Bolivia, land of contrasts and mysteries

By Wayne Wirtanen

(Part one of two)

Bolivia is a land of former fantastic riches and present poverty. A major part of the country is steaming Amazon lowlands. Most tourism is to the nearly 3-mile-high Altiplano, with the highest capital in the world, La Paz, and the highest airport in the world. On an 8-day trip in October ’04, I stayed in modern 5-star hotels with room rates in the $40-$50 range.

Amazing Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, has floating islands made of reeds along its shorelines. Traditionally, homes have been built on these islands by indigenous Andeans. All areas of the lake can be reached by regularly scheduled service of modern hydrofoils.

Partially excavated ruins of ancient civilizations are easy to explore by the least adventuresome of travelers. I had the opportunity to interact with witch doctors, herbal healers and fortune tellers and world-renowned reed boat builders.

First, let me describe one of the least-known parts of Bolivia but one that was, for me, one of the high points of my trip.

Potosí and the mountain of silver

I live in Placerville, California — in the heart of the old ’49er gold rush area — and have long been interested in similar valuable ore discoveries and their history.

Nineteenth-century gold and silver bonanzas in the western U.S., Alaska and Canada were exploited primarily by independent miners and adventurers, with the wealth discovered going mainly to the diligent and the lucky. Sixteenth- and 17th-century gold and silver finds in Peru, in contrast, were exploited by Pizarro and the Spanish colonists, who looted the country and enslaved the indigenous peoples primarily for the benefit of the Spanish crown.

This history and the resulting colorful byproduct, the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” who were bent on capturing the heavily laden treasure ships, is well enough known to be the topic of a major Disney attraction. In Spain, the phrase “worth a Peru” was once used as the highest-possible praise.

Nearly unknown, however, is the story of a mountain of silver, discovered in Bolivia during the same general period, that changed the phrase to “worth a Potosí.” The metal that came out of Serro Rico (Rich Hill) was not an ore that needed refining but pure silver — and in great quantities.

At home after my trip, I was fascinated by the title of a book I discovered by Stephen Ferry: “I Am Rich Potosí: The Mountain That Eats Men” (1999, Monacelli Press. ISBN 158093028X — 155 pp., $45 hardcover).

Quoting from the dust jacket, “Bolivia’s Potosí mountain yielded more silver than any other mountain or region of the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this wealth flowed through Spain into Europe and played a major role in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and trade with Asia.

“Yet the grueling work of extracting the silver was left to indigenous Andeans, who were enslaved by the Spanish and died by the millions on the mountain. This unknown tragedy remains one of the darkest secrets of the colonial era.

“Today, Potosí maintains a unique culture based on its epic past. Approximately eighteen thousand Quechua miners still search for trace amounts of silver, tin and zinc. Inside the mountain, miners worship the lord of the mineral realm, who is represented as a sexually potent devil with the face of a Spaniard; outside, miners’ widows pick through discarded mine tailings for bits of metal.”

The Spanish instituted a slave labor system, in effect for 250 years, that was required to keep the mines operating despite the high death rate due to the noxious conditions underground. They scoured the area for 100 miles around for men from teenagers to those over 50 for labor. Bringing African slaves to the area proved unsuccessful as they couldn’t tolerate the mine conditions and the high altitude and expired at high rates. During this period there was a reduction of 80% in the native population.

Potosí at the time was one of the richest cities in the world. It had the same population as London and was larger than Rome or Paris.

Potosí today

Potosí today is the poorest part of the poorest country in South America. The rich hill continues to provide a meager living for the descendants of the slave laborers after 450 years of continuous mining. The mines are now operated by cooperative groups of miners, but the pickings of silver, tin and zinc are slim.

The Spanish established a mint at Potosí to produce coins and silver ingots. The mint is now a large and well-preserved museum. The huge gears and mechanisms that produced the coins were completely wooden except for the final metal stamp dies.

What power was provided to drive these machines? Below the stamp machine floor were great wooden wheels, each with four long radiating wooden poles. Rotating 4-hour shifts of slave laborers pushed these poles in endless circles 24 hours a day until slave labor became increasingly scarce and the work was continued with horses and donkeys.

The displays of old furnaces and equipment for pouring molten metal for the production of silver bars are also perfectly preserved examples of hideous workplaces.

I visited the colorful local marketplace where locals shop daily for food and miners’ supplies. Mining necessities such as dynamite (a stick, with fuse and detonator, costs about $2) and old-fashioned carbide lamps for use in the mines are on open shelves. Also available is a plentiful supply of an everyday requirement for miners: coca leaves, chewed all during the work day, along with a dollop of lime, to quell the appetite and increase productivity on an empty stomach.

There is the opportunity for tourists to enter the mines with a guide, but we were advised that the mines are quite claustrophobic, with dank, foul air and very low ceilings. Miners work their shifts hunched over. Our tour guide recommended against the trip far underground. At home I was able to download photos of the grim mining conditions by punching up “Potosí mines” on Google. The tour guide’s recommendation was valid.

I purchased a few colorful woven handbags at a nearby display area. Bargaining on price is expected in South America, but with the visible poverty all around I was willing to pay the modest asking prices.

The reason for visiting Potosí is not for the opportunity of finding a new destination for luxurious leisure but for the more valuable opportunity to travel and learn.

On this trip I was a guest of Big Five Tours & Expeditions. For information regarding tours to Bolivia or on any of their travel programs, contact them at 1551 SE Palm Ct., Stuart, FL 34994; phone 800/244-3483 or 772/287-7995, fax 772/287-5990 or look up their website,

Happy trails!

Coming up: La Paz and Lake Titicaca.