Potosi, Bolivia

To get from Sucre to Potosi, we followed a well made asphalt road for about three hours. The road first climbed gradually, than spectacularly from 2800 metre at Sucre to 4100 metres at Potosi, which make Potosi one of the highest cities in the world

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1545 and lies at the foot of the Cerro de Potosí—sometimes referred to as the Cerro Rico ("rich mountain")—a mountain, popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore, which has always dominated the city. The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosí's historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. The silver was taken by llama and mule train to the Pacific coast, shipped north to Panama City, carried by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios or Portobelo whence it was taken to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets.

Potosi soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, vale un Potosí, "to be worth a Potosí" (that is, "to be of a great value"). From 1556 to 1783 over 50,000 tons of pure silver were extracted from the mountain. Such extensive mining has led to the mountain itself shrinking in height; before the mining started it was a few hundred meters higher than it is today. The Spanish used both native labour and later imported African slaves. It is said that between 2 million and 8 million men have died in the mines in the mountain

After 1800, the silver mines were depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Nevertheless, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis and dying around 40 years of age

Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city and the region conserve spectacular traces of this activity: the industrial infrastructure comprised 22 lagunas or reservoirs, from which a forced flow of water produce the hydraulic power to activate the 140 ingenios or mills to grind silver ore. The ground ore was then amalgamated with mercury in refractory earthen kilns called huayras or guayras. It was then moulded into bars and stamped with the mark of the Royal Mint. From the mine to the Royal Mint, the whole production chain is conserved, along with dams, aqueducts, milling centres and kilns.

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The fast road climbs from Sucre to Potosi. However we were only allowed one stop by our surly guide.And that was at this bridge over a river.

Little remains of the glory days of Potosi. The narrow streets hint at a past, but none of the buildings are large or palatial. We were there on May Day, and the miners' parade was just finishing, and the trade union building was still well bedecked with bunting.

Convento de Santa Teresa, Our Spanish speaking guide gave us a very interesting tour of the convent which shows the life and work of the Carmelite nuns and their monastery. The shirts and bras lined with barbed wire were particularly gruesome. Flagellation was obviously part of their lives in times gone bye. The Santa Teresa Convent was founded in 1685 and is still home to a small community of Carmelite nuns. One of them is an architect and has directed a superb restoration project that has converted part of the sizable building into a museum.

Girls of 15 from wealthy families entered the convent, getting their last glimpse of parents at the door. Entry was a privilege, paid for with a sizable dowry; a good portion of these offerings are on display in the form of religious artwork. There are numerous fine pieces, including a superb Madonna by Castilian sculptor Alonso Cano, several canvases by Melchor Pérez de Holguín, Bolivia’s most famous painter, and a room of painted wooden Christs. Some of the artworks verge on the macabre, as does the skull sitting in a bowl of dust in the middle of the dining room and a display of wire whisks that some of the nuns used for self-flagellation.

The building itself is as impressive as the works of art on show, with two pretty cloisters housing numerous cacti and a venerable apple tree. It provides a glimpse into a cloistered world that only really changed character in the 1960s, with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. There’s also a cafe and store, where you can buy sweets and biscuits made by the nuns. We felt it would have been impolite not to have done so.

We stayed at the Coloso Hotel. This is a long way short of being a five star hotel, but may well be the best on offer in Potosi. It really is an odd hotel. It is housed in a converted building (perhaps a cinema in a previous life) with a magnificent facade, and a marbled lobby with a picturesque bar based on a mining theme. But there any pretence to luxury, and the five stars that it claims, ends. The bar is not manned, and the lobby has not been fully furnished. The staff on the front desk are straight from an Eastern European hotel, with not a smile, nor a welcome.

The dining room where we had breakfast, had the same communist feel. Bleak and bare, it offered little for choice or service at breakfast time. Our bedroom was small, but perfectly adequate, hough the proportions were wrong, the room being small, and the ceiling being high.

