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Travel: Long Haul - Under the hill of silver

High on the Bolivian altiplano

is a magnificent, remote city

that made 16th-century Europe

rich. Mark Mann visits Potos

One of the fascinations of travel is to stumble across obscure connections, overgrown and half-forgotten historical pathways that lead back to ourselves. Take Potos. On the face of it, it is hard to imagine anywhere more remote than this isolated town on the cold, treeless high-desert of the Bolivian altiplano, 12 hours drive from La Paz, the country's capital. Yet, were it not for Potos, our own world might be a different place.

In the early 16th century, when the fabulous (albeit melted down) treasures of the Inca first reached Spain, the Spanish had a phrase: vale un Peru - "worth a Peru" - for anything extremely valuable. Then silver was discovered in a mountain that the local Quechua Indians called "the beautiful hill", high on the Bolivian altiplano.

The Spaniards founded the city of Potos at its foot and changed the name to the Cerro Rico, "the rich hill". Soon, unimagined quantities of silver had begun to flood back to Spain, and Cervantes had Don Quixote change the saying to "worth a Potos".

For the "rich hill" made Europe rich, too. In 150 years Latin American silver, largely from Potos, quadrupled European reserves. It was one of the greatest injections of capital in history, and one that financed Europe's early industrialisation and the rest of her colonial conquests.

The Cerro Rico dominates Potos, historically and physically. A giant cone of bare, pink rock, it rises from the rocky emptiness of the altiplano, towering over the city's red-tiled roofs and narrow colonial streets. It is a reminder of why Potos - at 4,070m the world's highest city - is here at all, in this inhospitable place, where the sun burns the leathery faces of the Quechua Indians a deep reddish-brown through the thin air, and the water in your hotel courtyard often freezes at night.

Guidebooks say that the Cerro Rico's silver was discovered accidentally in 1545 by a shepherd tracking a lost llama, but local people had long known of its riches. The Inca leader Huayna Capaj even attempted to mine it. But legend has it that no sooner had his workers begun digging, than a mighty voice boomed out: "This is not for you; God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar."

The workers fled in terror and the Inca renamed the hill Potojsi, which means "to thunder" in the Quechua language.

The Spanish colonists were no respecters of tradition. By 1573 Potos's population of 120,000 - equalled that of London and exceeded that of Madrid, Rome and Paris. The city became the hub of the Spanish colonies. Chile supplied meat, Argentina provided draught animals and textiles. Indians from all over Peru were forced to leave their crops to work in the mines while Lima, Peru's capital, grew rich on their toil.

It was the greatest of boom towns. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the city a shield inscribed, "I am rich Potos, treasure of the world, king of the mountains, envy of kings".

In its heyday Potos had 36 magnificent churches and an equal number of gambling-houses, 14 dance academies and (demonstrating a proper sense of priorities) more than 100 brothels. Wealthy families decorated their armour with emeralds and imported the latest luxury goods from Europe and China.

For the miners, though, it was a living - and dying - hell. No one knows how many people perished (the Spanish weren't counting) but estimates range up to 8 million.

Men worked chained together at the neck. If one miner collapsed of exhaustion, his overseer would hack off his head so that his body fell out of the line. Time, apparently, was considered too precious to stop the whole gang from working to unchain him.

The Cerro Rico is no longer rich, its silver veins exhausted. Potos enjoyed a second boom early this century with the invention of canned food, the mountain having an equal abundance of tin. But the collapse of world tin prices in 1985 put paid to that. Today, poor co-operatives work the 250-odd mines that burrow into the hill, searching for leftover crumbs of silver.

Visiting these mines is a fascinating, if sobering, experience. It is like stepping back into a Dickensian world, right down to the miners' antique English Davy safety lamps. We pass shadowy figures, lit only by the faint flicker of their lamps, hacking at the rock face with ancient axes. The tunnels are low even for the short Indians, as it wastes time to make them higher, and I have to bend double to get through. Supports are makeshift - planks jammed across the roof - and cave-ins are common.

But, our guide, Julio, explains, the main danger is invisible; deadly gases and corrosive dust fills the air, eating away at the lungs of the miners. Deep inside the mine he introduces us to its "owner". El Tio is a roughly carved face hewn into the rock. A cigarette hangs from his mouth and coloured tinsel is draped over his head, symbolic payments made by miners for protection and luck. Tio means "uncle" in Spanish, but the figure's two horns reveal his true identity: the Devil. A devil with the sharp features and trim beard of a Spaniard.

"For the miners," Julio explains, "the Devil is European. We miners hate Europeans."

Julio has a right to feel aggrieved. Today Potos is one of the poorest towns in Bolivia, itself the poorest country in Spanish-speaking South America. The town hides it well: there are few beggars and the houses look solid. But inside they are unheated, and children die from malnutrition and easily curable diseases.

On the other hand, this lack of development has preserved the city's colonial buildings and austere beauty. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site with 2,000 listed buildings, it is one of the great historical treasures of the Americas. Every evening crowds bustle along the narrow streets of the city centre, heavily wrapped against the altiplano cold, past the ornate facades of churches and the elaborately carved balconies and doorways that stand as reminders of past riches.

Fact File

When to go

The dry season, from May to November is the best time to visit, but also the coldest. Night temperatures can fall below freezing. Take warm clothing.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from Britain to the Bolivian capital, La Paz. South American Experience (0171-976 5511) has a fare of pounds 668 on Aerolineas Argentinas via Madrid and Buenos Aires. For pounds 719, travel faster on Varig via Sao Paulo.

From La Paz, buses take about 12 hours to reach Potos, for a fare of about pounds 8. Trans- Copacabana is a good company. There also are flights from La Paz on Aerosur.

Staying healthy

To avoid altitude sickness, when you arrive in Bolivia take it easy, avoid alcohol and drink plenty of fluids for the first few days.

Guide to the mines

There are plenty of tours. Mark Mann's trip was led by Julio Cesar Morales of Koala Tours (Ayacucho 5, phone 24708).