The World's Highest City
22.08.2012 - 23.08.2012 5 °C
I'm really excited to share this one with you... Potosi... the world's highest city coming in at just over 4080m! Not the easiest place to hike around let alone catch your breath. Trust me, just walking around the city leaves you breathless. It had been quite a long time since we had been that high (Tibet I believe) but luckily since leaving Santa Cruz the elevation was gradually getting higher so adapting to it wasn't all that bad (no headaches or nausea, just some trouble sleeping at night). And once again we were back to a cold, dry climate as Potosi dropped below freezing at night time (once again no such thing as indoor heating... all they have are propane heaters! Ya propane heaters indoors... what a great idea lol. Safety, safety). People we met that had travelled to Potosi didn't have all that much to rave about, but we both really liked the city and found it just as atmospheric as Sucre... but less oxygen.
That's a quick snapshot of the bus station when we arrived (3hours from Sucre) which appeared to be almost brand-new. Pretty big place for such a small city.
Can you see the mountain in the background? That's the infamous Cerro de Potosí—sometimes referred to as the Cerro Rico ("rich mountain")—a mountain popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore, which has always dominated the city. The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosi's historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. What I found most fascinating about Potosi was it's rich history. I mean they have this scared looming mountain that's worshipped as a God and then one day a local tells the Spanish a story about how he lit a fire on the mountainside and out beneath the fire flowed pure silver. The rest is history. The Spanish soon made Potosi one of the largest cities in the Americas (over 200,000) and one of the richest cities in the world. Who got rich and who got exploited however is fairly obvious.
Upon arriving in town we found yourselves a nice hostel that offered some reasonable tours, booked in and set off to explore the town.
The first thing we did was pay a visit to one of the best museums on the continent - Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia (National Mint Of Bolivia).
Admission came with a free english speaking guide and we were both blown away at how great the museum was. Since the discovery of silver by the Spanish Potosi has always featured some form of mint (first in 1572). To get all the equipment you will soon see to Potosi, the Spanish off loaded it in Brazil and then hauled it in peices by donkey across the continent!
Picture of the first steam locomotive used to haul ore from the mountain.
The Mint also featured several very impressive galleries featuring the works of some of South Americas best known artists during the 16-17 centuries. They mainly depicted various biblical themes (mostly of Jesus and Mary) in order to spread Christianity to the locals.
A picture of the original floor. The footprint is from a worker that stood day after day pressing coins.
Various coins on display produced mainly for Spain but for other countries as well.
Various instruments and scales used in the Mint.
I found this absolutely fascinating... a lock box used to transport and store the coins. Look at how intricate the locking system is. 18 different locks all controlled by one key.
There was so much to see and we both couldn't believe how well maintained the museum was...
Spanish mummified children...
Only for the very wealthy. Later we took a tour of some of the various treasures and religious artifacts crafted during the Mint's operating days.
I found this rather interesting... Bolivia's first printing press purchased from the US and used as a political tool for the country to gain it's independence from Spain.
Working in the mint was a horrible job (use of Mercury to separate ores often lead to workers dying from poisoning) for both slaves and animals (those donkeys you seen before would only live on average for 3-4 months due to the altitude and relentless production). After the industrial revolution, steam boilers were introduced in the Mint until electricity eventually trumped that technology.
Seeing how the coins were all made was pretty fascinating stuff... did you know that Canada actually makes Bolivia's currency now? Weird. Probably the best museum we've been to since Israel's National Museum in Jerusalem.
Some views of Potosi's Main Square...
We had quite the action-packed day because following our morning tour of the Mint we had another tour booked for the afternoon which was bound to be WAY more intense. So we tried to get prepared and psyched up for what lied ahead... a little coca tea to help with nerves and altitude.
Ok, so the tour was of the infamous co-operative silver mines in the heart of Cerro Rico. We had definitely heard a lot about it during our travels through Bolivia and kind of knew what to expect, but that being said, we really had no clue lol.
The tour started from our hostel where we met up with our guide (3rd generation miner turned guide) and got geared up to tackle the mountain's underbelly.
Our first stop was at a "miners market" where you are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners working underground. What kind of gifts you may be wondering? Well you know, the basics... coca leaves, 99% pure alcohol, cigarettes, dynamite.... yep dynamite not even joking. Our guide explained the significance of each item and even gave us a demo on the dynamite lol.
