The history of Potosí is both bright like the silver metal that made it rich, and dark like the face of its miners.
Traveling to Potosí
When you reach Potosí after a winding mountain road and start walking up its steep streets, maybe feeling the uncomfortableness of the soroche (the altitude sickness —Potosi lies at 4090 meters a.s.l.), you will quickly get acquainted with its most prominent figure, the 4800 meter tall Cerro Rico. That mountain is not only a constant presence in the sky: it is the very reason Potosí exists, rose, fell, and survives to this day.
History of Potosí
Already in Inca times —in this case only 83 years before the Spanish conquest—that infamous mountain was regarded as and named by the indigenous “beautiful”, “rich”, even “sacred”.
When the Conquistadors came in 1545, with their renowned thirst for anything that shines, you can imagine that they went mental. Starting as a simple mining town without definite plan (no time for details), in only 18 months it grew up to 14,000 inhabitants, in 25 years they were 50,000 —a fifth of them Spaniards, the rest working indigenous— and only 38 years after its foundation, Potosí counted 120,000 inhabitants.
In short, it quickly became one of the most important towns in the New World, responsible for around 60% of all silver mined in the world during the second half of the 16th century (reminding of the case of Ouro Preto). The generous mountain was admired so much that local artists often represented it as the Virgin Mary (with clear indigenous references to the Pachamama).
Today, it is part of Bolivia’s national coat of arms; the town itself is listed as UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage since 1987.
The Spanish Crown knew they were on to something good and established a mint in Potosí, the Casa de la Moneda, which minted the ‘Spanish Dollar’, also known as ‘Potosí’: the Spanish language nowadays still uses the expression “Vale un Potosí” (to be worth a Potosí, meaning to have great value). That beautiful colonial building now houses a museum that tells all that story.
Read about another mining town: Ouro Preto in Brazil
Nowadays, the town and the myriad of travel agencies still want to capitalise on the glorious mountain, whose silver has long run out, leaving tin as the main product. Tours are organised to visit the mines and witness the terrible conditions to which the miners are exposed, and this is where I’m addressing you, fellow traveller:
The mines are still working. Miners organise in independent cooperatives to try and make a miserable living. Even nowadays, they cannot afford safe modern technology and tools, not even electric flashlights. Many miners start working as children and die in their 40’s, from accidents or diseases, often due to smoke or dust.
Now tour agencies advertise this as ‘the ultimate experience’, ‘a real active mine’, ‘not for wimps’… why not ‘watch them die’ ?!
People actually spend day after day inside these mines and die because of them. They work under conditions that would have seemed intolerable already in 19th-century Europe.
So I’m asking you, fellow traveller: is it really the kind of touristic attraction you want to see? We said no.
Would you visit those mines? Be honest, we’re open to discussion!