Ok, lets build us a tourist destination! What do we have? Cold weather? CHECK! Bland food? CHECK! Dusty brown streets, with nary a green plant to speak of? CHECK! A restive population that loves to protest in the streets with live dinamite? Got that too! Oh, and let’s build it way, way up high in the mountains, beyond the limit of human survivability!… No, no, scratch that. It’ll be JUST WITHIN the limit of human survivability: over 13,000 feet. It’ll be the highest city in the world. In the middle of absolutely nowhere! We will call it “Potosi!” YES, MY CAPTAIN!
If you build it, they will come. The tourists will come, and they will love this place. They will most assuredly come!
And so it is, Potosi: one of the top tourist attractions in Bolivia, and one of the most memorable in all of South America. A World Heritage site if there ever was one. But the tourists don’t come for the cold weather, the bland food, or the dirty brown streets. They come for the History, and they come for the Human Story. They come for this:
That, my friends is Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill”. Though it is misnamed. At nearly 16,000 feet high, it’s hardly a “hill”. And “rich” is the understatement of the millennium. That mountain is made of virtually pure silver – or it used to be, anyway.
After conquering the Inca Empire, the Spanish Conquistadors searched high and low for “El Dorado”, the lost city of gold. They never found it, but instead they discovered a mountain full of silver high in the Andes. They named it “Cerro Rico”. It was the largest deposit of silver ever discovered – by far. At the foot of the mountain, they built a city, which they named “Potosi”.
This hill of silver single-handedly funded the global expansion of the Spanish Empire for 300 years. It turned Spain from a wayward inbred backwater into the richest and most powerful kingdom in the world. It gilded the churches and the palaces of Europe. It funded its armies and navies.
The Mountain That Eats Men
That hill is also known as “The Mountain That Eats Men”, because that’s what it does. The Spanish needed miners (the work is too dirty for a proper Conquistador), so they indentured millions of natives and Africans into slavery. Miners were committed to enter the mines for four months at a time. They worked, ate, and slept in the mines. They didn’t see the light of day.
As you can imagine, the working conditions were less than ideal. Over 400 years of mining, eight million miners perished in the mines. That comes out to be 20,000 lives per year on average. The average miner, upon entering the mines, lived less than a year. Entering the mines was indeed a death sentence. Today the silver is all but gone. It has been replaced by souls.
I like to complain about the working conditions in Silicon Valley, but that is all ice cream and bubble gum compared to the horror of the mines in Cerro Rico. While the slavery is gone, not much else has changed in the mines since the colonial days. Here’s what it’s like:
The Treasury of The World
While the miners were worked to death, the Spanish rulers lived in immense luxury at the foot of the hill. The city of Potosi was built at high altitude, above the tree line, in cold, harsh weather – hundreds of miles from anything nice. But it had the finest luxuries from Europe and Asia. Everything was carried up into the mountains by llama at enormous cost – food, wood, animals, textiles, iron, and steel – everything needed to build a city and to survive up into the rarified air, in the middle of nowhere. It was a city on the Moon.
While Cerro Rico’s mines produced, Potosi became one of the largest, richest, and most cosmopolitan cities on the planet. The wealth, the power, and the hubris of this place we’re astounding. Potosi was the Treasury of the World, and the Envy of Kings.
When the mines ran dry, so did the city. By the 1800s, Potosi’s population had fallen to only 10,000 people. It was the boomtown of boomtowns. Today, Potosi is making a comeback as a tourist site, while the mines continue to produce tin and zinc. The history, the tragedy, and the heritage make this a place you won’t forget.
A World Heritage Site
Today, Potosi is a World Heritage Site, and one of Bolivia’s top tourist attractions. Our family visited last week on our way back from Sucre.
The city constantly reminds you of its high altitude – nearly three times higher than Denver. It feels kind of like you’re carrying a backpack full of small boulders everywhere you go. Nevertheless, there are lots of sights to see, if you can gather the energy.
The top tourist attraction in Potosi is probably the mines themselves. You can tour them, but at your own risk. We didn’t think it was the best place to take our 10 and 11 year-old kids, so we skipped the mine tours. Instead, we saw the museums and convents, and just enjoyed the ambiance of the old colonial center. This has to be one of the most unique cities in the world!
Convents and Monestaries
The Spanish sure did love their religion. We visited a three-hundred year-old convent for Carmelite nuns. It was a fascinating view into 16th and 17th century convent life.
Potosi families paid big bucks – the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars – to send their second daughter into this convent. It was considered an honor to have a daughter in a convent like this – it assured the family a fast road to Heaven. That’s why they paid the big bucks! It was the 17th century equivalent of getting your daughter into Harvard – but with everlasting results!
The girls entered the convent at the age of 15, and spent the rest of their lives inside. It was a life of silence and prayer. They never again saw their parents. Parents were allowed to visit their daughters, but could not see them. They could only speak to their daughters through this blackened window:
Needless to say, my own daughter was impressed in more ways than one! Will the threat of convent life finally get her to eat her veggies?
Next, we visited a 16th century Franciscan monastery. One highlight of the monastery was the catacombs built under the cathedral. Generations of Potosi families were buried in these catacombs. These are real human skulls:
The other big highlight of the Franciscan monastery was the view from the roof of the 16th century cathedral:
The Royal Mint
No visit to Potosi is complete without a tour of the “Casa de Moneda”, or Mint. Here at the foot of Cerro Rico, the hill full of silver, the Spanish minted the first global currency – silver pesos. Since this is a personal finance blog, I can’t help but go into more detail about Potosi’s Mint in my next post. It is a must-see for any student of money – or it should be, anyway.
If you want to read more about the the dark, tragic, and forgotten history of Potosi, I highly recommend “I Am Rich Potosi: The Mountain That Eats Men” by Stephen Ferry
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