Mines, Satan and thin air are the first words that come to my mind when I think of Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world!
Potosi is located in Southern Bolivia, it has around 200.000 inhabitants and it is located at an average altitude of 4067m (~13,300ft).
Yes! That is high!
I have been to Potosi twice. First time I felt dizzy and had a hard time breathing for the first couple of hours. Second time it was better.
But this is such a unique place to visit, that it is worth suffocating!
Or maybe not…
Anyway, I would like to share with you a little bit of my experience here.
In order to understand this place, you have to know its history, which is closely linked to Cerro Rico (the Rich Hill), the mountain at the feet of which Potosi stands.
Cerro Rico is (was?) incredibly rich in silver and other metals and minerals that attracted numerous people who (over)exploited the mountain’s resources, especially during colonial times.
Potosi’s golden age reached its peak around mid 17th century and its former glory is still witnessed by the beautiful and rich colonial architecture in the city center. At that time the Potosi counted a population of about 160,000 inhabitants, made up mainly of Spanish colonizers and Quechua mine workers.
The main destination of the silver extracted in Potosi was Spain, and this played an important role in the monarchy’s ability to finance its wars.
Silver or bones?
It is said that so much silver has been extracted from the mines of Potosi over the years, that you could build a bridge from Bolivia all the way to Spain.
A more indigenous version of this theory says that you could build the same bridge with the bones of all the people who died in the mines.
And this is where I was trying to get!
Working in the mines of Potosi is very dangerous and once you get in there you can’t be sure you will come out alive.
The great majority of mine workers come from a Quechua background, which is polytheistic. And this is clearly seen among those who work in the mines of Cerro Rico.
When they are outside, the miners worship the Catholic God along with Quechua divinities: Pachamama (Mother Earth, to which they regularly bring offerings of alcohol and sometimes llama foetuses), Inti (sun) and Quilla (moon).
However, all these divinities are considered to be ruling the outside world. While they are in the mine, there is only one god they can turn to: El Tio.
El Tio (the Spanish for “uncle”) is Satan and miners believe he is the lord of the underground. Though he is generally viewed as an evil character, he is said to protect the miners and give them natural resources, as long as they worship him.
Inside the mine there is a big statue of El Tio, to which the miners are supposed to bring offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves.
I have to admit, visiting the mines was a bit creepy! But there is something else that stood out to me.
What I could see, beyond the worshipping of El Tio, was the frailty of life and the miners’ desperate cry for security and protection.
My prayer for all of them is that in the deep, dark tunnels of the mines of Potosi they might find The Light!
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.Isaiah 60:1