If you’re going to build a city at 4,100m above sea level, high on the Bolivian altiplano and with no fresh water source in sight, you’d better have a compelling reason. For Potosí that reason is Cerro Rico, literally, rich mountain.
Riches from the mountain
In 1534 an indigenous farmer was surprised to find a trickle of silver emerging from a campfire he’d built. News of silver around Potosí was like music to the ears of the conquering Spanish who arrived in their thousands. They mined Cerro Rico for silver leaving its modern form barren and scared with mine entrances.
The mining was incredibly hazardous. One estimate is that eight million people died in the mines. Most of them were indigenous peoples who were required to provide service to the Crown (following an Incan tradition), or African slaves. But the mines were also very successful. At one point in the seventeenth century Potosí was larger than Madrid and London, and the richest city in the Americas. The Spanish poured money into local churches and buildings (perhaps to assuage their guilt), leaving Potosí a surprisingly charming and enigmatic city.
Cerro Rico still casts and actual and a figurative shadow over Potosí. Of the 400,000 inhabitants 70,000 work in mines and surely many more support them. You might call it a company town except that most of the miners work in cooperatives. More on that later.
The product from the mines is exported in a pretty unrefined form, essentially silver dust. This is a lost opportunity insofar as the product isn’t especially valuable when it leaves Potosí. Our refining centre tour guide was happy enough to smear us with it for effect. The refining process itself looks like something out of Dickens, all pulleys and wheels and grit and dirt. There’s also cyanide.
There’s a good dose of colonial architecture left, and some of the churches are supposed to be spectacular, but overall it is hard to imagine Potosí as a city with riches and population to rival European capitals. Its is ultimately a tragic story underscored by the hazardous and back breaking work that many of its citizens still undertake in the mines.Potosí is a fascinating place to visit. Its lament – both historic and contemporary – is a story worth telling.