After my weekend getaway to vote (VOTE, PEOPLE!) and see some friends, I flew into Sucre in Bolivia. One of the highlights was stopping at the San Felipe de Neri which is a beautiful colonial convent and church. I helped a nun take a picture with a friend of hers and she then decided to show me the underground crypt where nuns had previously buried. We literally opened a door in the floor in one of the rooms to step down into the all white room.
But really, my favorite place was the Parque Cretácico which contains a giant wall full of dinosaur footsteps.
The footsteps were discovered when the cement factory was digging through rocks and finally decided the limestone they were digging wasn’t good enough. They stopped and a few years later, the clay and dirt on the outermost layer eroded to reveal the footsteps beneath.
About 68 million years ago, this was a shallow lake bed and dinosaurs happened to walk through it. Luckily, enough sediments were deposited in a short enough time, that those footsteps became fossilized in the rock. This area is prone to a lot of volcanic action and plate tectonic movement and over time, this particular rock was tilted all the way up into the vertical position it is in today. There are four types of dinosaur footprints: theropods (like velociraptors), ankylosaurus, ornithopods (like duck-billed hadrosaurs), and sauropods (like brontosaurus). The sauropods in this case are most likely Argentinosaurus, which is a truly giant creature that is pretty awesome. You should probably take a moment and Google it now. In the photo below, see if you can identify the different footprints.
Onwards to one of the highest cities in the world at 4,067 m, which is known for its extremely dangerous and deadly silver mines. (Side note: Altitude headaches suck.) I arrived on a Sunday when hardly anything is open, but set off to explore anyways. I heard music playing, so I wandered in that direction until I found a dance competition about to begin and I, of course, stayed to witness the incredible talent.
The next day, I went on a tour of the infamous silver mines. During conquistador times, Incans were forced to work in the mines. When too many of them became sick or died because of the work, the Spanish important tens of thousands of African slaves. Guayasamín (the Ecuadorian painter I mentioned in an earlier blog post) has a painting called Potosí in the main dome in the atrium of his museum. It depicts the suffering of the miners after a collapse as they struggle to reach for the light. There are still deadly accidents, 5-10 people die every year, but at this high elevation there are little other options except to leave and find work in Santa Cruz. Silicosis, a disease that damages the lungs when too much silica gets in, also shortens the life expectancy of miners.
My guide to the mines had worked in them for twelve years and although the pay of a miner is better (~1000 Bolivanos/week = $145 US), the risk of dying is much higher. There are a bunch of cooperativas that own specific concessions (entry points) into the mine. Within the cooperative, people work with teams and their teams are paid based on the quality and quantity of rocks they dig. Although in the past, the main mineral of interest was silver, tin and zinc are now the main ores being mined.
Miners are superstitious and believe that El Tío, a satanic lord of the underworld, watches over the mines. Whenever miners enter, they stick a lit cigarette in his mouth, ask for protection, and then shower his head, hands, and penis in coca leaves and 96 proof alcohol. There is an El Tío statue at almost every entrance into the mines. The miners believe that his needs must be satiated or he will cause their downfall. Llamas are also ritually slaughtered and their blood is splashed on the wall (see black marks in photo below).
My last stop was the the old mint, which in colonial times, used the silver found in the mines to make coins and made Potosí one of the richest places in the world for awhile. Silver was removed from the mined rocks using the patio process, which involved creating a slurry of rock, salt, water, copper sulfate, and mercury. Eventually the mercury and silver would settle out of this solution and that alloy was taken to indigenous (and later African) slaves who melted it down. The heating process evaporated the mercury, leaving behind pure silver. Unfortunately, the toxic mercury fumes blinded the men and then killed them in about 3-4 months. (Between the mines and the mint, tens of thousands of slaves were killed in Potosí.) The silver was poured into molds and then those blocks of silver were brought to a series of three different sized rollers where they were fed through until they were the right thickness (like a pasta maker, only much hotter and requiring two people with tongs to hold above and below).
The rollers were each attached to a giant wheel that was turned by a gearing system on the toothed ring. That ring was constantly rotated by four mules below which powered the rollers in the room above. Apparently, the best job in the mint was whipping the mules to move faster, because every other job was much more dangerous or deadly.
At first, the money that was created was mostly silver and very malleable, but over time it was mixed with copper to create a harder, more resilient coin. If you look carefully at the last two coins, in the lower left there is an embossed mark that shows it was made in Potosí. It is a P, T, S, and I layered on top of each other. The guide told an elaborate story about how this eventually became the dollar sign ($), but I’m not so sure.
On one last note, supermarkets in Potosí take their holiday decorations very seriously. Happy Halloween!