Saturday, May 19, 2012

Potosi, the Silver Town above the Cloud

City of Potosi in Bolivia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the highest city in the world at a nominal elevation of 4090m. (I checked, Lhasa, Tibet is merely 3490m, and perhaps because of the height, they are sister cities).

Once a resourceful silver mining town, its mines in Cerro Rico contributed the major supply of silver to the Spanish Empire in the colonial period. With its wealth and extravagance, it was once the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America, and the name 'Potosi' was a representation of fortune. By the end of the 18th century, it is said that the streets were ‘paved’ with silver. During 1556 to 1783, 45,000 short tons (41,000 metric tons) of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico according to official record.

Potosi also bears the largest mint in the colonial period, exploiting indigenous and black slaves, and mules, working days and nights in poor condition, dying early due to mercury intoxication to produce 95% pure silver coins as currency for Spain and throughout the North American colonies by the time.

One theory even says that the current dollar sign was derived from the mint mark on the Spanish silver coins of Potosi. The mint mark composed of the letters "PTSI" superimposed, bears a strong resemblance to the single-stroke dollar sign.

Hence, with this background, mine tour and visit to the mint, now a museum, The Casa Nacional de la Monedato should not be missed when you visit Potosi, to learn the dark yet glorious history of the city.

Upon arrival at 3pm, we got on a minibus, which was the main public transportation of the city, named micro, costing B$1.3 each to Central.

To my astonishment, many similar micros have Japanese branding. I thought its belongs to local Japanese schools, community or corporate. But later, I discovered that they are mini bus from Japan, some 20 years ago, no longer allowed to be used in Japan due to reason of environment protection law, but Nissan, Toyota or some 'clever' merchants managed to sell them to poorer countries, like Bolivia today.

We dropped at the Central market to look for the hostel that we found advertised in the bus station. A kind old man saw us reading the map and offered help. He took us to the next 3 blocks up the slope in relaxing quick steps, but with my heavy backpack and the altitude, I had difficulty breathing, nevertheless followed him.

The Koala Den is a nicely furnished hostel, (although a bit worn out) dorm costing B$50 per head per night in a 5 person room, with wifi, hot water, toilet in the room, electricity, kitchen, heater and even breakfast, we have nothing more to ask for. Their breakfast is surprisingly sumptuous, with tea, coffee, jam, butter, bread (which most hostel meant as breakfast) but they also offer scrambled egg and fruits including, pineapple, water melon and banana. They also have a Koala Tour which arrange mining tour, for those who join, they will offer extra energizing juice and pancake.

We see most guests join the tour in hostel, which is absolutely convenience and they also accept last minute enrollment in the morning. For the 2 mornings, we saw around 10 guests joining daily. Wow, not a bad business with B$100 each.

Being offbeat as always, we went out to check other agencies for alternative.

We found one named Greengo Tour nearby. The owner Julio was tour guide and ex-miner, with good English. He explained everything about the tour, also declaring his principles and even showing us documentations of his evidence as an ex-miner and receipt from the mining cooperative that how money is shared with the mines.

He also frankly admitted that it's low season and he had no one enrolling at the moment, but 2 could make the group and he never groups larger than 8 to keep tourist safe.

Julio is very passionate about tourism in Potosi, he cares about the miners and tourist. He detests agencies who boost about showing dynamite explosions and he is keen to educate tourist about local culture. He would 'teach' miners to respect tourist as well.

After feeling cheated by our previous trips from San Pedro, we are happy to find someone that sounds more trustworthy.

The only problem is the height, I was breathing heavily and was wondering if we should go one day later in order to adapt. Adley don't have any problem. We asked Julio's advise who said we might decide later today before the agency closed at 8pm, but need to note that miners usually work from 3am on Friday morning, longer than usual, in order to exchange for more money on weekends and time with family. It's Friday tomorrow, they will finish work around 1 or 2pm and drink together, it would be a good time with chat with miners. For Saturdays, there would be less miners working and usually on Sundays, the mine would be empty.

We wish to meet miners and feel great to drink with them and also thinking 1-2 days of altitude problem won't make much difference, we decided to pay right away.

We stroll to other agency and found another one only costing B$60 for the same tour, the lady claimed they offer English guide but she can't speak much English. We do hope a reasonable rate for Greengo would means better quality.

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