Potosi, Bolivia is the most important city you probably have never heard of.
In the colonial days, Potosi was the largest and richest city in the Western Hemisphere, and some say in the world - it had a larger population than Paris, London, and Rome! And at 13,400 feet, Potosi is still the highest city on the planet.
Potosiīs importance really comes from the orange mountain
that towers over the city, which contained one of the largest silver deposit ever discovered. The Spaniards call it "Cerro Rico" or Rich Hill, and it basically underwrote the Spanish empire for over two centuries. Legend says they mined enough silver to build a silver bridge from Potosi to Seville to carry all the silver from the hill directly!
Potosi was a grand city with massive cathedrals, amazing and lavish colonial mansions,
beautiful squares, and in the center of town they built a Spanish Royal Mint - one of the most lavish buildings of that period. Upon getting the construction bill, the King of Spain remarked "Did they build it out of #$%@ Silver?!?")
In it's 'golden age', Potosi was the richest city in the world, and they flaunted it.
Then one day, the silver dried up and people left.
The town just died. Itīs like a South American Pompeii - frozen in time at 13,400 feet. There are still 160,000 inhabitants, and they are still able to get a little silver out of the hill, along with tin, zinc, and lead - but for the most part, the economy was crippled and the city frozen as it was in the 1700's (just a little crumblier).
As always, there is a dark side to that kind of wealth. The Spaniards were not
about to actually work the mines themselves, so they enslaved the locals and forced them to extract the silver under appalling conditions. The life expectancy of a miner was extremely short - and the Spaniards quickly began running out of locals, so they imported African slaves. It is estimated that 8 million people lost their lives in the 440 years the mines have been in operation, mostly from silicosis - a lung disease from breathing silica dust.
Even today, the life expectancy of a miner is less than 20 years from the day they enter the mines. And some enter the mines as early as 11 years old.
But more on that in my next entry, as I'm going into the Potosi mines to spend a morning mining silver along side the Bolivians. But first, they tell me I need safety training on how to properly set and light dynamite!