1) Coca Leaves - have been used by the locals for centuries. The men in the mines chew up to a 1 kg of leaves per shift (6-8 hour shifts, 3 rotations equaling 24 hr coverage). The coca leaves are chewed and then pouched in your mouth. Afterwards you usually put a pinch of ash or baking soda in your mouth to help extract the alkaloid which is the main stimulant/numbing agent. Because the workers will not eat down in the mines (they believe its too harmful to ingest any silica that might contaminate their food) the coca leaves help to suppress hunger and to give them energy. The miners also believe that chewing the coca leaves helps to protect them from harmful dust such as asbestos and silica. Good science there lol. The average life expectancy of a miner in Potosi is 35 YEARS OLD!! Horrible.
2) 99% Pure Cane Alcohol - still don't quite understand this one myself. Let's not eat all day, chew coca, drink the sickest of sick alcohol and then blast off dynamite in one of the most dangerous working environments of the world! Mainly it's used in offerings to the Mountain Devil God Thiel, who the miners believe watches over them and protects them. But it also gets consumed by the miners. We didn't experience any drunk miners ourselves but we heard lots of stories about it from other travellers.
3) Coca & Tabacco mixed cigarettes - once again not too sure of the significance of this one. Not a hell of a lot of science behind it... our guide said the miners believe it helps to protect their lungs. Ever heard of a dust mask?
4) Dynamite - pretty self explanatory. Used to blast hard rock to get at the ore deposits. Of course there is no way to really warn your fellow workers of the blasts going off so needless to say this results in numerous deaths per month. What blows my mind is that there are an upwards of 22 different co-operatives (family/village work groups) working Cerro Rico. That's essentially 22 different companies that all have a little piece of the mountain. But that's also 22 different companies blasting and tunnelling away with no engineering, no prints and no real idea if your above, below or right beside another co-operative. Efficiency?? Safety?? Nope never heard of that before lol.
So after the demos and gift buying (we purchased a few Happy Meals - coca leaves, cigs, booze and dynamite - for about $1.50 a piece) we were off to the mine.
Before even entering the mine I knew it was going to feature some horrific conditions (working conditions aren't going to be good when you got an average life expectancy of 35 years old) but I really had no idea just how bad it would be.
The dust is so thick that your literally choking... combine that with the fact that your at 4000m plus and breathing becomes very difficult. And look at the tunnels. No rhyme or reason to it at all... or signage... can't imagine getting lost.
The miners hard at work (they earn between 60-80 Bolivianos per day... $9-12)
We ended up venturing down about 6 levels or so all the way to where the silver ore is now being found. Both of us opted to wait while the others went down (way to cramped for my taste... the tunnels were about a metre tall by half a meter wide). Oh and did I mention that the entire time your down there you can hear and feel dynamite going off all around you! Definitely not a tour for the faint of heart. We stopped at the co-operatives offering site to the God Thiel...
They have quite the ritual of offerings by pouring alcohol and coca leaves all over him (especially his penis lol... our guide stressed it over and over because it will help you have children I suppose... more kids for the mines I guess).
Probably one of the biggest eye-operners in the mine was when at this one point our guide goes "please don't touch the wall on your right", so we of course ask "why?" to which he replies "oh because there's asbestos all over it and it can irritate your skin". At this point I realized how little research we did about these mines. Who gives a shit about touching it! Breathing that crap in is what kills you!! At that moment we wanted nothing more then to get the hell out of there... and that's just what we did!
We spent a total of three hours inside the mines and felt like even that took years off our lives. Honestly my stories and pictures don't even do it justice. It was a nightmare! I still can't believe people work inside there. You wanna know how they get the silver out? In potato sacks strapped to their backs (20 kgs at a time) and then they haul it up through the 6 levels of tunnel maze. All that work just to turn around and sell the ore to Chile for next to nothing. God do I ever have a new appreciation for Canadian Labour Standards!
And that sums up our time spent in Potosi. One of the most unique destinations of this trip yet! A complete eye opener and great cultural learning experience. The extreme altitude definitely made it a challenge though, but I would recommend this crazy Bolivian stop-over to anyone! Next up is our 3 day tour of the world's largest salt flats with a few volcanoes and flamingos sprinkled in for good measure. Ciao.