Learning to Breathe in Potosí

Potosí, Bolivia is one of the highest-altitude cities in the world.

Potosi, Bolivia
So by default, this must be one of the world’s highest churches.

This fact alone did not endear it to me – I’ve learned that I am one of those people who, at altitude, feels like they have baby-sized lungs in an adult body. So a city that’s roughly 4000 meters above sea level does not bode well for me.

Potosí’s other claim to fame didn’t win me over, either. It’s known as a mining town. The mining town of Bolivia, actually. Cerro Rico, the main mountain, was a hub of activity in the 1500s when the Spanish discovered seemingly endless silver inside.

But here’s where it gets ugly.

The Spanish colonists forced the indigenous people to work in the mines, under extremely dangerous conditions. They also imported people from Africa and forced them to work there, too. Potosí quickly became a boomtown, one of the world’s richest cities.

Potosi, Bolivia
Old church in Potosi.

Obviously, the people carving the silver out of Cerro Rico weren’t the ones who were reaping the benefits. They were dying left and right due to hard labor and mercury poisoning. Some figures calculate up to 8 million deaths under Spanish rule.

Even today, the life span of a Potosí miner is only ten years once they start working in the mines.

By the 1800s, Potosí’s wealth dwindled to a distant memory as the silver reserves depleted. The town fell out of splendor and became a has-been, a place that once had it all but now sags under years of grief and suffering.

So, initially, I suggested to Jared that we just skip Potosí. It sounded altogether too depressing.

“I think it’ll be interesting,” he said, and I had to concur. So we went.

My baby-lungs kicked into overdrive, and the simple act of walking up stairs rendered me breathless. I huffed and puffed my way around the town, underwhelmed by what I saw. It was cold, drizzly, polluted, and inhabited by people who looked like they’d rather be anywhere but Potosí, but who had no choice in the matter.

Potosi, Bolivia
An oddly incongruous flat screen near the main plaza, with Cerro Rico peeking out in the background.

I, on the other hand, had a choice, and wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there.

The following morning, Jared joined a tour of the mines, possibly Potosí’s biggest tourist draw. Led by an ex-miner, you can go into the mines to see firsthand what it’s like.

Mining tour in Potosi, Bolivia
Jared suits up for the mining tour with La Vicuña hostel.

I declined for two reasons: one, my woefully inefficient lungs, and two, I get claustrophobic in tight spaces. So I stayed at the hostel and caught up on writing work while Jared descended into the depths of Cerro Rico.

He returned four hours later, somber, with tales of dark, dusty tunnels, hard-working men and women, coca leaves, offerings to underground idols, and miners smoking cigarettes while they worked. I was fascinated, but glad I’d stayed behind.

We went back out to give the town another chance, and this time I warmed up to what I saw. It happened to be Halloween, and there were a handful of little kids dressed as skeletons and superheroes, skipping along the grand colonial buildings lining the Plaza 10 de Noviembre. The main pedestrian walkway, Padilla, was lined with cafes and cobblestones. If I walked really slowly, I learned that I could almost cope with the altitude.

Would I go back to Potosi? No. Was I glad I’d come? Strangely, yes.

Rainbows in Potosi
And after the rain, the reward. Even in Potosi, Bolivia.

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  1. I just found your blog through a post about Korea (I’m teaching here too!), and my sister just moved to Buenos Aires… so I shared your blog with her! Hope it’s not stalkery, but I’ve enjoyed reading your posts about the random adventures you’ve been on. Even little towns like the one in this post have their charm… not to mention a hilarious big screen TV! 😀

    1. Thanks for sharing, that’s great! Not stalkery at all, I get lost in other people’s blogs. (In fact I just mutually stalked you and thought your halloween costumes were hilarious – my students would have died if we’d tried that!) If your sister has any questions about BA let me know. I only had six weeks, but it was a good six weeks.

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