We definitely noticed the change in altitude after arriving in Sucre (elevation 9,220 feet), but decided to test our lungs even more by traveling to Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world (elevation 13,420 feet).
Quick history lesson/refresher: The Spanish arrived in Potosí in the mid 1500s and founded it as a mining town due to its proximity to Cerro Rico, a mountain once said to be “made of silver.” By exploiting the use of the native labor force in the mines and for the silver refining and minting processes, the Spanish created a substantial amount of wealth for themselves. The Spanish empire benefitted greatly (to say the least) from their new inventory of silver, but it was at the expense of an unimaginable number of native lives as the working conditions were incredibly harsh for those mining, refining, and minting the silver. At the height of the mining boom, Potosí was said to be the largest and richest city of the Americas. Potosí’s prominence eventually dwindled and today’s population sees the aftermath of a significant economic downturn and subsequent slide into poverty.
The silver mining of Potosí led to the creation of Spanish currency which, of course, was a major point of historical significance. The first building where coins were originally minted was constructed in 1572. Coins were minted there until 1773 when production outgrew the space. A second, bigger mint was constructed nearby and now serves as the National Mint Museum, housing original equipment and a variety of historical artifacts. The first building still stands and is used for government purposes.
The National Mint Museum can only be visited via guided tours. This was to our benefit as we learned so much about the history of Potosí and of the refining process from our tour guide who was entertainingly dramatic at unexpected times. Here are a few of the things I found interesting:
- Pachamama meets Virgin Mary: Prior to the exposure of European influence, the indigenous people of this area had established their belief system around Pachamama (Mother Earth). When the Spanish arrived they brought along their Christian values and imposed these beliefs on the locals. The painting below may be the original depiction of the blending of Pachamama and Virgin Mary into a singular religious icon, with qualities of Virgin Mary (face and hands, and surrounding religious figures) imposed on Cerro Rico (which symbolizes Mother Earth).
- Personified Horses: Along with Christianity, the native population had never been exposed to horses prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Local artists were commissioned to paint these animals but had a difficult time accurately portraying the characteristics of horse faces in their paintings since they had never seen such creatures before. The results were a horse faces with strangely human features.
- Smelter Rooms: One of the causes of many deaths during the silver refining process was the atmosphere of the smelter rooms. Before the dangers of mercury were known, it was used in the refining process with no protections against the toxic fumes. The picture below shows the thick soot-covered roof of one of the smelter rooms and gives a hint at the terrible air quality the workers were subject to.
- The Mills: The massive machines originally used to mint coins were designed and built in sections in Europe and then fully constructed in Potosí, in the same place they stand today. The consistently cold and dry climate and the lack of insects in Potosí has helped to preserve the wood, making these the only original mill machines remaining in the world. The upstairs level has many series of gears which press the silver to the appropriate thickness, then punch out the coin blanks which are later stamped according to the appropriate denomination. The downstairs level is where mules would be used to power the mills above. The mules were pushed to such extremes to keep the mills running that they would typically only survive for a few months worth of work.
- Transitioning to Steam: Eventually the mills upgraded to more powerful and efficient steam-powered machinery. Many of the rooms of the mint were refurbished and reorganized to make the logistics more efficient as well.
- Safety Features: When the Spaniards shipped the coins from Potosí to Spain and other parts of the world, they would secure the coins in locked chests. The pictures below show two such chests used by the Spanish; one which requires three ornate keys to unlock it and one with a locking mechanism consisting of 12 locks in the lid.
We only stayed in Potosí for one night; it was enough. It was interesting to see a different city but there were few attractions of interest to us aside from the Mint Museum and wandering around the main square. Plus, the increased altitude was noticeably more uncomfortable for both of us and we had to return to Sucre to catch our flight to La Paz the following day.