Cerro Rico, Potosi

matt 120pxPotosi is supposedly the highest city in the world at 4070 meters (13,227 feet). However, this is probably more a function of semantics, because I have to believe that there are towns in Pakistan, India, and/or China that have more inhabitants than Potosi’s roughly 150,000. Highest city or not, I’m definitely feeling the altitude here as I huff and puff walking up and down the old city streets. It’s also cold. But it’s not the high altitude, thin air, or cold temperatures that define Potosi. Potosi is interesting because of its history. Although a shadow of its former self, its ornate cathedrals, sprawling colonial architecture and old mines hint at its former glory. Cerro Rico, the red mountain that looms above Potosi is where the Spanish struck silver in the 16th century. Not just a little silver, but enough to finance their expanding empire. By the turn of the century, Potosi was one of the most populous cities (200,000 inhabitants) on earth, far exceeding European metropolis’s such as London (40,000) or Paris (60,000). It also became far richer, all due to the silver from Cerro Rico. It was the richest city in all of the Americas and the Spanish transported shiploads of silver to Spain via Lima. Although Mexico was rich in gold, silver was the reserve currency of the era. They expanded their empire in the Americas, bought slaves in Africa, spices and textiles in Asia, and fueled the famous silver trade of the European colonial period. It is perhaps due to Potosi that the Spanish-speaking world is the Spanish-speaking world, rather than the English, Portuguese, or Dutch speaking world. Today Potosi has a smaller population than it did 400 years ago, its mines have been almost fully exploited, and it’s just another city in one of the poorest regions in all the Americas. To learn more, Joylani and I visited the old Spanish mint. It was one of three mints that the Spanish set up in the Americas (along with Lima and Mexico), but it is the only surviving one. We took an English speaking tour and learned about how silver was first discovered at Cerro Rico and how the Spanish learned about and then began mining it. They immediately began sending silver back to Spain and imported minting technology from Europe. The coins minted in Potosi were used throughout the entire world and gave Spain a huge source of funding for their empire. The cold dry air has kept the wood at the old mint in good condition and much of the original equipment is still intact. We saw how silver was pressed into ingots and subsequently stamped into coins, although the process is much too lengthy to write about. There was so much silver, people were making tables, dinnerware, and even bedpans with it (all on display). After independence, the mines began to dry up and Potosi began its gradual decline from prominence. The mint continued to produce coins up until the 20th century though. Our guide lamented how ironic it is that Potosi used to export currency that was used all over the world, while today Bolivian currency is all minted and printed in foreign countries (mainly Europe). Bolivian silver is still mostly exported, although it is to Asia rather than Europe to build computer components rather than empires. Despite its fall from glory, Potosi was still an interesting place to spend a day and a half. The main touristy thing to do is to visit the mines, which are now run as miner-owned cooperatives. Joylani didn’t want to go due to the health-hazards and cavernous claustrophobic conditions (she hates caves) and I didn’t have a burning desire to go, so we skipped that. We explored the narrow streets and alleyways, admiring the old colonial architecture and cobbled streets. The food still isn’t very good, but we found a couple of edible restaurants in our wanderings, plus a couple new street-food items. Potosi doesn’t hold many of the distinctions it once did, but it’s still the highest city in the world and a pleasant mountain town to spend a day or two in.

potosi, bolivia 2

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