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Posts Tagged ‘silver mines’

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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(December 2008)

Guanajuato is a prosperous city of approximately 90,000 people. It’s wealth is derived from the silver mines in and near the city and for about 250 years it produced a significant percentage of the world’s silver.  There is no shortage of cultural attractions; however, its “jewel” is the subterranean tunnels once used for flood control and now for traffic. Colourful houses are built up the hills and the winding streets, callejones, some very narrow, can be a challenge to your sense of direction and your knees. The city is truly enchanting and many a tourist passes through!

Guanajuato is a popular place to study Spanish and I had arranged for a three-week immersion program and homestay. The family that hosted me run a bakery and catering business and I enjoyed the fresh baked morning pastries. They live in a lovely large house. The property is gated and the windows barred. There’s something a little unsettling about the security measures; but, it is a safe city with a very strong police presence. Even at night, I felt safe walking up the deserted road to the house.

The Academia Falcon grounds are quite lovely and I do love a school with courtyards! I started with four daily classes and most seemed a bit beyond the introductory courses I had taken at home. Most of my fellow students were from the U.S., my age and older and staying anywhere from a few weeks to a year to however long it takes. There were also people from Japan, younger, and a woman from France. Even though English is an international language not everyone speaks it and the Japanese students and myself had to use Spanish to communicate with one another.

The second and third weeks I added a cooking class to my schedule – chilaquiles, mole poblano, pozole verde, flan de queso, enchiladas mineras, cochinita pibil, an amazing hot chocolate, a Jamaican flower petal drink – all incredibly delicious. The cooking classes were without a doubt my favourite classes! Although, my favourite homework assignment was to describe an object without saying what it was and my shoe was ideal for some creative energy.

I spent much of my spare time hanging around centro. There are several squares and ample places to enjoy a good cup of coffee, bottle of beer (Bohemian obscura), meal or dessert (ah, tres leches). During my walks about town I visited most of the attractions – Alhondiga de Granaditas – at one time a prison where the heads of the four martyrs of the War of Independence were displayed in cages as a warning to the citizens, and now an excellent museum and gallery, – Museo de las Momias, Casa de Diego Riveria (GTO is his hometown), Museo de Don Quixote, the Pepilia monument and the breathtaking view from this mirador, the infamous Callejon de Besa (kissing balcony), the Pastita area (Carlos, one of the instructors, suggested it along with great places to eat), and a small museum where Manuel, the gardener, allowed me to visit after hours, provided a delightful tour of the garden, and even gave me a Christmas gift. I also joined in and followed the musical callejoneadas (strolling minstrels), walked around the damns at Presa de la Olla, and walked up to the church amidst the large crowds for the Festival of the Virgin de Guadaloupe . On the final night, at the suggestion of Connie and Roger, a group of us from the school took a tour of the city – the perspective from a vehicle is quite different and I realized there was much I hadn’t previously seen.

San Miguel

Being a tourist, I also went on a day excursion to Dolores Hildago and San Miguel de Allende. I was the only English speaker on the bus and one family more or less adopted me for the day – they were concerned about my travelling alone. In Dolores Hildago we visited the home and museum of Miguel Hildago, the father of Mexican independence, other buildings of interest, and sampled the tequila ice-cream. San Miguel is a beautiful town but the American influence is very apparent. 

My three weeks in Guanajuato was an interesting experience. I really like the city with its off-grid colourful buildings, warm, wonderful inhabitants, and great food and culture. The historic town and the mines are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Note: During my pre-trip research I came across a great travel tip – pack duct tape and wrap it around a pen. I only had to use it once – during a violent windstorm – and was very glad I had it. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the windows closed without it. It will always be a part of any future travels.

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