When you want to say in Spanish that something is worth an unfeasible amount of money, you say that it ´s worth a “Potosi”. Why? Because once upon a time, the city of Potosi supplied the Spanish with unimaginable quanitities of silver, enough to supply their whole Empire with coin, and was so rich it rivalled París, Seville, and Madrid for decadence (we´re presuming London was a unfashionable backwater back then).
Anyway, only greed would explain why you would find a city at 4000m above sea level. The only thing higher round there is “Cerro Rico” (Rich Hill) which looms over the city, a scarred and abused looking thing that supplied the silver we´re talking about. However, this legendary wealth was sadly extracted at incredible human cost (in terms of the lives of thousands of slaves forced to work in the mines), and the lustre of silver still drives men underground to this day.
In the warped way of modern tourism, the mines have now become a tourist attraction for the hardier traveller. Indeed, the miners welcome anyone stupid enough to brave the risk of asphyxiation, toxic dust and cave ins, as long as they come bearing gifts of coca, soft drinks and dynamite. So, considering ourselves a tougher sort of traveller, we did just that…
It all went well for the first half an hour, but then it got much hairier when the tunnel s got so hot, steep and cramped that it was like sliding down a dusty chute into Hell. Lu had to turn back, and I somehow defied my claustrophobia to make it down to the working levels below. After I while (and a few panic attacks later), it got accustomed enough to the conditions to manage shovelling enough muddy silver ore to consider requesting payment for my labour!
Despite what was undoubtedly a once in a lifetime experience, I wont deny I was glad to out of there by the end. My throat was sore and my eyes stung from the fine, most likely toxic dust down in the tunnels.
And as if that´s not enough fire and brimstone for one day, once we resurfaced, we even got to play with some dynamite, packed with ammonium nitrate just to be sure we got a bang for our Boliviano … And yes, it was devilishly fun!