Arriving into the dusty town of Uyni after our final lunch together, the bus touts were calling for business. With three spaces to Potosi, Jean-Marie, Samuel and I jumped onboard, with Johnny squeezing upfront in the co-pilot seat.
Clambering off the bus in Potosi two hours later and jumping a cab, I checked into Hotel Casa Blanca and cackled like a witch, delirious with joy at being able to shower (with hot water!) and wash my hair for the first time in 4days. Ahh the simple things in life!
Potosi is highest city in the world at 4,050m in the Bolivian Andes – I was lucky I had 5days of acclimatisation on the Uyni tour, although walking the hilly streets would still have me huffing and puffing. Famous for the silver and gold discovered in Cerro Rico, the mountain towering over the city, it was a jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire in the C16-17th as a huge source of wealth. Once the richest city in the world, it is now one of the poorest in Bolivia.
The Spanish brought African slaves to work the mines along with indigenous subjected to working hideous hours (literally working them to death) in terrible conditions. Some estimate up to 8m men died working there – giving it the name the ‘mountain that eats men’.
Local men continue to mine the mountain today -independently- as the amount they can earn outweighs the risks, like health problems and unsafe conditions. There are little precious minerals left, and the mountain is compared to Swiss cheese – holes everywhere. It’s possible to tour the mines although having read up on this, it sounded like visiting a zoo, gawping at the miners in the tunnels with little (if any) of the proceeds going back to the workers and gave it a miss.
Thankfully the Spanish have left their stamp on the city in other ways – through old colonial buildings with enclosed wooden balconies, intricately carved doors with knockers fit for giants, and beautiful facades with mesmerising details of flora and fauna. The mines, monuments and designs have earnt the city UNESCO protection.
Bolivia passed a new constitution in 2009, guaranteeing respect for the cultures and lifestyles of each of the 36 ethnic groups. It’s a recent occurrence for the country to celebrate Aymaran New Year on 21 June, which closed Potosi’s streets and all businesses. Having this celebration imposed on the non-Aymara population (8m in a 10m country) was being hotly discussed online.
The streets burst with a riot of marching bands, colour, traditional Amyara dress and dancers. It was fascinating to watch the parade around the city, and amazing to see it was still going 5hours later.
We breakfasted every day at the markets, each day improving on the last: dry cake and coffee; a local dish of salad, rice and fried eggplant with spices; and then bñuelos (a fried pastry with icing sugar 1Bs / 11p) and pastels (same with fromage blanc inside 3Bs / 35p).
We visited the Convento de Santa Teresa and luckily were invited to join a private tour around the still working convent, visiting room upon room of tapestries, gold, porcelain dinner sets and books which were donated by families along with their second daughter to demonstrate their adherence to the Catholic Church.
Suddenly the wooden lattice grills separating the sisters’ choral seating and public made sense – many of them had not chosen this life.
The Convent of San Francisco gave fantastic views out over the city and rooftops, plus the opportunity to marvel at the roof tiles which had been moulded by miners’ thighs, taken in by the convent saving them from silicosis, other health conditions and accidents. The Casa Nacional de Moneda is one of the world’s first mints and was a great guided tour around the heart of the boom and bust of the city.
I then headed to Sucre to brush up my Spanish…