It was called the “mountain that eats men” for the number of miners who perished there, but these days it’s tourists who are trapped at the Bolivian peak of Potosí.
Protesters have blocked road, rail and air links to the historic mining town, marooning more than 100 foreign visitors high in the Andes for 11 days amid dwindling food stocks and rising tension.
Residents who are angry with the government put rocks on the airport runway and prevented vehicles from descending, turning the entire town into a South American version of Hotel California at 4,000 metres above sea level.
“We want to leave but we can’t,” said Sarah Hewlett, from London, after 11 days in Potosí with her husband, Daniel. “We tried to leave twice but it didn’t work. After the first three days we crossed one of the blockades with our backpacks and walked 18km but there were no cars, nothing to pick us up, so we turned back because it was futile.”
The couple made a second escape attempt with a busload of French tourists. “But when we got to the blockade the miners surrounded [us] and threatened the driver saying they were going to smash the bus. So we had to turn around.”
Food shortages were stoking anxiety in the town, Hewlett said. “Today supplies arrived but there are massive queues to get it, and there are fights and mayhem in the shops because everybody wants to get something. We just want to leave Bolivia.”
The British embassy in La Paz has advised foreigners – there are believed to be at least eight Britons in Potosí – against trying to break the blockade. The local governor has promised to evacuate tourists as soon as possible. About 500 Bolivian visitors are trapped with them. The cabinet chief, Oscar Coca, said Potosí’s tourism industry had been severely damaged.
An estimated 6,000 of the town’s 16,000 residents have joined the protests over land disputes and the closure of mines. They have accused President Evo Morales of forsaking miners. The indigenous leader himself rose to power through street protests,. Several protest leaders are on hunger strike.
The silver mine in the soaring peak of Cerro Rico bankrolled Spain’s colonial empire for centuries. Its riches could have built a silver bridge to Madrid with silver left to carry across it, went the legend.
For a time Potosí, the colonial city that sprang up around the mine, eclipsed London and Paris in size and splendour. A line in Don Quixote, the 17th century novel, expressed immense riches as being “worth a Potosí”.
The mountain earned its man-eating nickname for the estimated hundreds of thousands of Incas and other slaves who succumbed to lung diseases, mercury poisoning, exhaustion and accidents, giving Potosí a grimmer meaning.
The winding colonial streets and faded baroque glory have long drawn tourists but a reputation for trapping them will not endear the town to the Lonely Planet.
A presidential spokesman, Iván Canelas, has said the government will not use force to break the blockade and urged protesters to “put aside their intransigence” and negotiate. “Thousands of children are harmed because schools are closed, as are the health centres and the food markets,” he said.