In the morning on my birthday when I stepped out into the courtyard of our hostel in Potosí, a mining city of about 241 000 people, I noticed some balloons and streamers in the dining room upstairs and thought it was some fiesta because there are a lot of fiestas. Then I went up to eat breakfast and realized that it was because of my birthday. After some presents and breakfast we headed down to the mint a few blocks away.
We found out that the mint actually stopped minting coins and now is also a museum of anthropology. The reason that there was a mint in Potosi is because in 1544 a lot of silver was discovered there. There was so much silver in the mountain Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) that some people have estimated that they could have built a silver bridge to Spain and still have silver left over! In the mine in Potosi it is estimated that about 8 000 000 indigenous and African slaves died mining silver.
Our tour started out with seeing the first locomotive introduced to Bolivia which is named Pacamayo. Then we went to a room full of paintings by indigenous painters who were ordered by the king of Spain to paint scenes from Europe. The paintings were very good, but the indigenous painters didn’t know what horses were so the horses were given human-like faces and expressions. At the far end of the room there were also pictures from the Bible because in those days the Bible was written only in Latin and few people could read it so pictures were used to change their religion to Christianity. The originals of these paintings were actually painted in Spain by Spanish painters. Then because they couldn’t ship them over, they made engravings of the paintings and then shipped the engravings over to Bolivia where the indigenous painters painted the pictures from the engravings.
Next we went to a room full of pictures of Mary in different stages of her life including one of her and Pachamama (Mother Earth) as the same and in the form of Cerro Rico. All the paintings in room had wood frames covered in 22k gold. At the top, in the center of the painting are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In the very center is an Incan who owned many llamas, but he lost one so he was looking for it when night fell. He lit a fire and it melted the rock and the silver in the rock trickled down the mountain in lines. When the Incans started to mine the silver they heard a volcano erupt and according to the legend it was the voice of Pachamama saying “You do not touch this, leave it how it is”, so the Incans left it and when the Spanish arrived they took it all and sent it on llamas and mules to the Pacific Coast. Then it was shipped north to Panama City and taken by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios or Portobello where it was shipped to Spain on Spanish treasure fleets. In the center on the right is the Incan moon, and on the left is the Incan sun. At the bottom on the left are the Pope, a Cardinal and a Bishop, and on the right is the king of Spain and two other Spaniards. At the bottom in the center is Potosí in an orb as the center of the world because it was the biggest and wealthiest city in the Americas for many years with over 200 000 in population.
Then we saw the first coins produced in Bolivia in 1574. These coins were 97% pure silver and 3% copper and were shaped by hand and then hammered with stamps on either side. The coins were rarely circular, partly because in those days weight mattered more than shape, and partly because people would sometimes break off little bits of the coins and keep them.
Then we went to a room full of Spanish-designed machines made of wood shipped over from Spain because there were no trees around Potosí. The floors in the room were also Spanish design with wood from Spain. It took 14 months to ship all the materials over. These machines worked by having mules trot around in a circle for 10 hours a day. It had to be mules because horses couldn’t survive at that altitude (4 067m) and donkeys were too small to turn the shaft. The mules had to be bred somewhere else and imported. Working for 10 hours a day at that altitude not getting enough to eat, the mules only survived for about three to four months. There was also a slave to keep the mules trotting all day and occasionally feed them. The slaves also had to be imported because there weren’t enough local ones. The slaves hardly lived longer than the mules.
When the mules walked around in a circle, they turned a shaft that turned four big gears that turned a complex set of gears that made two rollers turn together for each big gear. Slaves fed ingots of silver into the rollers and when it came out the bottom the slaves caught it and slid the rollers a tiny bit closer together then fed it through again until the ingot had been through seven times and then they did the same with the next set of rollers until the ingot had been through all four and was the right thickness. Then the silver sheets were brought to another room and were punched into circles. With these machines the coins were made more circular and had lines on the edges so it was obvious if parts were missing.
These new coins were marked with PTSi for Potosí to mark where they were made. There were also mints for Spain in Lima, Peru and Mexico City, but they have not survived. Some people say that the modern dollar sign is based on PTSi.
In the next room there were all sorts of silver items because when the Spanish found the silver they wanted to have silver everything. There were silver teapots, crosses, platters, jewelery, goblets, decorative items and a dancing costume of thin silver.
Next off was a room with lots of scales hanging on the walls and two lock-boxes that used to hold silver. The first one was used to hold precious items from a church and was quite beautiful but now the pictures on it have faded. It had 12 locks and one keyhole in the center on the lid that turned all of them. It also had a fake keyhole on the front and two loops that attached padlocks. The other other lock-box was more recent and had three complex keyholes and metal studs on the outside.
Then was the smelter room. In this room the silver was purified and poured into ingots. Before the silver was smelted it was ground to a powder and mixed with salt, powdered roast copper and liquid mercury. Then tethered mules walked around in a small circle of earth on which the powdery mixture had been poured. The pounding of their feet crushed the mixture into even finer grains. And finaly the powder disolved into the mercury. Then it was distilled and brought to the smelter to purify. In the smelter room there were two slaves working two giant bellows to keep the temperature in the fire at 960 degrees Celsius to melt the silver. Since there was no wood around Potosí the only thing to burn was bush and mule dung. When the silver was melted and purified a slave tipped over the pot and poured the pure molten silver into ingot molds.
After the tour of the mint we went to one of the dozens of “Pizzeria Italiana”s to eat lunch. Then after lunch we hopped in a car and our driver Don Elias drove us to our hotel in Colchani (near Uyuni on the edge of the salt flats). The drive was very scenic and we saw lots of llamas and a few vicuñas. On one stretch of land we saw thousands of llamas grazing! (all the dots in the photo on the left are llamas)
When we arrived at our hotel it looked fancier than I thought it would be. I went in and SURPRISE!!!!!! It was a salt hotel! This one was called Palacio de Sal (Palace of Salt) and we heard it was the best, well maybe aside from the one with a salt golf-course. It had salt floors, ceilings, walls, couches, tables, chairs and beds and even half of the stairs to the top floor were salt! Salt walls look a lot like plaster, the main difference is in how they taste. Every room had its own ceiling of salt bricks piled on top of each other like an igloo. The hotel was fairly new (built in 2003) so not every room had a permanent roof on the outside, some just had a tarp. With every room having its own dome shaped roof, on the outside the building looked in the future with separate pods. These salt bricks had brown lines on them creating a cool pattern. Hanging down from the ceiling were some stalagtites from humidity. The top floor was made completely of wood insted of salt. Guess what, the hotel even had internet and wi-fi!
We had dinner in the palace and we met a man named Ken (same name as my grampa’s brother) who grew up in Trail and went to highschool with my grampa! One of Ken’s brothers also dated my mom’s aunt! Then after we finished eating, our waiter brought out two slices of pie and said “Feliz cumpleaños!” (happy birthday!) We looked around and saw that no one else got pie so when we were finished we asked our waiter whose idea was the pie and he said the front desk. We asked the front desk and she said it was the hotel’s idea. I guess we must have told her that it was my birthday when we arrived. That was my Bolivian birthday-quite fine if I do say so myself.