Thursday, November 02, 2006

Potosí - “The highest city in the World”.

At 4100 meters above sea level, that is what they call Potosí here in Bolivia. Maybe there is a small town in Tibet that can compete with this honour, but it is certainly not a city of the size as Potosí.

So, why build a huge city in 4100 meters where nothing can grow and where you won’t find a single tree near the city, meaning that almost everything has to be transported from remote locations? - The answer is silver!
Potosí was one of the richest cities in the world when the silver mining was at its peak, with more than 6000 active mines. The mines are still active today, but the production is reduced to almost nothing compared to the past. The history of the mining is brutal. An estimate of 8 million people has died in the mines because of the poor working conditions. The working conditions today haven’t changed much and counts children and woman in the staff as well.

Potosí is an interesting city, which shows evidence of the rich colonial era with the Royal Mint and the many churches.
The Royal Mint used to be the biggest of its kind in South America and it is a huge building (7500 square meters) that now contains an impressive museum with colonial and indigenous religious paintings, besides the equipment used to melt the silver and produce the coins.
The indigenous paintings are interesting because they combine the catholic symbolism and the original indigenous symbols, as the sun, moon, stars and Mother Earth ‘Pacha Mama’ together with the catholic virgin. The Spaniards chose to accept this combination – a small price for them to convert the indigenous people to Christianity.

The guidebooks describes Potosí as a city in sorrow, because of the cruel history. But instead of finding a mourning city, we found a very lively city with young happy and energetic people all over the centre of the city. An energy that were very surprising, maybe because of the expectations we had. We loved walking down the streets, surrounded by this positive energy.

Another kind of energy that surprised us, was when we went into a restaurant which was described as an upmarket French-Bolivian restaurant. Apparently the restaurant changes character to a Peña at Saturdays afternoons. A Peña is a kind of folk music bar, and in this case it meant a place-where-you-get-totally-drunk-until-you-fall-asleep-place…We enjoyed the local live pan-music and ate in a maybe-we-don’t-belong-here-speed, and left the locals (all male) with their Singani and beers alone…

From Potosí, we continued east and down towards the official capital ‘Sucre’.


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