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Archive for October, 2010

Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of approximately 146,000. At 4060 metres above sea level, it is also the world’s highest city. The colonial architecture and narrow streets appeal to my sense of exploration. I make a point of taking my altitude pills.

I arrived in early March, in the rain, and, at this altitude, it is the coolest place I’ve stayed in South America. Days are comfortable, about 12 degrees Celsius, and it feels warmer if you can situate yourself in the glow of the sun, but the nights are cold! This is the warm season.

During its heyday Potosi was the richest city in Latin America – on par with London and Paris. “Vale un Potosi” was a common expression for that wealth. That former wealth has a dark side. The silver from Cerra Rico financed the Spanish economy for two centuries and the mines meant death for millions of Indigenous and African slaves.

There are still 286 mines in operation, which operate as a co-operative. The conditions are primitive and it’s an extremely unhealthy work environment. I booked a tour of the mine. We stopped, first, to pick up protective clothing and, then, to visit the miners’ market where we picked up gifts – coca leaves, 96% alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite. We descended into the mine shaft. Cerra Rico is dark, wet, muddy and claustrophobic. The tour involves climbing, scrambling, crouching and much slipping. Not everyone was willing to continue. It was a fascinating and shocking experience. However, it is not one I would ever want to repeat. Orphan children, as young as six, work part-time in the mines as assistants.  

Another very interesting place is the excellent Casa Real de la Moneda museum. The silver from Cerra Rico was once minted here.  I was surprised to hear that the Canadian twoonie ($2 coin) is minted in Bolivia!

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