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Silver Mountain – Rags and Riches in Bolivia

At greater than 13,000 toes above sea-degree in the Andes, we had been as near heaven as most mortals can hope to get – and nearer to hell than anyone would wish to be.

A gaggle of miners steadily chewed coca leaves, mixing the wad with ash. They claimed it immunized them towards chilly and starvation. Armed with carbide lamps, most not sporting security helmets, they started to file into the mine, ducking to keep away from damaged timbers, crawling via puddles.

I assumed concerning the darkish stains smearing the mine entrance. They had been from the blood of the llamas ritually sacrificed to appease El Tio, the devilish deity who guidelines underground.

Coca juice numbed my mouth and claustrophobia gnawed at my abdomen. My coronary heart thumped with the exertion at this altitude. What the satan was I doing right here, deep in the depths of Cerro Rico (wealthy hill), the mountain that broods over Potosí in Bolivia?

The astounding wealth under the floor of the cone-formed hill, known as Sumac Orcko (“stunning hill”) in the Quechua tongue, was found by Diego Gualpa, an Indian, in April, 1545. One story says he detected silver when his llama scratched the earth.

If Diego had recognized how a lot struggling his discover was to convey to his folks in the previous kingdom of the Incas, he would absolutely have stored quiet. But 5 wealthy veins had been positioned near the floor, the mountain was renamed Cerro Rico and quickly Potosí had 160,000 inhabitants, a vibrant combination of officers, merchants, desperadoes, and millionaires, plus a minimum of 800 skilled gamblers and 120 prostitutes.

From its mines poured an estimated 46,000 tons of silver, value something from US$5,000 million upwards in fashionable phrases. It introduced undreamed-of wealth to a handful of adventurers, adorned church buildings and palaces, and helped pay for Spain’s Great Armada and a sequence of wars. It additionally introduced distress and demise to 1000’s of Indians pressured to work under floor.

In Potosí solely the very best was ok for the silver barons. They competed in licentiousness and conspicuous consumption. They shipped their finery again to Paris to have it correctly dry-cleaned whereas their women wore elegant footwear with heels of stable silver.

Today town, declared by UNESCO a World Heritage website, is distant and sleepy and situations underground are nonetheless perilously primitive, as I discovered when a younger pupil guided me via a few of the 785 kilometres of tunnels honeycombing Cerro Rico. Little silver comes out as of late for essentially the most accessible veins are exhausted.

Tin changed it in significance, making fortunes for a fortunate few. But, after the underside fell out of the tin market in 1985, 1000’s of miners misplaced their jobs and just a few mines battle on.

The dream of straightforward wealth contributed to Spain’s stagnation, serving to to impoverish it for hundreds of years. The riches of the Indies had been frittered away – and that maybe is the revenge of Potosí.

Those who carried off its treasure had been left with nothing both. Except recollections of the silver rush, enshrined in a preferred Spanish phrase: “Vale un potosí! It’s value a king’s ransom!”

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