Deadly stories from the world’s highest city

7 08 2010



The world’s highest city was once one of the wealthiest: people flocked to Potosi to make their fortune from its abundant silver, however under the Spanish crown the town was stripped of its riches and Potosi is now in South America’s  poorest country.

Cerro Rico, Potosi, beneath which lies silver

A woman hauls her merchandise to the market

The bus trundled past bare brick houses lining the dust-ridden roads that lead to the city centre. Wrinkled women hauled enormous loads in vividly coloured sacks, their hunched bodies defying the weight on their backs. They were oblivious to the effects of the altitude as they scurried by, their sandaled feet barely touching the floor.

I, on the other hand, was only too aware that I was in the world’s highest city.

At 4,070 metres, Potosi’s thin air left my lungs wheezing for oxygen. My head thumped constantly and I would bolt upright in the middle of the night, my mouth desperately trying to gulp down more air.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine life for the miners digging for copper, lead and the remnants of silver in the oppressive heat under Potosi’s Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). For 10 hours a day they work in fatal conditions watching their life expectancy slip away to just 10 to 15 years after they enter the mine. Unfortunately, it’s too often an occurance that they must dodge shaft collapses and detonations in the dimly lit corridors.

Towering above the city, Cerro Rico dominates the landscape, just like the metals beneath dominated Potosi’s early rise to notoriety. Silver was first discovered in the red mountain in 1544 by a local farmer who stumbled across the shimmering slithers while making a campfire. It wasn’t long before the secret was out, and a year later the Spanish conquerors had taken full control of the silver mining.

The hazardous conditions were dire, men were dying faster than they could be replaced. Slaves were drafted in from Africa but the altitude and freezing night temperatures killed hundreds, in addition to the dynamite blasts. It was the shuddering detonations in the mines that gave the city its name: potojsi is the Aymara word for explosion.

In 1572 a law was passed that for four months, men between 18 and 50 were ordered to work in the mines. They were paid pittance and rarely saw daylight, working from dawn till dusk. Eighty per cent of the male population of the 16 provinces of the viceroyalty of Peru died in the mines. (Bolivia wasn’t yet a country.)

The deadly mine in Potosi

Despite this, silversmiths, merchants, miners and artists descended on Potosi, all lured by the glistening wealth beneath the looming hill. In less than 100 years the city had grown to be largest in the western hemisphere with 160,000 inhabitants by 1630, 60 percent more than London.

However, more silver was taken from Bolivia by the Spanish crown than remained, so much so that a bridge could be built from Bolivia to Spain with it. The Spaniards used the silver lavishly, the women in the streets of Madrid wore it on the heels of their shoes and for their combs. Reaping the benefits of Potosi’s wealth, Spain also used it to fund the Spanish Armada’s battle against England in 1588.

The metal that did stay in Potosi was used for minting coins and the city became the minting capital of South America, rolling out silver coins for countries in the Americas and Europe. However, as paper money emerged, the Royal Mint House soon became obsolete and now it functions as a museum for tourists.

Silver is still mined for in the mineral rich town, alongside other metals, despite many mines closing down in 1985. Poverty-stricken men see their deadly jobs as the only answer to remaining in the city. When I asked the guide at the minting museum why Bolivia, if it is so rich in natural minerals and gases, is the poorest country in South America, he avoided the question. Corruption, socialism and a lack of organisation within the government seems to be the answer. Foreign corporations have been kicked out of Bolivia in recent years (British Gas and BP were working in Tarija which holds the country’s largest gas and oil reserves) leaving a lack of specialised equipment. The unpopular leader Evo Morales has hinted that Bolivia may partner up with other socialist/communist countries in the future, but the details have yet to be disclosed.

In the meantime, travellers from capitalist countries among others, will continue to spend their tourist dollars in Potosi and Bolivia. One tourist trade that has opened up is the dangerous mine tours in Potosi. People wanting to contribute to the mines’ continual operation with fatal conditions can go into them and see children crawl into gaps too small for adults. The visitors’ consciences are cleared by the fact that they take ‘gifts’ of sweets or drinks to the workers. Needless to say, I didn’t join them but I did speak to an Australian man who witnessed a mine shaft collapse and his group missed it by the skin of their nose. He didn’t think any miners were injured – this time round.

A city-centre street in Potosi

Instead, I opted to wander round the city, its colonial architecture and plazas making it an attractive city. However outside the city centre are men who have collapsed from alcohol, children selling sweets and women cradling infants begging for money.

The streets of today’s Potosi are definitely not lined with silver.




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