Potosi is a must-visit city, yet at best it’s an improbable place. It is both a symbol of Bolivia’s former wealth and, more potently, all the evil that has been heaped upon the peoples of the Andean highlands by centuries of colonialism. Set amidst a bleak, washed-out landscape at over 4000m in altitude (making it the highest city in the world), it’s difficult to imagine that at its height in the early seventeenth-century Potosi had a population as large as London, and was larger than the Spanish capital, Madrid.
The city is literally and metaphorically overshadowed by the Cerro Rico, a mountain that contained so much silver that it bankrolled the Spanish Monarchy for centuries, and eventually undermined the entire European economy by creating hyper-inflation. Potosi’s history is the stuff of legend and gruesome nightmare; blessed and equally cursed by silver and the Spanish Conquistador’s boundless lust for wealth.
When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an horrendous cost in human lives and suffering. Over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.
Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. So high were mortality rates in the mines, and so desperate were the Spanish for man-power, millions of African slaves were shipped to work underground in Potosi. It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves. A genocide by any other name.
Despite centuries of mining, the Cerro Rico is still the workplace for thousands of poor bolivian miners, including many children. Sadly, the conditions that modern-day miners endure are little better than those their forebears suffered. The mines are terrible places to work, full of toxic gases, silica and asbestos dust, and poisonous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic – not to mention tunnel collapses due to overworking and poor maintenance. Yet the promise of scratching a living from lead, tin and other metals (including a tiny amount of silver) is enough to sustain a significant workforce, despite the life expectancy of miners being an astonishing 15 years from when they start working underground.
If you want to know more about the mines, essential watching is The Devil’s Miner (www.thedevilsminer.com).
Many visitors to the city come solely to visit the mines and experience the hellish environment that Bolivian miners endure daily. Although the miners are fiercely proud of their work and generally welcome tourists, I opted not to visit the mines for a whole range of reasons. I know people who have been and found the experience valuable and deeply moving, but to me it feels like touristic voyeurism…and also I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings and know what happens if you dig too deep.
Today, Potosi seems to present many different faces to the outside world. At turns it feels proud, vibrant and friendly, yet claustrophobic, tragic and sad. The silver funded the building of grandiose churches, palaces and mansions, endowing Potosi with some of the finest colonial-era churches in the whole of Latin America – memorials to the complicity of the Church in the suffering of those forced to slave in the mines. It also boasts one of Latin America’s finest museums, the Casa Nacional de Mondera, housed in the former National Mint where the silver was minted into bars and coins before being shipped to Spain.
Potosi is also known for having some of the biggest and most spectacular folkloric and religious festivals in Bolivia (of which, more later). If you can time a visit during one of the main festivals you’ll be rewarded with being part of Potosi’s living history – be warned though, participation is sometimes obligatory.
There are dozens of magnificent churches, monasteries and convents to visit, including several where you can go to the rooftop or bell towers for tremendous views over the city. Most of the interiors are full of intriguing colonial era artworks to complement sumptuous altars – although you have to remind yourself that all of this was built on the bones of millions of dead.
So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain (and probably Vatican City) to uncover where all that silver went.
As with Europe, the Catholic Church unleashed the Inquisition on the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the paining below – typically, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…where the Spanish went before, the Republican Party are headed now.