I had been living high at the top of the world...literally. The cost be damned. At 13,200 feet ASL, Potosi was simply the highest city in the world. At one time it carried two other accolades...the biggest city in the world and the richest. Bigger than Paris or Rome or any other...richer than all others. That was back in the Colonial era, in the mid 1500s. Much has changed since then.
The reason for the affluence and the growth was quite simply a single, solitary commodity...SILVER. An entire mountain of silver. Cerro Rico. The single, largest accumulation of silver anywhere. Other places tried to emulate Potosi when they made a rich strike; for instance, San Luis Potosi in Mexico, named after its namesake Potosi, Bolivia. They all paled by comparison. There simply was only one CERRO RICO.
The Spaniards could not get enough silver. They went crazy for the metal. They would stop at nothing to get it out of the mountain. With veins over a meter thick it was relatively easy to get out. But it took manual labour and lots of it.
They worked the Indians to death...and when they died they moved more in. Soon there were not enough Indians left to fill the ranks of the dead. They imported African slaves. The slaves however did not fare well in the high, cold altiplano and died even faster than the indios.
To be assigned to the mines was a death sentence. A single term was four months without returning to the surface...without seeing the light of day... forever breathing noxious gases and dust...living, eating and sleeping in the mines. In the upper levels the temperature often exceeded 45 C. If you survived, you were given a brief rest and then returned for a second term. Few survived to return a third time.
The attrition rates were incredible. Over the 280 year period from 1545 to 1825 it has been estimated that over 8 million lives were given to the Spanish lust for the Silver...the ultimate Cancer de la Moneda. There is no way to know the exact number, but what is known is that the death rates were so high the dead were never returned to the surface. They were simply piled into chutes and shafts and covered over with mining debris.
Today Cerro Rico still looms over the city as a silent reminder to the lusty days of past. It is still worked but on a small scale. For the most part it is mined out, but miners are a unique breed and cannot believe that there is no silver left. The quest continues. The mountain is so heavily mined with tunnels and shafts that it's height has subsided by 300 meters.
With wealth comes prosperity and waste. Over eighty (80) churches and cathedrals were built in Potosi. The rich sent their Parisienne silks back to Paris for cleaning. Not really a simply task. They were bundled up and trundled over the Andes on llama pack train to Arica, Chile. Then by boat, north to the Isthmus of Panama. By pack train again they were transported across to the Caribbean. Once again loaded onboard ships where they entered the final phase of the journey to France.
After cleaning the shipping procedure was repeated in reverse. The whole process probably took a year to complete. One has to wonder if it was really worth it. The fashions would have changed...the fleeting fancies of the rich and whimsical altered.
Today with the silver boom over, Potosi is struggling to survive. It is a mere shadow of its former self. Most of its churches long since stripped of their gold and silver, melted down for hard currency; many of its buildings stand in disrepair.
Slowly the town is being rebuilt. Tourism is one mechanism, but it is a long battle. Potosi is a long ways off the tourist track. You have to want to go to Potosi to get here. It is on the way to nowhere.
There is no change in this town. I have eaten a fine dinner but they cannot make change for a 100 Boliviano note ($14). I give them the last of my change, which I have been hoarding, so I can pay the exact amount. Now I cannot do anything because all I have is a 100 note. I go to the corner kiosk and buy a chocolate bar to break the bill. The lady wants the sale but hesitates. I buy three chocolate bars to make it worth her while...
Posted by Robert Bielesch at May 27, 2006 07:43 PM GMT