Posted by on Sep 5, 2013


I had mixed feelings about going to this place. To begin with, I knew very little about it, recalling that ‘there are some mines there’ when someone mentioned the name Potosí. Well yes, there are ‘some mines’ there, one in fact; the infamous mines of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) at the base of which lies the town of Potosí.

The name Potosí is etched into the turbulent and tragic history of South America. For 300 years this Andean peak, standing at 5,000 meters above sea level was the pot-o-sí-lver that kept the Spanish crown afloat after they ‘discovered’ it in 1545. Incan populations had been mining the hill in a small way before the arrival of European greed. As the silver began to flow from Cerro Rico, rumours of a city of mythic wealth within Spanish occupied South America began to circulate in Europe. Over the centuries the Spanish pulled more than 40,000 tons of silver from the mountain and in its time, the city of Potosí was the richest in the world surpassing Paris and London and boasting a population of over 200,000.

This enormous wealth came at staggering human cost. From 1545 to 1800 the Spanish fed over three million Inca slaves into the mountains; into conditions so diabolical that average life expectancy for a miner was six months. While some may call it ‘mita’ a contractual agreement whereby 1/7 of the Indigenous population from surrounding areas had to go and work in the mines, the effect was slavery. African slaves were also brought in to work in the mines but died quickly from the harsh conditions. The cost in animal life was also huge with the best horses and mules from Chile brought in to drive the machinery at the newly established mint in Potosí. 3 months later these animals would die of exhaustion or starvations for the gruelling work at high altitude. If the mines of South America became infamous for their appalling conditions being tantamount to a death sentence, then it was Potosí that was the most prominent among them.

As the silver began to flow from Cerro Rico, rumours of a city of mythic wealth within Spanish occupied South America began to circulate in Europe…and in its time, the city of Potosí was the richest in the world surpassing Paris and London and boasting a population of over 200,000.


Nowadays the picture has changed, but to say it has done so for the better would perhaps plant the wrong idea in people’s minds. Sure, the mortality rate is not what it was and overt forms of slavery are not practiced but there remain more subtle and sophisticated slavery mechanisms that keep the wheels turning in this historic mine. Poverty and ignorance. When the Spanish left in 1800, most of the silver had been mined from the mountain and although Potosí continues as an active mine to this day, that majestic mountain which had yielded half the world supply of gold for 200 years, is now ploughed for other ores amongst which are  tin, copper, bismuth, zinc, tungsten and lead. It is nowhere near as profitable. Nowadays Potosí is viewed as the poorest region of Bolivia, itself one of the poorest nations in South America and a large proportion of its working population are organised into ‘worker run’ cooperatives which mine and sell the minerals to third party companies. Working conditions inside the mine remain awful and children as young as 13 are still forced to work for the equivalent of $3/day. Exposure to toxins, among them mercury, and a toxic rock dust which enters the skin and also damages the lungs affects all who work in the min and after ten years of work will prove fatal in most cases. Superstitions still play a large role in the daily grind of the workers short lives, each believing that offerings of cigarettes and coca leaves to El Tío (Uncle), a demonic deity in charge of the subterranean world, rendered in fired clay, will secure them greater fortunes in the mountain.

Sumaq Orcko or ‘Beautiful Hill’ features on the coat of Arms of the nation of Bolivia and an investigation of old coins no longer in circulation reveals a startling truth about Cerro Rico. The mountain is collapsing. The director of the historic mint in Potosí and advocate of the preservation of the historic mountain says early Spanish records indicate that the mountain surpassed 5,150 meters at its summit while current measurements declare Cerro Rico to stand 4,700 meters above sea level. The shape has also changed from a picturesque cone to a smaller pyramidal geometry. Geological surveys have revealed areas at high risk of collapse near the summit where in 2010 a crater appeared followed by another smaller collapse a year later. Historically the richest part of the mountain, the summit is now a no go zone for mining but blasting operations still continue at all other levels.

The town of Potosí – and more specifically the old colonial section – shows its rich and turbulent history. The bell towers of many churches rise above the narrow cobbled streets which criss-cross their way up the steep slope, leading the eye to the majestic main square with its fountain, tall trees, and classic lamp posts, faced on all sides by the opulent edifices of its decadent past.


I arrived at night with my travelling companions from the tour of the Salar de Uyuni, John and Marie a couple from Ireland and Belgium respectively, Clara from France and Kristen from Canada. It wasn’t that late, but it was cold and misty and we were all very tired from an early morning on the salt flat, and a long day of travelling which included navigating a road block when trying to leave Uyuni. After crunching through the countryside in a nine-seater van along a road suitable only for equipped four-wheel drives we eventually found out way back onto the highway past the road block and climbed our way up through the mountains to Potosí. We tramped along the steep cobbled street, heavily laden with our packs and our lack of sleep in search of a hostel someone had heard of. To make matters worse, I hadn’t eaten anything that day, having had a violent response to meal I consumed earlier. From the shivering pre-dawn on the ice-cold salt flats, with bleary eyes and gurgly guts, to the jumping up and down and frivolity of salt-flat ‘perspective’ photo shoots followed by a long rough drive to the cold rare air of Potosí was a test of endurance for me. I then had to watch my companions tuck into a delicious looking (and smelling) pizza before resigning myself a glass of diluted coke and ten blissful hours of rest to sleep off my misery.

It got better the next day as we toured the markets and ambled along the small streets. We all had lunch before resuming our wonderings and as the sun was going down, Sara and I took a guided tour of one of the many churches by a slightly sleazy guide who showed us the grand interior of the church/cathedral despite the fact that it was being renovated at the time and it was dark inside. Seeing the town of Potosí, with its many colonial buildings and tiled rooves stretching away beneath us in the evening light was another of those memorable ‘setting sun’ moments; that magical turning point where the bright busyness of the day gives way to quiet darkness and a certain calm. It is the natural rest which the modern world has cleverly usurped with technology and alcohol.