Written by SeenThat on 15 Mar, 2007
A somber landmark atop a base of almost pure silver, the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) casts its dark shadows over Potosi. Dark clouds over its summit cry the memory of endless slaves who died while mining the metal for their masters. One of the worse…Read More
A somber landmark atop a base of almost pure silver, the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) casts its dark shadows over Potosi. Dark clouds over its summit cry the memory of endless slaves who died while mining the metal for their masters. One of the worse shows of inhumanity ever seen, it cost the lives of eight million slaves, as much as the actual Bolivian population.The summit reaches 5183 meters above sea level and was discovered by the Spaniards on April 1, 1545. Since then and until the nineteenth century, over fifty-six thousand tones of silver were extracted. In 1952 the mines were seized by the government and slavery was officially abolished. In 1985, after the extraction was not rentable anymore, the mines were given back to some fifty labor unions which still operate them nowadays. Apparently there are another fifty thousand tonnes underground (even the UN is participating in the plans to extract them while preserving Cerro Rico’s shape)In 1572 the Mita – a form of slavery – was instituted by the Spaniard governor. Once every seven years, every male between 18 and 50, worked in the mines for four months. They were not paid and they often died. In 1638, a monk calculated that each "peso" produced cost ten dead men.In a sense the slavery continues nowadays. Fifteen thousand workers – with well over a thousand of them being children – work in the mines. Only 3500 have some kind of pension and most of them die prematurely due to pneumonia silicosis. If the dead miner did not have a pension, then his children or wife take his place in the mine and are added to the following decade list of dead. They earn pennies scratching out, almost literally with their nails, the scarce silver, tin and zinc left in the depths. Most work is still done by hand, though some of the mines (there are 420 entries to the mountain depths) have compressed-air facilities. The miners work for some ten hours per day, in which no food is consumed and no air filtering equipment is used. Coca leaves give the workers the needed stamina and they are also a powerful appetite depressant.Many agencies in town arrange tours to the mines. A half-day tour costs 50BOB (around six dollars); all the equipment needed to enter the mines is included in the price. The specific mine to be visited is difficult to control; it depends on which ones are working in the given day. In the way to the mines, a short break at the "Mercado de los Mineros" (Miners Market) allows to have a miners breakfast (a thick soup) and to buy some gifts (soda drinks and coca leaves) for the miners in the mine to be visited.We visited the Kunti Mine (Kunti – Quechua for "Encounter Place") and that was a fortunate choice. A few days prior to the visit, the tunnels of other mine collided with the ones of Kunti, and we witnessed how the miners were settling the conflict. The new gates connecting the colliding tunnels were being guarded and talks to settle the conflict were in progress.Narrow tunnels flooded with polluted water made our path through the mine; the boots we got provided the needed protection. The guide was listening for approaching wagons – loaded ones coming out and empty ones reentering the mine – and warned us each time one approached us. Flattening our bodies to the wall was all we could do to avoid being run over by them. The place was so dusty, that my camera mouse got stuck; the camera needed professional care afterwards. After seeing such damage within a couple of hours, it is hard to understand how the miners survive a decade or more of work in such conditions until they die of pneumonia silicosis. The tour is very impressive: shaky ladders connect between tunnels at different levels, rudimentary tools dating back to the colonial days compete with modern air compressed equipment and colorful metal veins – following a general north to south direction – adorn the otherwise naked walls. Whenever we met miners we left them a bottle of soda and a small bag of coca leaves we bought beforehand in the market. At the very end of the tunnels was the "tio."At first, the concept is confounding. "Tio" means "uncle" in Spanish and that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the nosy visitors. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant "D." Hence, the Spanish "Dios" (God) became "Tio" while the Quechua people tried to pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and soda drinks on a daily basis. Our guide – not a miner, but a Quechua woman – was very careful to light a cigarette and put it on the idol’s mouth. At its feet was a fake human-skull which got a similar treatment. As the visit was during the carnival, the figure was adorned with colorful strips of paper (and the tunnels with tiny flags). After the idol got his share of the feast, the miners killed a llama at the mine entry, spilled its blood on the entrance to calm the Pachamama (the earth god) and then barbequed it. Is the Satanic cult an answer to miners’ enslavers? Probably not, there are signs that the cult goes deep within the local cultures past. Moreover, the Quechua and Aymara languages – before getting their share of Spanish - had many words for daemons but none for God.Few places manage to evoke so powerfully the past, with modern people still living – and dying - it. Close
Little is left of Potosi’s eighteenth century splendor. The main clue to it is the incredible amount of magnificent colonial churches, which surpass many times the needs of the small modern town. Downtown Potosi alone hosts sixteen colonial churches in different styles, including Mestizo, Baroque,…Read More
Little is left of Potosi’s eighteenth century splendor. The main clue to it is the incredible amount of magnificent colonial churches, which surpass many times the needs of the small modern town. Downtown Potosi alone hosts sixteen colonial churches in different styles, including Mestizo, Baroque, Renaissance and Neoclassic. A single day would not be enough to study them, though a quick survey can give a good idea of how the town looked a quarter of millennia ago.The most interesting churches are within walking distance from the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre. On the plaza itself is the wonderful Catedral de Potosi, which was at the time of my visit hiding behind scaffoldings due to a massive restoration process. It was built between 1808 and 1836; thus the temple is a later addition to the colonial town. Built in stone and brick, it includes two gorgeous towers and is considered to be the best neoclassic structure in Bolivia. In 1924 it became a cathedral.The Convento de Santa Teresa on Chichas Street includes a splendid church in earthly red tones and a monastery with a wonderful collection of religious art; it was founded in 1684. It was constructed in Baroque style with Mestizo influences. The attached monastery was built in 1761 and includes a collection of religious paintings and objects; the nuns prepare and sell sweets called mazapan.The San Lorenzo Church is next to the central market, on Bustillos Street, and was built from 1548 onwards; in 1775 it was not finished yet. Originally it was aimed as a missionary center for the indigenous people of the surrounding areas and thus the Mestizo influences on its basic Baroque style are especially strong. Its unique facade is one of the best examples of Mestizo style in the country; the many indigenous people appearing in the carvings are a unique characteristic of this temple.Iglesia y Torre de la Compañía de Jesús on Ayacucho Street, one block from the central plaza, is a tower of bewildering shape and is considered to be the most important structure built in the eighteenth century in Bolivia. It roughly resembles a triumph arch with three domes and thirty-two columns. Built between 1581 and 1599, it was massively renovated in the eighteenth century, when it got the actual facade. It is possible to climb up the tower and get good views of the city; despite that it is almost impossible to take a picture of the tower itself, since it is placed in a quite narrow street.The Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco on Nogales Street was the first church established in Potosí. Its construction began in 1547. The construction seen nowadays was constructed between 1707 and 1727, and belongs to the Golden Era of Potosi. It includes a collection of paintings from colonial days and a museum of religious art. On a stone-blocked side door there is a wonderful wood cross. Close
Written by Anne Silver on 23 Oct, 2000
If there is one thing that my partner & I have in common it is that we are both ‘one way people’. We hate to return anywhere the same way. Since neither one of us is the voice of reason this has gotten us into…Read More
If there is one thing that my partner & I have in common it is that we are both ‘one way people’. We hate to return anywhere the same way. Since neither one of us is the voice of reason this has gotten us into a lot of interesting situations. We were traveling through Bolivia and wanted to get to southern Peru with out going back through Puno. This is how we came to be on a 13 hour overnight bus ride.
Most of the 13 hours was on dirt roads with lots of unscheduled stops. We stopped for every stray person and had more than our share of flat tires. At about one o’clock in the morning the control police boarded and turned on all of the lights and demanded passports. We were a little concerned because Jim had already lost his visa, but they seemed very uninterested in the only Gringos on a very Bolivian bus.
The next stop a few hours later was a little more exciting. Bon fires and loud gunfire heralded it. Huge squads of military surrounded the bus. We all sat in stunned silence. After about 45 minutes our bus along with a long line of assorted other vehicles was guided through a field and around a huge bon fire with lots of locals in the middle of the road. Seems like the locals are tired of low wages and had created a blockade. Once more we were on our way.
The sun had risen over dusty villages and we were wondering at our sanity since we still didn't know how we were progressing the rest of the way through the country when we came to a town we didn't expect to see. Somehow the bus had diverted itself 3 hours south to Potosi. Jim grabbed my hand and our baggage and we departed the bus. So much for our planned destination of Sucre. We were getting off.
Bolivia is very cheap when compared to Peru. Potosi doesn't have the tourist goods that you can find in La Pas, but if you are in need of anything else just visit the local market. People, like in most of the towns, gather around towards…Read More
Bolivia is very cheap when compared to Peru. Potosi doesn't have the tourist goods that you can find in La Pas, but if you are in need of anything else just visit the local market. People, like in most of the towns, gather around towards late afternoon and a festive atmosphere takes over. For those with strong stomachs and adventurous natures there is great street eating. My rule is if it doesn't have flies on it and/or you can see it being cooked it's good.
Of exceptional value are dynamite and explosives that are used in the mines. For about $1.50 you can blow up a small building if you are so inclined. We were amazed that these things were being sold with no questions asked.
When finished, wander around the main square. It is very pleasant for people watching.
Written by email@example.com on 10 Sep, 2000
Colonial churches filled with art and artifacts including the Convent of San Fransisco and the Convent of Santa Teresa which contains skeletons of dead monks. The Compania de Jesus on Calle Ayacucho displays fabulous examples of the mix of Spanish and local architecture.…Read More
Colonial churches filled with art and artifacts including the Convent of San Fransisco and the Convent of Santa Teresa which contains skeletons of dead monks. The Compania de Jesus on Calle Ayacucho displays fabulous examples of the mix of Spanish and local architecture. Close