The official height for the world’s highest city is confidently quoted as 4060 metres, which, before we arrived, led me to assume that it might be a level city, possibly set out on a rolling plain, with a mountain for a backdrop. When the reality is radically different. It’s perched precariously on Cerro Rico’s steep flank. One decent seismic shake and you can’t help feeling that it could simply slide away, like a woollen blanket from a tumbled bed. Yet only a small microcosm of that quoted population can claim this elevation, possibly those who share the contour line that runs through the top step of the ‘Casa de Gobierno’. From those at the top of the hill, to those in the basement, is a drop through multiple levels of history, through timelines of exploitation and degradation, all in the name of religious and old world aggrandisement. An history of slavery and indentured labour, of greed and hypocrisy, of callous indifference for their fellow man. A city where truth says, if the mine doesn’t kill you, the mercury in the refining plant will. A city where it’s clear, even today you’re either old or dead before your half century‘s out. An historical city built on cant and pious fraud, that today is sustained by the concept of a lottery, where the probability of winning ‘el Gordo’ are similarly minuscule, but unlike a national lotto, you will be killed by playing their odds. It’s a city waiting for the invention of the three dimensional holographic map, where a flat, two dimensional chart just can’t manage to explain the place with any truth or clarity.
We were to have the same experiences with La Paz and with Cusco, places with altitude and gradients, with narrow street widths and uncharted staircases, that defy a cycling culture. We’ve pushed our way up one too many slippery cobbled streets, usually to the encouragement of a taxi with attitude. These are cities for parking up the bikes and taking to ‘Shank’s pony’, to walking, then waking in the morning, stiff from exercising unaccustomed calf muscles. