Potosí is a city defined by Cerro Rico, the silver mine which tells of the glory and tragedy of the colonial era.
Today, the relatively calm and humble streets of high altitude Potosí belie a glorious, hedonistic and controversial past, in which it rose from nowhere in the 16th century to become the largest and most richly decorated city in all of the Americas. The source of such sudden fortune was the discovery of silver deposits in what was to become known as Cerro Rico, the richest mine in history, but when the silver ran out, the city fell into an equally sharp decline. Nearly 500 years on, ornate colonial buildings, the towering presence of the Rich Mountain and the scars of the lives lost in the silver extraction all serve to keep alive the memory of the silver boom. To visit to Potosí is to visit a living museum to one of the most extraordinary periods of time in Latin American history.
The Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain in English, was the source of the sudden and intense wealth that transformed this modest city into one of the most powerful and richly decorated in the entire world in the 16th and 17th centuries. For some time, Potosí created a Bolivian silver boom all on its own, as silver was extracted from deep within the mountain and exported back to Spain, ever enriching the Spanish crown and largely funding their continued exploration of the continent. Sadly, there is however a tragic side to this tale, as such fortune was to come at a huge cost.
Millions of African slaves and Indians lost their lives, having been forced to work in the mines in dirty, cramped and downright dangerous conditions, and at over 4,000 metres above sea level to boot. Perhaps surprisingly then, the mine remains active and still perilous even today, with miners working in conditions not dramatically better than those who entered them on a daily basis some 500 years ago. Around 30-40 miners lose their life each year, sadly their age usually falls into that same range.
Those who continue to enter the mines, in deference to the dangers they face, do so through lack of genuine alternative work and in the hope of striking a rich vein of mineral and claiming a life altering share of the profits. Visitors to the mines are encouraged to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite (which is freely and cheaply available) to hand out to the men they encounter along the way.
Far from being mere voyeurism, visiting Cerro Rico, is an extremely humbling, moving and, at times, difficult experience. But it will give you a unique and authentic insight into the history and psyche of Latin America, as well as a lifelong empathy for those who continue to bravely venture deep into the dark and dusty depths of what is, despite the tour guides, a live, intense and sometimes fatal working environment. Few cities in the world will leave such an indelible mark on you.
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