The Silver Mine and Colonial City that Funded an Empire – Potosi, Bolivia

In late March I arrived to Potosi from Sucre. Founded in 1545, Potosi, Bolivia is famous for its world heritage listed colonial city centre and its mine. The silver production from Potosi’s mine was so prolific that it financed a large part of the Spanish empire.

During Spanish colonial times, Potosi’s silver was mined by a combination of paid and slave labour. Local indigenous and imported African slaves performed much of the most dangerous work. One estimate has 8,000,000 people dying from mining or related work over the centuries.

The Potosi Mint was first established in 1572. Although the current mint museum is based in a later building, it tells a very impressive and depressing story.

Potosi, Bolivia

A display in the Potosi Mint Museum showing indigenous and African labour working in dangerous conditions to process silver ore

The historic centre of Potosi has impressive architecture with many grand buildings. The San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple has both great architecture and views of the city and mine.

Potosi, Bolivia

View from San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple of Potosi Hill (Cerro de Potosi), the mine location

Potosi, Bolivia

The San Francisco de Potosi Convent and Temple ceiling

While in Potosi, the city celebrated its founding 471 years earlier on the 1st of April with a parade.

Potosi, Bolivia

Bolivian soldiers parading in Potosi’s main square to commemorate the city’s founding 471 years earlier

Although Bolivia became independent from the Spanish almost 200 years ago, the Potosi miners still work in dangerous conditions. The minerals are now extracted by groups of miners working in cooperatives using their own infrastructure to mine their sections of the mountain. Today’s miners face risks of mine collapses, explosions, physical hardship and exposure to dust and heavy metals in the air. Despite this, many miners work up to 24 hour shifts seeking greater rewards than those available via other jobs.

I visited the mine with Big Deal Tours, a company run by former miners. My group’s guide previously mined until he hurt his back and his relatives still work in the mine. Prior to seeing the mine itself, tour participant bought supplies for the miners including gloves, soft drink and coca leaves. We then put on overalls, boots and helmets and toured an operating mineral processing factory. Even the factory was dangerous with few safeguards from moving machinery, chemicals and mineral ores.

Potosi, Bolivia

Moving machinery processing mineral ores at a Potosi factory

Video of operating machinery at a Potosi mineral processing factory

When the tour group arrived to the mine, several miners were working outside, fixing rail tracks they use to push carts filled with ore-containing rock from the mine.

Potosi, Bolivia

Miners fixing rail tracks that lead outside from their Potosi mine

After a briefing from our guide it was time to face one’s fears and enter the mine.

Potosi, BoliviaThe tour group being briefed outside the mine entrance

Potosi, Bolivia

The mine tunnel started out relatively roomy with well constructed walls

Potosi, Bolivia

The tour group resting and listening to the guide in an open section of the mine

At one point the mine tunnel narrowed and became almost vertical, continuing up for a further 50 metres or so. Entering this section, the combination of high altitude, narrow space and dust in the air made breathing more difficult and I returned back down. In the mine there is no magic escape button to press if things go wrong.

Potosi, Bolivia

Posing with a mine worker holding gifts he has received from the tour group members. Note both the miner and the guide (in front) are chewing coca leaves

Returning back, we stopped next to a shrine of Pacha Kamaq, a traditional deity and husband of Pacha Mama.

Potosi, Bolivia

The guide next to deity Pacha Kamaq decorated with streamers, bottles of almost pure alcohol and coca leaves

The mine tour was a unique experience and opened eyes. Potosi’s silver changed the world and the mine is still impacting locals.

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