Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon/Volume 2/Chapter 5

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Silver mines of Sicasica — Productions of the Puna or Table lands — An exile returning home — Department of Oruro — Silver, copper, and tin — Climate — A chicha factorer — The expedition out of Titicaca Basin, and into Madeira Plata — Department of Potosi — Population, climate, and productions — Rio Pilcomayo — Mint —Quicksilver trade — Imperfect mining operations — Smuggling of precious metals — Statistics of silver — Trade with the Argentine Confederation — Port of Cobija — Desert of Atacama — Eastern side of the Andes — Frosty mountain tops and thermal streams — A Washwoman — Cinchona bark ascending to the South Pacific — Department of Cochabamba — Increase of Creoles — Incas colony of Quechua Indians — Hail storm — Gardens — Fig trees — City of Cochabamba — Hospitality of the merchants — The President of Bolivia and his cabinet — Commercial proposition — Brazilian minister — President Manuel Isidoro Belzu Humerez Belzu — Cavalry and infantry — Armor of the Bolivian troops — Public force — Calacala gardens — Market people — Rio Mamoré — Legislative power — Church ceremony — Climate — A bishop’s opinion of the consequences of steamboat navigation — Cabinet ministers — Reception of a Farmer by the President — Heavy shock of an earthquake — Sudden departure of the government — Clisa fair — Trade to the Pacific coast.


After changing our baggage mules at the small Indian town of Ayoayo, we came to a winding stream, a tributary of Desaguedero, on which was a grist-mill, and arrived at Chicta post-house, which stands alone like a toy house in the middle of this green-carpeted plain. At 5 p.m., December 4, 1851, thermometer, 52°; wet bulb, 42°. A view of sunset over the snow-peaked mountains is most beautiful. The post-house is well kept by a creole with a wife and large family of children.

Three hundred Indians work the silver mines in the neighborhood. In this province, Sicasica, there exist three hundred and twenty abandoned silver mines. The yield of the nine mines at present worked produces some profit, but no fortunes are made by those concerned. Antimony and stonecoal (anthracite) of good quality have been discovered.

During the cold nights here, dew from the damp winds freezes. We observed no dew to the west of the Illimani.

As we move to the southeast the bushes are larger; some of them are three feet high. A moss grows, besides the sprigs of grass, on which the llamas feed, as they slowly move under loads of grain on the way to the grist-mill,

Scarcity of vegetables appears to produce an intimacy among animals.


Here the sheep graze in flocks, exclusive of horned cattle or horses, and the vicuña keeps aloof from all; but in less productive places,vicuñas are found eating from the same scanty table with the sheep and llamas. Animals which inhabit the highest atmospheres are obliged to come down among those below them.

The Puna seems the natural elevation for sheep; they thrive best there, The llama don’t do so well. The place of the vicuña is between these two mountainous distributions of animal life. Horned cattle and horses are above their station here, and thrive badly. The hog dives down into the very sloppy bottom; his greediness could not be satisfied on the upper plains; he would certainly perish for want of food, and is never found at such altitudes, unless forced up.

There is a sparse population and very little cultivation. The people are supplied with grain and fruits from the ravines on the edge of the Madeira Plata. We changed baggage mules at the town of Sicasica, a flourishing place during the days of wealthy miners, but an uninteresting and lifeless Indian town now.

At the post-house of Oroma, where we spent the night, a party of gentlemen stopped for baggage mules. They were travelling in haste, one being on his way to La Paz to join a wife and children after a banishment of eighteen months. His expressed political opinions happened to differ from those who came into power by force of musketry. His friends had obtained permission for his return, giving security he should not offend in the same way again. He pointed out on the map his wanderings through the wilds of Eastern Bolivia and the province of Matto Grosso in Brazil, and described his sufferings. He had not heard from his family, not knowing, until lately, they wrere still alive. He laughed and joked about his troubles, as though happy at getting home again.

A priest of the party sat on the baggage listening to our conversation. One inquired if the President of the United States sent those out of the country who expressed political opinions in opposition to his own, and really seemed surprised to learn that sometimes nearly half the nation did not agree with our President in all things, and were not interfered with.

