When Art inspires Travel…

‘Art is not what you see but what you make others see’ – Edgar Degas


As soon as I walked into La Capilla del Hombre (the Chapel of Man) in Quito, Ecuador I thought what a striking and expressive piece….little was I to know that finding out more about this mural would impact my travels.

Potosí, en Busca de Luz y Libertad (Potosi, in search of Light & Liberty)

On one of my school trips whilst studying at Spanish school we got to visit the Capilla del Hombre which is an art gallery showcasing the work of one of Ecuador’s most known artists Oswaldo Guayasamin.

Guayasamin (1919 – 1999) was of Quechua & Mestizo heritage who was committed to showing the anguish and suffering of different regions and ethnic groups across Latin America.  His work is highly emotive and you can visibly see the emotion he is trying to convey in his art.  We were lucky enough to have a guide who took us around the gallery and then began to tell us about the history of Potosi and thus the meaning behind this art.


Potosi is a city in Bolivia that in the 18th century bankrolled the Spanish empire as it was (and still is) a mining city of silver.  Ran by the Spanish empire many indigenous people and black slaves brought over from Africa were forced to work in the mines in appalling and inhuman conditions with exposure to toxic gases, chemicals and particles all at high altitude of 4067m and thus dying in large numbers.  Some children were even forced to work in these underground mines dying early unnecessary deaths.

In this piece, Potosí, en Busca de Luz y Libertad you can see the thin, sickly and rib-cage protruding frames all wanting to seek freedom (liberty) from the darkness of the mines as their hands point towards the actual light which is a hole in the  flat topped conical dome of the building.  Apparently the mural is unfinished as there are a number of empty faces.  I had not realised this until doing more research about this mural; I had simply interpreted it as those miners being faceless and meaningless to the Spanish colonists who forced them down there.  I saw meaning in the unfinished work.

I had not done much planning for this South American trip, the extent of my plans were – attend Spanish school & visit Machu Picchu and the salt flats of Uyuni.  This expressive piece really delivered an emotive reaction and thus taught me a little about the history of a city in Bolivia that I had never heard of much less had planned to visit and I doubt I would have taken myself here.

The mineral rich Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) looms over Potosi

So 3 months later I found myself in Potosi, and found that although people were no longer forced and Potosi was no longer the rich bastion of Bolivia, the conditions of the mines were still appalling and most men working there had a life expectancy of 45 due to the health risks from chemical exposure, to mines collapsing or explosions. I decided to book a half day mine tour with Altiplano Tours to learn more. This included a stop at the miners market, the warehouse to get equipment and clothing to enter the mine and a visit to the mine itself.  Despite advice on some sites saying health risk is ‘minimal’ on short tours, I declined to go into the mine as I just didn’t feel it was worth the health risk of exposure to silica dust, asbestos deposits and other unnecessary particles and chemicals.   As a result my tour price was discounted to 70 Bolivianos.


There are 500 entrances within Cerro Rico for each mining co-operative.  Although there are mining co-operatives, the 15,000 people working here, work for themselves buying their equipment, clothing, dynamite and tobacco from the miners market.  They also buy huge bags of coco leaves which they chew for energy when working in the mines and then leave big balls in the side of their mouths using different ground foodstuffs such as quinoa, salt or sugar to activate the coca.  At the market we bought gifts of drink and coca leaves to give to the miners at a cost of 10 Bolivianos.

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Miners with their bags of coca leaves. Note their puffed up cheeks with their chewed up balls of coca leaves.

At the warehouse I went to a vantage point to take in the magnitude of this mountain that had provided so much for so long to the city of Potosi.  I saw the refinery where the minerals of zinc, tin, iron and sulphur were separated.


Note the four mineral piles – zinc (light brown), sulphur (yellowish), tin (silver) and iron (red brown)

We headed to the mines and there we were hit with the details of what its like to work in the mines.  Miners have houses, where they can rest and change before they enter into the mine, where they spend hours at a time collecting different minerals.  Once collected, it is sorted into different wagons and emptied into different shafts to then be collected by trucks.

I met some of the workers who were in a jovial mood and I received my second ever marriage proposal (the first was from a driving instructor but that’s another story) from one of the workers WAHEY!  Not many women work in the mines with only an estimated 300 women in total working inside and outside.  I saw the entrance to the mine that the other members of my tour group were going into and I was instantly glad I was not going to be spending the next two hours in such conditions.

Entrance to the mine

As the others entered into the mine I took the tour bus back to the city taking in the sights and wondering how much longer could this mountain yield such minerals and then what would become of the city of Potosi, dependent for so long on its riches but also the cause of so much suffering to some but a source of pride to others as generation to generation have worked in these mines.  There are now co-operatives and individuals fighting for the rights of miners, to improve their conditions and get better pay for the risks they undertake going into these mines.



Who would have thought that art work seen 3 months ago in another country would have me reflecting in such a manner?  That truly shows the power of art.  I’m glad I gave Potosi a day trip to learn more of the history of a city that was once deemed the ‘richest in the world.’


Fill your life with art to inspire, I know I will!



  The Five to Nine Traveller x

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