Thursday, July 31, 2008


Saturday 12th to Monday 14th

Potosi leaves you breathless.

The altitude of 4060m makes it the highest city in the world and even after several weeks of acclimatisation it still takes an effort to haul the oxygen in. The streets are the steepest I have ever encountered and the locals meander at a crawl. It´s busy, bussling and chaotic, not helped by the narrow streets and pavements. Crazy drivers try to maintain momentum uphill or burn brakes speeding back down - pedestrians run the gauntlet. The central square, with it´s (permanently closed) cathedral and colonial governmental buildings is beautiful.

The city sprawls and clings precipitously to the surrounding mountain ranges...

The whole city is dominated by the imposing pyramid of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain).

At 4824m the whole peak is stuffed with minerals and is the reason Potosi was the largest, richest city in the world in medieval times. Tonnes of silver have been plundered, originally by Spanish exploitation of local labour then African slaves at a cost of millions of lives. Visiting the mine reveals reasons for the massive death toll.

Conditions are bleak. Tunnels run everywhere and are uncharted. Artificial ventilation is non existent and the air is thick with dust. The work is largely manual and backbreaking. Daily dynamite blasting is organised haphazardly and deaths and injuries are common. Miners work in small groups as part of a co-operative, each vying for profitable mineral veins. Failing veins, mean starving families. I move a wheelbarrow of ore and gasp for breath in the thin air, miners here will repeat this process 140 times a day for around $10 a day.

Life expectancy is short even today with miners succumbing to silicosis before the age of 40. It is hard to see children working here knowing their fate...

Superstition is strong. The miner´s devil "Tio" (a bastardisation of the Spanish word Dios meaning god) is appeased with cigarettes, coca leaves and neat, throat burning alcohol. To offer libations is to reap good ore - and to live another day...

Fortunately, the city streets are a happier place and in the shadow of the mines, the markets are bursting with a lust for life. The contrast is stark....


Anonymous said...

Hi - we are an English couple cycling about a month behind you, in Humahuaca at the moment.
Got your blog details from someone we have both met and have enjoyed reading about what we are about to experience. Keen to cycle to Isla de los Pescadores but wondered if you needed GPS or can just follow the jeep tracks. Our blog is if you could drop a message we would be really grateful. (maybe easier to email us on Best of luck! Tamsin and Jim

Sween in SAmerica said...

Hi Jim and Tasmin

Have sent private email.

All tail winds to ya
The Sween