You can´t talk about the history of South America without talking about Potosí. Named after the mountain nearby, the mines of Potosí funded the Spanish Empire for hundreds of years. In fact, most of the silver artifacts Ravi and I have seen started out as raw silver from these mines.
One of the more interesting museums we´ve seen was the Money Museum in Potosí. The first South American coins were minted in that same building, and much of the original equipment is still there. We saw coins throughout Spain´s Colonial Period, different machines for processing silver, and saw how the technology progressed throughout the centuries.
Potosí no longer mints money--France now mints Bolvia´s banknotes, strangely enough--but the mines are still active. Ravi and I took a tour of one of the mines where we discovered that we were not on a Disney Tour of mines. From the moment we entered, caustic dust clogged my nose and made my eyes water. The walls were damp, and the ceilings were low even for most Bolivians. In some places we literally crawled on our bellies to visit mine workers.
Our guide explained to us that the miners rent out there own spaces in the mine from the government. Most miners are looking for tin and zinc, but there´s still a bit of silver left in the mountain. They extract ore manually and often lift it out of the mines on their backs. Then, miners sell their ore to the processing plant which gives them a portion of the value of metals inside. No miner makes very much.
Although I was glad to visit an important piece of history, I was also happy to confront a miner´s daily life face-to-face. This is not a safe place to work; 40 miners a year die in cave-ins, and most will die of lung problems if accidents don´t get them first. Granted, conditions in Potosí are much safer than they were when Spaniards exploited indigenous slave labor to extract the silver, but I was exhausted after crawling around in the mines for a few hours, let alone eight hours of hard manual labor. Ravi and I learned a lot, for sure.
Potosí is scenic, educational, and friendly, and was definitely an important stop for us on our tour of Bolivia.