The legendary mining town at an altitude of over 4000 metres once was one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
The silver resources of Cerro Rico, exploited by the Spanish colonial power using forced labour of the indigenous population, made Spain immeasurably rich and killed more than eight million people.
Even Potosí’s churches are not oriented to the east, but instaed to the south – towards Cerro Rico, furrowed by dusty streets and the entrances to the mines.
Former miners offer their service a guide for visitors through the tunnels, where metals are still mined under brutal conditions.
The silver of the past was coined into currency in La Moneda, the largest secular building of the Spanish colonial empire. Today, the complex houses a museum with a diverse collection ranging from coins and minting machines to sacred art and indigenous textile art.
Situated at the northern end of Plaza 10 de Noviembre, you will find Potosí’s mighty double-towered cathedral. It was built on the same spot where the first one collapsed in 1807. Built between 1808 and 1838 in baroque style with neoclassical influences, it represents the end of the great neoclassical cathedrals in Latin America.
In the mines of the Bolivian highlands “the uncle” (El Tío) refers to a mountain ghost, also known as Huari or Supay. He is closely related to a similar figure in the mines of Peru, called “Muqui”. His naming as “uncle” shows the close relationship Bolivia’s miners have to the spirit.
His representation is similar to that of the devil in the Christian religion, who is also considered the lord of the underworld.
A representation of the tío can be found in every active shaft of a mine, in most cases as a horned clay figure, whose attributes consist of everyday objects of the miners (teeth made from glass splinters, eyes made from the bulbs of minors helmets’). The figure usually has a cigarette in its mouth. Cigarettes, coca leaves, high-proof alcohol are the most important offerings within the context of the daily sacrificial rite called ch’alla. The miners sit down with the Tío and share these offerings with him.
A formal rite performed by a shaman is known as k’araku. It takes place on 1 August, the beginning of the agricultural cycle, when the earth is ready to accept offerings, or after a mining accident to appease the Lord of the Underworld.
One or more lamas are ritually slaughtered at the mine entrance, their blood is collected in bowls and later poured onto the walls of the entrance, the machines that are used or against the rock of active veins of ore.
Afterwards everyone leaves the mine so that El Tío can enjoy his meal undisturbed, while the miners outside enjoy the lamas’ meat and lots of alcohol.
This sacrifice is intended to appease El Tío’s voracious appetite so that he does not claim any human victims.