Changing mules at Pandura post-house, we arrived at Caracollo, in the department of Oruro, which contains a population of 8,129 Creoles and 86,943 aborigines. This department has produced a large amount of silver. The city of Oruro, the capital and largest town in the department, has a population of 5,687. One hundred and twenty years ago, it contained


a population of 38,000, without counting Indians. This decrease is accounted for by the state of the mines.

There are twelve hundred and fifteen abandoned silver mines near the town, and not less than two hundred gold mines, most of which contain water. Eleven silver mines are still worked.

In the province of Poopo fifteen silver mines are worked, and three hundred and sixteen stand idle; besides which there are four silver mines worked in the province of Carangas, and two hundred and eighty-five abandoned. On the discovery of a mine, it is reported and registered to be taxed. The miners of silver ores are required by law to sell their metal to the government at a certain price. As merchants are willing to pay higher, the silver of Bolivia often passes out of the country in bars. Gold may be exported by paying a duty of three per cent.

Lead, iron, antimony, sulphur, copper, and tin abound in this department; the tin is found on the surface of the plain.

The climate of Oruro is cold, and the soil very unproductive. Potatoes, quinua, with a little barley, are raised in some places, tlamas, alpacas, vicuñas, guanacos, and the skins of the chinchillos, are used as exchanges on the coast of Peru for rum and wine.

From shallow lakes salt four inches thick is gathered, and exchanged for grains and flower. The pasture is so scarce that few cattle are raised. Jackasses being more economical than horses, pick up a living on the plain as they carry salt to the cattle districts, or journey over the mountains with silver and gold, a distance of one hundred and eighty-three leagues, to the seaport of Cobija, where they meet ships from the United States loaded with flour.

Cobija is a free port of entry, and merchants send this distance for many articles of trade, in preference to paying duty from Arica through the territory of Peru. As the jackass travels very slowly, and the Indian driver generally accommodates his pace to the loaded animal’s, the cargo from Cobija requires thirty-five days. It is difficult to find men willing to make the trip over that barren country.

The inhabitants of Corocoro were generally intoxicated on our arrival; neither the postman nor the governor appeared. Two persons, incorrectly supposing they were sober, called for our passports, saying the governor was absent, and they were the authorities next in power. One of them encountered some difficulty in reading the document.

He inquired of José the reason it was not presented at the governor’s house? José answered, “It was usual for the authorities to call upon strangers.” The man became very angry, and abused José. Being requested to read our papers and take his departure, he said “he did not


know whether we were English or French gringos.” We pointed out to him the words “Los Estados Unidos;” when looking up with surprise, he bowed, touched his hat, and bidding us good evening, they quietly and quickly walked off. I mention this fact solely because it was the only case throughout our route where a personal difficulty with the authorities was encountered; having to deal with such a number, it was the only exception to politeness and accommodating manners — possibly occasioned by some foreign importation.

The town is on the decline; it looks so dilapidated, and like the dusty, unproductive country round about, that had it not been for the church steeples and the chicha, we might have passed without having seen it. A cura (priest), travelling with his servant, left his intended road and joined us for company. He had been on a visit to La Paz from Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, with a remittance from the church. As we rode along on the table-lands, he would point out an unusually level piece of ground, and say, “What a beautiful place for a battle between two armies.” The man who had carried the remittance to La Paz trotted on foot after us, and travelled every day as fast and as far as the cura with his fine bay mule. We read each other’s passports.

Stopping on the plain at a small hut, the only habitation in sight, except a large stone church, we inquired for water; there was none, but a fat woman said she had chicha. The cura purchased a gallon for the same price other people usually pay for a pint. The woman said “she had chewed the maize for it herself;” so we had the manufacturing apparatus before us, established without wheels or water. She kissed the cura’s hand, and asked for his blessing. With one hand on her head and the other occupied with the chicha jug, he uttered a short prayer, tossed off the beverage and mounted his mule.

Our course is now east; we leave the table lands and enter a small narrow pass in the Andes. As the sun goes down over the Cordilleras, the hawks go to roost among the rocks. All is still as we ride up to a lonely hut —the post-house of Condorchinoca; while the Indian attends to our mules, his wife cooks supper, and his little child plays with the post dog. The night is clear, calm, and cold.

Ascending the western side of the Andes we come to a spring at the temperature of 68°; the water flows westward. We are now about to leave the Titicaca basin, which contains an area of thirty-nine thousand six hundred square miles. It is a curious basin; all round its edge snow is found, from which numerous streams of water flow and wash away the soil, so as to show that the earth is partly made up of silver.


