was an experience and it makes you feel very grateful for your quality of life.
We then drove out into the countryside through a spectacular area. The geology was amazing. The hillsides are all different coloured sedimentary layers which have been uplifted, tilted about sixty degrees and partly eroded so that you can see all the coloured stripes.
The road cuts through some of the hillsides so you can see the colour banding differently on the two sides of the road, it was really pretty.

We drove out to an estancia which is supposedly one of the oldest colonial buildings in Latin America. It has been owned by only three families since it was built in the fifteen hundreds. The original owner came over and fought with the Spanish. His family owned the estate until 1904. It was then passed onto the French arm of the family and two branches of this have owned it since. The family have sold off a lot of their original land but still own and operate a large diary nearby which supplies milk and ice cream to Potosi. They also own a large quarry and cement works nearby too.

The house is quite pretty, but also fairly rustic and simple.

The outside looks like a Spanish hacienda. Inside there are lots of historical paintings and really really old books, which smell amazing. In the main sitting room the ceiling is painted with frescos from the eighteen hundred and which represent each of the continents and seasons. It must be quite a responsibility for the current family to keep it going.

Parts of the estate and house are now operated as a hotel and it looked like a lovely place to stay and explore. It would be a great area for horse riding. They also have a lovely small chapel.

In the upstairs of the main house they had to raise the floor by half a metre in order to prevent damage to the frescos below. The rooms, previously wool and grain stores, have been converted into a lovely great hall in memory of the current owners Uncle Jack. The room displays traditional farming and war memorabilia dating back as far as the original owner. We saw lots of armour, guns and swords. It was quite interesting.

From the house we headed out to local hot springs. Bizarrely seen as the area all seems to be sedimentary, it is apparently related to volcanic activity in the area… Not sure how that is working but that’s what the guide says… We had a nice warm swim in the gently fizzing water, it was really relaxing and the views were stunning.

Two guys travelling by motorbike had set up calm next to the lake overnight and I was a bit jealous of their great spot!
Tomorrow were leaving Potosi to head to Uyuni and the salt flats, which I am very excited about!
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