Potosí: Rich Hill, Macho Beef and Altitude Sickness

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Un Potosí is a Spanish idiom which loosely means a fortune. It is credited to Cervantes, who had the mad Don Quixote say: “the mines of Potosí would be insufficient to pay thee”. He was alluding to a city four hours southwest of Sucre, where Bolivia’s Central Highlands blend into the Altiplano. 

Nowadays it has the look of an old, unloved Rolls Royce, curbed and keyed, filled with junk, but still nonetheless a Rolls Royce. The buildings are painted in blues and reds, yellows and greens, muted now, but obviously striking once. The pompous columns, the intricate doorways, the heavy iron grilles on windows all sing the same song. The words are on the coat of arms:

            I am rich Potosí

            Treasure of the world

            King of all Mountains

            And the envy of kings

The King of all Mountains dominates the city, visible from every street. Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), it is called, because it is laced with silver. It is popularly said that the Spanish shipped out enough of it to build a bridge to Madrid. They shipped slaves the other way, from Africa, because the indigenous workforce kept dying and they still had targets to meet.

The mountain is like a honeycomb, now, after five hundred years of unconstrained digging; and engineers worry that the whole thing might collapse. But the miners are fatalistic. They have to be. They work with hammers and chisels, picks and shovels, breathe the foul air, and carry rock on their backs to the surface. Wads of coca leaves and cheap, strong alcohol get them through the day. They are all likely to be dead before 40. Even if they avoid the frequent cave-ins and runaway trucks, silicosis will get them anyway.

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Agents all over town arrange tours of the mines, with a stop at the market to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite as presents to give to the miners. Some dismiss it as voyeurism, others think it educational. I was not sure what I thought, but on balance I was minded to go.

Altitude sickness decided the point in the end. It crept up on me during the bus ride from Sucre and left me unable to do much except read and drink coca tea. At 4,090 metres above sea, Potosí is higher than most of the Alps; but the guidebooks overreach themselves when they call it the highest city in the world. It was not even the highest I had been on that trip: El Alto is at 4,150. But altitude sickness is hard to predict. It gives no credit for being fit and healthy, nor for being used to altitude. It can do anything right up to killing you of pulmonary edema; but in my case it was much like a hangover with laboured breath as a bonus. I was fine by the time I went to dinner.

Pique a lo macho is aimed at men with Popeye arms. It seemed the right thing to order in a tough guy town like Potosí. The cook sautés strips of beef with garlic and cumin, adds beer and reduces it, then tosses with slices of onion, tomato and chilli, balances it all on a plate of fries and garnishes with hardboiled eggs. Finishing one alone has the same significance as eating three Shredded Wheat. It means you are a greedy bastard.

The beef was tender and the flavours were good but I could only manage half. I am not at all a tough guy. I like cats and poetry and even wear a coat in winter.

© Richard Senior 2015

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