Potosí, one of those once-great cities no one has never heard of. How great? You’ve heard of the Spanish Empire, right, and how all that New World silver discovered in the 16th century financed, well, everything, right? It pretty much all came from Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Potosí. According to a history of the Silk Roads – the trade routes across Central Asia and the Near East I just happened to be reading before going to Potosí – the mine there accounted for more than half of all global silver production for more than 100 years. Think of that, for over a century most of the silver mined in the entire world came from one mine high in the Bolivian Andes. The author goes on to talk about the impact this Bolivian silver had on civilizations as far-flung as Spain, Italy, India, and China.
It probably goes without saying that the conditions for 16th and 17th century miners weren’t exactly up to today’s OSHA standards. Slaves, both indigenous and imported for Africa, were impressed into the mines, working six-month shifts where they never saw the light of day. Lonely Planet says it’s estimated that as many as eight million slaves died in the 280 years of colonial silver extraction.
We toured the mine over a couple hours one day, which consisted of essentially walking through the mountain; there wasn’t nearly as much discussion of the history of the mine or the impact the mine had on the colonial experience, the Spanish Empire, and ultimately European history as I’d hoped. Still, it was striking to be walking in the very same mine that funded Spanish imperialism. You enter through the same entrance and walk some of the same passageways as those built in the mid-16th century. Today they still mine very modest amounts of silver, along with tin and … other stuff the tour guide told us about. The thought of staying in there for weeks on end was pretty overwhelming, and even today the conditions are abysmal. Potosí miners still have substantially lowered life expectations due primarily to the dust and various chemicals they inhale all day, every day.Though it was once the largest and wealthiest city in all of the Americas, today Potosí is not much. The hotel and restaurant situation wasn’t much to write home about and the once-glorious churches are crumbling. Still, it had its charms. We arrived to the twinkling sounds of little kids parading in honor of Holy Week – Semana Santa – which made us think it would be a colorful place for a few days. What it meant in practice was that the only supposedly good restaurant in town was closed. And that from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday no alcohol could be sold. Yikes – what is with these people?
A couple days in Potosí was just about all that was needed; a great if somewhat depressing taste of history. From here it’s on to Sucre, one of Bolivia’s capital cities.