The journey continued, as the day after we passed the border at La Quiaca into the Bolivian town of Villazón. It felt immediately like being in another country, especially for the cholitas, women wearing traditional dresses, a growing grass-root movement against the Spanish imposed European fashion (if interested you can read this article). When walked into a currency exchange shop, I discovered the genuineness (someone may call it naïvety) of Bolivians: the lovely old lady working there told us to change just a little bit of money because her rate was a rip off compared to the other cities! This kind of advice, going against the interests of the person selling, happened many times during this trip!
From there, the journey to our next destination on a shared minivan was very long and it was almost impossible to sleep because of extremely loud cumbia playing from the radio. It reminded me of some nightmarish trips of last summer while travelling through Malaysia and Thailand – although the genre of music was different! For 5 hours we saw absolutely nothing, except for a few houses and some graffiti saying ‘SI EVO’ or ‘NO EVO’. Evo is Evo Morales the first indigenous President of Bolivia since 2005. A former cocalero (coca grower) who was re-elected in 2014, gaining power until 2020. (Watch Evo Morales’s speech at the UN). Eventually we drove past an awaited road sign – “ Welcome to Potosí” – and my ears could finally rest.
Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, with its 4026 metres of altitude, and it is a very unique place with its colonial architecture.
It was very cold when we arrived so we decided to stop for a drink. There I was finally able to order an api, a hot drink with the same thickness of a hot chocolate, but made from purple maize. To make api, which I didn’t know existed before coming to South America, maize is mixed with water, sugar, cinnamon and cloves, and I have to admit it was worth the wait – it was absolutely delicious!
We then went for a stroll in this vibrant and lively city which has an insane amount the churches. We found the local market, super busy and colourful. Just outside, there was a truck full of cows’ heads and intestines which people where putting in buckets with naked hands…It was gross! We, Gringos, always go to supermarket and buy pieces of meat with packaging from a shelf. We are so used to it that sometimes people tend to forget where it is coming from. When I say I am vegetarian people still ask me, do you eat ham? Ahem, no. And pancetta? Once again, no! If these people went to markets in Argentina and Bolivia they would definitely not asking me this question again!
On our way back to the hostel we walked through the main square, where locals were gathering for the Christmas lights switch on, the band was playing, children were running everywhere and stalls were selling hot chocolate. The Bolivian version of Nottingham’s Winter Wonderland! In this cheerful moment, the Cerro Rico on the horizon reminded me of the reality of this city which was going to hit me the day after.
The Cerro Rico (the rich mountain) has been for hundreds of years the source of wealth and sorrow of this place. This town, under Spanish rule, was the wealthiest city of the Americas. Before the conquistadors came to Potosí, the locals venerated this mountain as a divinity and had discovered the treasure held within it. But, according to the legend, one day the earth started to tremble and the cerro talked to the people who were about to extract its riches, telling them to stop, as they were not the owners of the mountain. Deeply scared, they stopped extracting, and no one ever did, until the day a shepherd lost one of his llamas, and decided to go and search for it. It was so cold that night that he needed to light a fire. Suddenly from the earth something shiny appeared: it was pure silver. The shepherd decided to tell the just arrived Spanish what happened to him. The Armada, under Carlos V, decided to work with both the cross and the sword. They enslaved the local indigenous and brought African slaves to work in the mines.
The Africans were dying because they couldn’t handle the cold and the altitude. Because these losses were unprofitable, the Spanish decided to make them work in the Colonial Mint (which you can still visit), where they were extracting the silver from the rocks using mercury. They all died suffering tremendous pains, becoming blind, losing their teeth, nails and hair. The Spanish exploited the Cerro Rico so much that with all the silver extracted, locals say, it would have been possible to build a bridge all the way from Potosí to Spain and still have a lot left. During its golden years, Potosí was the source of the 80% of silver of the world. People still use the phrase “Vale un Potosí!”, when speaking of something very lucrative.
During my second day I went to visit the mines of Cerro Rico, the highest silver mines in the world at 4800 m of altitude. They are still active day and night, with over 5.000 miners. The silver extracted is transported to the Pacific Coast of Chile and from there is sent to Europe, where it can be refined and sold. Before going up to the Cerro Rico, we stopped at the miners’ market to buy them some cold drinks, coca leaves and dynamite for the day. I spent more than two hours exploring inside one of the mines with a guide who used to work there. Inside it was pitch black but we had lights on our helmets.
Occasionally, I could barely breathe because of the dust. We often needed to stop and push our bodies to the side because the miners where passing very fast with runaway trolleys, carrying tons of rocks. I talked to Pedro, a 16 years old boy who, as many other children, has been working in the mines for 4 years, when on holiday from school, helping out his father. One million of children and teenagers are working in Bolivia and 50% of this number are less than 14 years old.
“The mountain that eats men” is the local nickname of Cerro Rico. The miners, here, have a life expectancy of 45 years. They die of silicosis, for the permanent exposure to dust and toxic gases. Since the 16th century eight million people have died working in these mines. Takitachito, the God of the miners, can protect them only outside, as God doesn’t have access to this place. So, for their safety, they need to worship the devil “El Tio”, by giving him alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes as offers. We visited the chapel which hosts his depiction: a nightmarish creature with horns, gem eyes, with a cigarette constantly lit in his mouth and an erected penis, symbol of masculinity. No women can in fact work inside the mine, to avoid triggering Pachamama‘s (mother earth) jealousy.
The Cerro Rico was nominated Unesco site 1987 for its historic value and for all the suffering that the people from this city have experienced in all these years. It’s likely that in the near future this place will loose its title because of the exploitation of the mines which led to a slow collapse of the mountain. Scientists say that the Cerro Rico, main source of income for a large part of the population, has around 5 years of possible exploitation left before the silver and tin will be totally exhausted.