The Mountain That Eats Men

“I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of mountains, envy of kings” – First coat of arms of Potosi, 1547

“There are those who, having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of colour, grinding their teeth and unable to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the horrors that are in there.” – Bartolomé Arzans de Orsua, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, 1703

Set among the barren, windswept mountains of southern Bolivia, at over 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, and possibly Bolivia’s most fascinating (and maybe saddest) place.  The architecturally-rich town, with its cathedrals and churches, owes its entire existence to the nearby mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill), once the most profitable silver mine on earth, and the source of most of the Spanish Empire’s fabulous wealth.  Cerro Rico’s immense reserves of silver not only bankrolled Spain for centuries, it turned Potosí into the biggest city in the Americas, and the richest jewel in the Spanish Empire’s crown, with the expression “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) used to describe anything priceless. Continue reading

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