If, during the rainy season, an unusual quantity of water is poured into its southern side, the large stream passing to its bottom flows northward; but generally most water enters on its northern side, so that the water nearly always flows south. Its climate may be a healthy one, but not a hospitable one for man.

In some parts of it sheep and vicuña flourish, and the llama was thought, in this basin, to prove in better condition than elsewhere. Our observations go to show they and the sheep in the neighborhood of the Juaja valley, in Peru, are superior.

The mineral wealth of the Titicaca basin is very great, but its vegetable productions too small for the support of its present population, who are employed extracting metals, and who draw from the Madeira Plata many of the necessaries of life, and rely upon foreign countries for their manufactures.

A clear, deep-blue sky opens the day; but as the tropical sun shines upon the white edges of the basin, he evaporates so many feet of the snow per annum, that the clouds formed daily seem to curtain in the inhabitants from the rest of the world.

The Aymara language and people excite the imagination to a belief that their history is of an anterior date to that of the Quechuas, and more interesting to those who seek, in the depths of time long passed, for a knowledge of the origin of the aboriginal races of men on this part of the earth.

There is a peculiarity found in the Titicaca basin which we noticed, but are unable to solve — the wind blows all the year from the east over the lake, while on the plains it is variable and whirling. Water appears to attract wind, and to keep it in active motion.

Slowly winding our way up the Andes, meeting droves of llamas loaded with flour, we find the strata of rocks pointing to the east at an angle of 45°. Arriving at the top of the great ridge, the strata is perpendicular; and on the east side it inclines to the west, also at an angle of 45°.

We now look over the Madeira Plate, but before entering it we turn to regard, from these lofty peaks, the south of the Titicaca basin.

From the line of the twentieth degree of south latitude, water flowing north belongs to Titicaca, and that running south tends for the great La Plata basin. These are the waters of the river Pilcomayo, which empty into the Paraguay between latitude 25° and 26° south, after passing through more than six hundred miles of longitude.

The Pilcomayo is a rapid stream, with falls and a rocky bed, like the Beni. It appears not navigable for steamboats in the territory of Bolivia. This stream takes its rise in the department of Potosi, which lies between


Oruro and the Argentine confederation, and contains a population of 83,296 Creoles of European descent, and 164,609 Aymara Indians.

The city, situated at the base of the far-famed Cerro de Potosi — the rich sister of Cerro de Pasco, in Peru — has a population of 16,711.

In the Cerro de Potosi and neighborhood there are twenty-six silver mines worked, and eighteen hundred standing idle. Besides which, the government accounts show us that, in the provinces of Porco, Chayanta, Chichas, and Lepiz, there exist three thousand and eighty-nine silver mines which have been abandoned, and only sixty-five mines worked now.

In former days the department of Potosi excited the envy of the world. The silver ore was found rising from the top of the peak; the vein being followed below the water line, when it was given up and a new one sought. The work was carried on in this manner until few new veins remained. The people are now burrowing in at the base of the peak, striving to strike the vein below, where it was left in its richness. This is an expensive business, and some have given up the plan, after an unsuccessful entrance into the very core of the mountain, with heavy losses.

There is a mint at Potosi, where the miner finds a ready market for silver and gold. It received and coined in the year 1849 one million six hundred and twenty-one thousand five hundred and thirty six dollars in silver, and eleven thousand nine hundred and eighty-four dollars in gold.

The government purchases quicksilver to trade with the miner. It is a singular fact that, while the rich quicksilver mines of Huancavelica are so close at hand, Bolivia annually imports two hundred thousand pounds of this important fluid mineral, in iron jars, from England, around Cape Horn, and over the Cordilleras, one hundred and fifty-eight leagues from Cobija.

Owing to the imperfect apparatus used for separating quicksilver from the silver ores, the waste of the imported metal is very great. Five thousand pounds of ore, yielding one hundred and fifty pounds of pure silver, required four hundred and fifty pounds of quicksilver for the amalgamation; of which, I was told, not less than one hundred pounds were lost. A simple cast-iron silver burner, or distilling apparatus, would probably save half this waste, and certainly much labor — both the labor and mercury being the most expensive items in the miner’s list of expenditures.