Besides plundering the gold riches of the Incas in Peru and Aztecs in Mexico, the conquistadors discovered in 1544 AD, a fabulously rich mountain of silver ore on the altiplano of Bolivia.
Called Cerro Rico (rich mountain), this barren conical hill is 4824 metres above sea level and the world’s highest city, that of Potosi, sits at its base at 4090 metres altitude. It is estimated that 70,000 metric tons of silver were produced over a 400 year period.
During the almost 300 years of Spanish colonial rule the working conditions in the silver mines were so appalling that the Indian and Negro miners survived no more than 6 months. Smelter fumes and mercury from processing the silver ore also took their toll.
Today Potosi remains as a well preserved monument of Spanish colonial times. Its population reached almost 200,000 in the silver boom times of the 17th century, when it was larger than London or Paris.
A trip to Potosi is a must for travellers to Bolivia. Mining aficionados will love the place. There is so much to see and reflect on. The European “transfer of technology” produced enormous wealth for the Spaniards. Formerly the Indians won the native metals (gold and silver) by primitive means. Now the hard rock ores were being mined underground with the then latest techniques.
Of great assistance to the Spanish prospectors and miners was the new handbook “De Re Metallica” by Georgius Agricola, first published in 1556, which described all the mining and metallurgical practices used around the Harz Mountains of Central Europe. Cerro Rico soon became the largest underground mine development in the world.
How to get there?
Take a bus from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, itself a unique and fascinating city that fills up a huge canyon cut into the altiplano, at the 3600 metres altitude. It takes about eleven hours and costs US$9. On the way south the flat, treeless countryside is dotted with adobe block huts of Indian families. They cultivate potatoes and corn and watch over flocks of sheep and alpacas.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Hotel “El Turista” conveniently located 2 blocks from the centre of town. It is double-storey and built around a central covered patio in typical colonial style. The management is friendly and helpful with arranging tours. Our large room upstairs had three beds with heavy blankets (like woven lead), an attached bathroom and a magnificent view over the tiled roofs to Cerro Rico. Cost was US $7 per person with an optional light breakfast being $1 extra.
What to do and see?
At your doorstep almost, just off the Central Plaza is the Casa Real de la Moneda, a huge fortress-like building taking up a whole city block. Stone walls, a metre thick, tower above the streets. Inside is one of South America’s finest and most interesting museums. A major attraction is the royal Mint, built between 1753 and 1773, to manufacture silver coins, which became known as “potosÃs”.
Silver ingots from the smelters were brought here for refining and the bars about an inch square were flattened into sheets by passing through a series of steel rollers of decreasing aperture. Punches and dies produced a never ending supply of coins. The machinery first used was constructed in Spain, shipped to Buenos Aires and transported by bullock-cart to Potosi.
Four laminadors, having sets of steel rollers, were gear-driven by enormous wooden cogwheels which each derived their power from vertical shafts that descend into the room below. Here each shaft was rotated by 4 mules that trudged around in a circle. When short on mules, 10 slaves did the same work!
The silver coin treasure was loaded on to llamas and transported to the port of Lima, a journey northward of over a 1000 kms. The treasure was loaded onto galleons and shipped to Panama, then taken by mule across the isthmus, reloaded onto galleons which sailed across the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean to Spain, pirates permitting.
The man or animal powered minting machines were used until 1869 when modern equipment was imported from Philadelphia. Still operational is a massive horizontal steam engine with flywheel many metres in diameter.
Guided tours start at 9am and 2pm. Besides the Mint, there are rooms devoted to coin collections, silver craftware, a mineralogical museum having every species of mineral found in the mines, plus a magnificent collection of oil paintings depicting Potosi colonial life.
By 1865 silver mining was in decline. At depth silver gave way to tin. Large scale tin mining began in 1895 and Bolivia produced 48% of the world’s supply by 1945. The revolution in 1952 resulted in Government ownership of the mines which declined in profitability. Today there exists on Cerro Rico only a few small cooperative mines. Old levels are used to access the near surface stopes from which meandering exploratory tunnels, often only a metre in diameter, are dug to look for crumbs of silver ore e.g., 1 cm veins of argentite (silver sulfide) neglected by the early miners.
Visit to the mines
This is a real adventure. Your hotel can arrange a tour of a working mine. Several tour companies advertise trips of about 4 hours duration for US$10, or $5 if you don’t go underground.
Koala Tours has its office opposite the Moneda. This is not an Australian business; the name is derived from the common posture of the Indian miners – they rest by squatting and chew coca leaves to derive stamina, like a koala! Always the miners have a bulging cheek made from sucking the juices of a large wad of coca. Only this way can they cope with the hot strenuous work in the diminished atmosphere at 4500 metres altitude.
If you are short, say 5 ft high, young and of supple frame, you may enjoy a Koala tour underground, but it’s definitely not for the oldies or normal 6 ft Europeans. At times you have to traverse long distances in metre high tunnels, dug at steep angles and often make way for scuttling Indian miners carrying 20 kg canvas bags of ore back to the haulage level.
Two years ago I did this memorable trip underground with Koala Tours but it took several weeks before my back came good. This summer I opted for a surface tour with no discomforts.
Whether you go underground or not, you will first be taken to the Miners’ Market to buy supplies. The underground visitors are fitted with hard hats, protective clothing, gumboots and electric lights. At the market you have the opportunity to buy presents for the miners (on good days they may earn $5). A stick of dynamite, detonator and 2 metres of fuse cost only a dollar. Also welcome are cigarettes, Inca Cola drink, and the essential big bag of coca leaves. For a $2 expenditure you can make several miners very happy.
We visited the Candelaria Mine, located halfway up the mountain. About 45 miners operate this cooperative mine from old workings. The skips are pushed outside and the ore is loaded onto trucks and taken to a processing plant lower down the mountain. The view of the city and surrounding altiplano with snowy peaks in the distance is magnificent.
Several families live in the huts at the mine entrance. A little Indian girl here decided I was Papa Navidad, or Father Christmas, because of my long whitish hair. After disposing of our presents our guide took us on a leisurely walk downhill back to civilization.
An excellent place to have lunch or dinner is the upmarket Cafe San Marcos which has seating for 60 people and doubles as a mining museum. It is built on a restored site of an old ore crushing and smelter plant (ingenio). A water wheel drove millstones that crushed the ore mixed with mercury and salt. The silver sulfide was converted into a silver amalgam (patio process) which was recovered and heated to liberate the silver. The crude ingots of silver produced were sent to the Mint for refining and coin production.
The silver coins, along with plate, bars, gold doubloons and “pieces of eight” became the lure for pirates of the Spanish Main, or the Caribbean starting point for the perilous voyage back to Spain.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.
Where to Start
Usual entry point to Bolivia is La Paz, the capital (airport is at 4082 metres altitude). All SA national airlines fly into La Paz. Accommodation see Lonely Planet Guide to Bolivia and Boliviaweb on the Net. Take bus or train south on the altiplano to Potosi, or bus the scenic route with stopovers at Cochabamba and Sucre.
Bolivia is a backpackers paradise and is one of the safest and least expensive South American countries to travel in. Hotel accommodation ranges US$5/7 single/double for basic accommodation to $20/30 for 4-star comfort. It is easy for budget travellers to get by on $15/day for meals and accommodation.
Population 121,000. A well preserved Spanish colonial city and the highest in the world (altitude 4090 metres), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Obviously not to be missed.
Very good is the Internet cafe on Calle Junin near the corner with Calle Bolivar, next to an Enlace ATM.
One US dollar = 6.1 Bolivianos, but check rate for today.
Tour Operators in Potosi
Koala Tours: Calle Ayacucha 5, in front of entrance to Casa de Moneda. Phone 24708
Bus leaves at 9am every day for a 4 hour tour of Cerro Rico, including the miners’ market and Candelaria Mine.
Andes Braulio Expeditions: Alonzo de IbaÃ±ez Square 3; Phone 25175.
Offers tours of several cooperative mines, including the Unificada, Rosario, Candelaria and Pailaviri, leaving at 9.00am and 2.30pm every day. Also 1 to 2 day treks and camping at Laguna Kari Kari and Chaqui Thermal baths, Uyuni Salar and thru to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Other tour operators that offer similar excursions are:
Amauta Bolivia Expeditions Calle Bolivar 853, Phone 26618.
Altiplano Tours Calle Ayacucho 19, Casilla 204; Phone 27299
Potosi Tours Plaza Alonzo de IbaÃ±ez 16; Phone 25786
Trans Amazonas Calle Quijarro 12; Phone 25304
Victoria Tours Calle Chuquisaca 148, Casilla 444; Phone 22132
Tour agents come and go. Check with your hotel and Tourist Office in Potosi, Phone 25288.
When to Go
Bolivia is in the southern hemisphere so summer is mid-November thru to mid-February which is the “warmest” time to visit the altiplano and PotosÃ in particular, but it is also the rainy season.
Wintertime (May to July) is drier and cooler with sub-zero temperatures at night.
I have always travelled the Bolivian altiplano in November/December and found the weather perfect. Check the weather report for PotosÃ right now.
The high altitude of the altiplano makes sun/UV exposure extreme. Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are essential.
Check with mine tour operators regarding physical fitness required for the excursion. Koala tours are for the young, supple and adventurous … their motto is … “Not for wimps or woosies”. Other operators may have less strenuous but still exciting and informative mine tours.
Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and Memory of Fire trilogy tracks the history of Latin America from Pre- Columbian times to the present.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.