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Mining for treasure in Potosí, Bolivia

One of the highest cities in the world, Potosí teeters at an astounding 4,090m (13,420ft) above sea level, looking down on Bolivia and the rest of Latin America from its lofty height. Formerly the continent’s crowning jewel in terms of riches, Potosí’s wealth was built upon the stores of silver hidden in its mountains. Unfortunately, after over two centuries of relentless mining, the grandeur and wealth of the city tumbled with its population and dwindling silver supplies. These days, the mines are still open and accessible to tourists…but sadly, the coffers are no longer overflowing.

The city was first founded back in 1545 by Spanish colonists, who quickly ascertained its potential for silver mining. Within a matter of years, its fame had spread and its population swelled to over 200,000 people, making it not only one of the largest cities in Latin America, but throughout the world. According to Spanish records, over 41 metric tonnes of silver were mined from the Cerro Rico (literally, Rich Hill, which dominates the town) during a little over two hundred years. Indeed, such was the fame of Potosí’s wealth that it earned a mention in Miguel de Cervantes 17th century novel Don Quixote. Some have even gone as far to attribute the dollar sign to the town, by imposing the letters PTSI on top of each other…though such rumours remain unsubstantiated.

Whatever the truth, Potosí was definitely one of the richest cities in the world at one point. Unfortunately, it is now a far cry from such past glories. When silver supplies dwindled at the beginning of the 19th century, the mines remained open, but tin became the new product. Obviously, such an inferior metal could not sustain Potosí’s legacy or luxury and the city fell into a decline from which it has never emerged.

Today it is possible to tour many such mines in Potosí using one of the local tour companies with three-hour excursions costing around 100 Bolivianos (US$100). The tour will begin with a visit to the miners’ market, where tourists are encouraged to buy gifts for the unfortunate miners whose daily lot is confined among the narrow tunnels and caves. Suggested gifts include coca leaves (to help with the altitude), fizzy juice, cigarettes or dynamite (yes, dynamite!).

After acquiring your gifts, you will then be transported underground to the mine, to witness miners as young as sixteen or seventeen years toil away at the rock. Life expectancy in the mine is very young; the dusty air contains particles of silicon, which often leads to silicosis, and the moisture on the rock faces are said to contain traces of cyanide and arsenic. The experience may not be a pleasant one, but it certainly is an enlightening and sobering one, especially with the knowledge that few of the miners live past the age of forty.

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Fortunately, many of the companies work very closely with the miners, donating proceeds from the tours to them and their families. Indeed, the majority of the tour guides are former miners themselves. Although the plight of the miner is undeniably a terrible one, visiting their workplace, interacting with them and gifting them small tokens of your esteem can open up your awareness of a whole other world. Suddenly, some of our problems don’t seem quite so pressing in comparison with those of the miners of Potosí.

Back above ground, gulp in the fresh air, enjoy the Bolivian hospitality, and try to imagine what the city may have looked like back in the day of Señor Quixote and his faithful Sancho Panza.

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