At a height of 4,067 meters, Potosi is one of the highest cities in the World. It has a wealth of colonial architecture and in 1987, in recognition of this, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountain looming over the city, known as Cerro Rico (Spanish for "Rich Mountain") has been the centerpiece of the regions rich and tragic history since the mid 16th century.
Cerro Rico and its rich mineral reserves was discovered in 1544 by a local Inca, Diego Huallpa, who had lit a fire on the mountainside which had caused the silver beneath to melt and ooze out. This discovery led to the silver mining operations being founded in 1546. Over the next two centuries, it is said that enough silver was extracted from Cerro Rico to "build a bridge to Spain and still have enough silver left to carry across it". Although the exact amount of extracted silver remains a mystery, this discovery made the Spanish Empire one of the richest in the World.
By 1672, the population of Potosi had increased to around 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the World. As with all booms, Potosi began to suffer by the early 19th century as the output from the mines started to decline. Around the mid-19th century the price of silver dropped which dealt a further blow to Potosi's future and around the time of Bolivia's independence in 1825, the silver had largely run out leaving tin as the main product. Today the main extracted mineral is ore but the dream of a lucky find keeps the miners going.
Cooperative Silver Mine Tours
Today most of the mining operations in Cerro Rico are in the control of miner-owned cooperatives, and a trip down the mines will show you just how little has changed since the colonial period. Before entering the mines, the tours stop at the Miners Market where gifts for the miners can be bought. 'Gifts' range from 2 litre bottles of Water, to coca leaves, dynamite, cigarettes and very strong alcohol. Just inside the entrance to the mine, Tio, the god of the underworld is given offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes as it is believed that he holds the power of life and death in his fingers.
As the tour ventures deeper into Cerro Rico, it is clear just how awful the working conditions are. The miners work in confined spaces with limited protective equipment, and many die from silicosis - a series disease that damages the lungs. Miners generally work in pairs, excavating and then transporting the mineral out of the mines in carts weighing around a tonne running along very uneven tracks. One of the workers we met told us that he had been working in the mines for 20 years. He explained that the miners work 8 hour shifts around the clock and are paid depending on how much ore they extract - about 800 Bolivianos (115 US$) a week.
Once back in the open, you will definitely respect the life you have back at home as no working condition in the Western world can compare to the environment the miners of Potosi work in everyday.
The cost of a tour is approximately 100 Bolivianos (15 US$) and includes an English speaking tour guide, coveralls, helmet and headlamp. The cost of the gifts is about 20 Bolivianos.