Thursday, June 13, 2013

Potosí (June 2nd - 5th, 2013)

Soy el rico Potosí
Del mundo soy el tesoro
Soy el rey de los montes
Envidia soy de los reyes

I am rich Potosí
The treasure of the world
I am the king of mountains
The envy of kings

We spent a couple of days in Potosí - one of the highest cities in the world (4090 m), with a glorious, but sad history. The neighboring Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) provided silver for the Spanish crown for more than two centuries, allowing for example, the funding of the Counter-Reformation in Europe.

Cerro Rico, essential for Potosí

The working conditions in the mines were harsh back then, and they continue to be difficult. The tunnels are low (not a job for tall people) and the air is bad - some tunnels have toxic gases and mining produces a lot of dust. Most miners don´t wear a mask, so lung problems are common. We were down in the mines for about two and a half hours with a tour guided by a miner. Or guide Wilzon has been working in the mines for over twenty years since the tender age of 12. Many start even earlier and attend school in the evenings. Moreover, the profession often stays in the family. To avoid this, Wilzon hopes to move to Sucre and open a restaurant, and we wish him best of luck with this.

Maren, Wilzon and I ready to hit the mines

We were asked to bring small presents to the miners - a non-alcohol peach-flavored soft drink, some coca leaves, and perhaps cigarettes. Since the miners´ lungs already have enough to deal with, we did not buy any cigarettes, but were looking forward to giving the other presents to the hard-working men. Two days prior to our tour, however, the miners had sacrificed a llama and had been drinking since then. They drink primarily a 96% distillate of sugar cane. As a result, we did not see very many workers, and ended up giving most of the presents to a man who seemed to be in need of a hang-over cure. We did, however, see many colorful minerals, mines created during different eras, and a couple of sculptures of the mining deities. One of them - el Tío, the miners´ god of minerals - resembles the devil. The miners bring cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol to these Tíos, and ask or thank them for rich mineral veins.

Praying to el Tío

Back in fresh air and sunlight

We also visited the National Mint of Bolivia, where silver coins were produced for Spain and later Bolivia. Currently, it is not in use as a mint, but rather a museum.

Model of silver production in colonial times at National Mint

The Santa Teresa Convent, which still houses a community of five Carmelite nuns, was absolutely fascinating. It used to be a great privilege of the second daughters of wealthy families, at the age of 15, to join the convent. They never again saw anyone from outside the convent, and were even buried there. Brr... Chilling.

An inner courtyard of the Santa Teresa Convent, where nuns spent an eternity in prayer

Afterwards, we wanted to go someplace warmer, and thus headed towards Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia.

Check out more pictures of Potosí here.

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