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Millions of indigenous labourers and African slaves perished in mines in the three centuries of colonial rule. Estimates range from 2 million at the low end to 8 million at the upper end. The miners were often below ground for weeks at a time

Today, they say, visit to Potosí isn't complete without a visit to one of the cooperative mines. It's a shocking experience as the methods of working haven't changed much since the colonial times. Working conditions are terrible: most miners die of silicosis in their forties. Still, many people don't have another choice and around 10,000 people work in the mines. Our tour started by changing into overalls and a visit to the miners' market to buy gifts for the miners like coca leaves, drinks, cigarettes or dynamite. It is quite scary that a small child will be sent each day to buy the family supply of dynamite. We then headed to the mines, where we walked and crawled through tunnels and water for over an hour. Chris got a serious head ache, and had to leave early. You get a sense of the social price paid for the mineral wealth of the few.

The dust is supposed to contain silicon that leads to silicosis among the miners. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls. Many of the mine props are snapped and there are minor cave ins along the way. There was a little side chamber near the entrance to the mine that contained a statue of "El Tio," a diabolic figure that the miners make offerings to. They say that God may rule aboveground, but that El Tio is in charge down below. As every guide tells you, the natives could not pronounce the Spanish word "dios" and it came out as "tio"

The mines have no lighting, no safety regulations or inspectors, no modern rail cars and no pumped-in oxygen, leaving miners to inhale a fine deadly dust. Chewing wads of coca to ward off hunger and exhaustion, some heft huge bags of rocks to the surface on their backs. Smaller, nimbler miners specialise in burrowing into tiny crevices to place dynamite charges. Most spend the workday like their ancestors did: breaking through rock with hammer and iron chisel.

For their troubles, most earn a paltry $14 a day.The paradox is that since the 1980s, when the state-run mine laid off thousands, the mining has been carried out by co-operatives controlled by the miners themselves.But the 35 co-operatives that now mine mostly lead and zinc are unregulated, pay no taxes and critics say they exploit those miners who aren't lucky or shrewd enough to have become co-op bigwigs.

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El Empedradillo and another similar restaurant where we had lunch on our two days in Potosi  

El Empedradillo is not a big restaurant, but they do deal with large tourist groups, which therefore dominate. I thought that the decor and ambiance were good, but the food bad/unmemorable. Basically you go here to take the edge off your hunger, but do not expect haut cuisine, or even just cuisine. They have a well oiled service, which aims to get you out as soon as possible. So if that is what you want, then you would be fine here. The place was not for me, but this is a town with not too many alternatives

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The Casa de la Moneda (House of the Mint), in the centre of the city close to Republic Square, was constructed between 1753 and 1773. The house today is a numismatic museum. It possesses more than 100 colonial pictures and various archaeological and ethnographic collections The National Mint is Potosí’s star attraction and one of South America’s finest museums.

Potosí’s first mint was constructed on the present site of the Casa de Justicia in 1572 under orders from the Viceroy of Toledo. This, its replacement, is a vast and strikingly beautiful building that takes up a whole city block. It was built to control the minting of colonial coins; legend has it that when the king of Spain saw the bill for its construction, he exclaimed ‘that building must be made of silver’. These coins, which bore the mint mark ‘P,’ were known as potosís. The building has walls that are more than a meter thick and it has not only functioned as a mint but also done spells as a prison, a fortress and, during the Chaco War, the headquarters of the Bolivian army.

As visitors are ushered into a courtyard from the entrance, they’re greeted by the sight of a stone fountain and a freaky mask of Bacchus, hung there in 1865 by Frenchman Eugenio Martin Moulon for reasons known only to him. In fact, this aberration looks more like an escapee from a children’s funfair, but it has become a town icon (known as the mascarón ). Apart from the beauty of the building itself, there’s a host of historical treasures. They include a fine selection of religious paintings from the Potosí school, culminating in La Virgen del Cerro, a famous anonymous work from the 18th century

The original wooden mint machinery survives thanks to the dry, cold climate which warded off insects which might otherwise have destroyed the wood. We saw how they cast the silver ingots, then slowly, by stages, milled them to the thickness for coins, then stamped out the silver coins. The mule-driven wooden cogs that served to beat the silver to the width required for the coining are still there. These were replaced by steam-powered machines in the 19th century. The last coins were minted here in 1953.

We then left Potosi for Uyuni and the great Salar or Salt Lake

Holiday in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina