I’m getting tired of the rain. I know just a days ride away is perhaps the driest place on the planet – the Atacama Desert in Chile. Though I imagine the scenery will be much like northern Peru – flat, uninteresting and fast. But to the south volcanoes, salt flats, flamingoes, hot springs await for me, my bike and my camera to experience and capture. Even further south I look forward to Mendoza, Argentina – where the best wines in South America are crafted. And even further south my mind spins in wonder and desires the long summer days and the glacial wonderland of Patagonia.
But for now, I’m in Potosi – the highest “city” in the world. And at one time the richest. For it was here that the Spaniards mined enough silver, as legend has it, to build a bridge of silver that could span from South America to Spain. Generations ago the indigenous people of the Altiplano named the mountain where the silver was mined “beautiful mountain” or in the Spanish translation “rich mountain”. Today the mountain is neither beautiful or rich. It’s sad to see the community that was once the richest and most prosperous in Latin America now one of the most impoverished. It is still trying to hang on to what little of its legacy is left. There’s no commerce here other than tourism and mining. The mines are depleted and it’s only a matter of time that the mountain caves in after more than 500 years of pilfering and plundering. Potosi claims not only the highest city in the world and its history as once the world’s richest, it also must list high in the ranks as the city with the most churches. For with all the wealth the Spanish built churches. Many of the old houses of worship are schools or other places of business today.
The conditions workers must perform their jobs in the mines are depressing. Once owned by three individuals the mines were liberated and controlled by the state after a “revolution” of sorts in the 1950’s. But as the price of tin plummeted as the world moved from tin and metal containers to plastic, riots, strikes and conditions in the mines grew worse. The state eventually had to close down its mines. Today the mines are owned by a handful of cooperatives in which the minors participate. If by some stroke of luck a rich vein is uncovered everyone shares the wealth.
Watching these minors use primitive hand tools in dusty, dark and claustrophobic tunnels deep in the mountain weighed heavy on my head and heart. Especially since the life expectancy of these miners is 15 or 20 years. Chewing on coca leaves to staid off their hunger while working 12 hours or more deep in the mines. It takes too long to get out, so they rarely eat anything but coca leaves. Generations of Bolivians have worked in the mines for centuries. Sons join their fathers in the mines at 10 years old in some cases. They grow up in the mines. They die in the mines. The mines are life. And this is Potosi – once the richest city in the world.
Joining a tour group with a bunch of Argentinean college students and befriending several as we made our way to the mines, I finally was rubbed in the face with a hard fact that I knew and always tried to overcome. That is the double standard for cost of goods and services. Miah wasn’t clued in when the tour operator asked for our payment of the tour – 30 Bolvianos (about $3.20), we had negotiated at the hotel a price of 60 Bolivianos after being told that the normal price was 90 Bs. The girl trying to collect figured we were with the Argentinean group and in seconds one of the other employees came over to correct the price, with Jeremiah in agreement. I guess Miah thought I was trying to negotiate again. Oh well. But it does grate hard when the locals apply this double standard. We do our best in speaking the language. Respect the culture. We shouldn’t pay more just because of our nationality.
Fitted with hardhats, tall rubber boots, headlamps and coveralls over our clothing, we traipsed through muddy passageways with low ceilings while breathing a potpourri of dust and chemicals — I’m afraid to ask. We started our tour at the miner’s market where we bought offerings to give to the miners as we intruded on their space. I stuffed a bag of coca leaves, a couple packs of cigarettes and crackers in my pockets. Others bought dynamite. Still others bought 97% proof alcohol (pura). On the last Friday of the month the miners engage in a fiesta of drunkenness where they down what is the equivalent of rubbing alcohol until they can’t walk. My tour was on a Saturday and one miner must’ve breached the last Friday ritual as he grabbed me and stuffed his face up against mine with a dirty hand held out.
At least at the Casa Real de Moneda (house of money), the former Spanish mint that was in operation from 1753 until the 1950’s and takes up an entire block in the center of Potosi, a sign posted fixed prices regardless of gender or nationality. This building is packed with history as it was one of 3 or 4 mints in Latin America that minted coins for the Crown and Spain. The building is quite the fortress with walls more than 3 feet thick. At one time it served as a prison and a base for the Bolivian Army. But walking through the maze of rooms and guided through the fully restored building we see and experience the equipment used to mint coins by hand, by horse drawn pulleys do modern machines shipped here from Ohio and New Jersey.
But the biggest irony of the whole mining and minting experience lies in where Bolivia’s coins are minted today? Take a guess? For more than a hundred years coins for Spain were minted here In Potosi Bolivia. Today, the Bolivian coins are minted in Spain — nothing is minted in Bolivia. Tables turned, huh?
The entire city of Potosi was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987. A monument to this affect greets visitors as they enter the city near the Plaza de San Francisco. It’s understandable and visible that this city once heralded in riches, culture and architecture. Today it’s trying to hold on. Tomorrow I head to Uyuni.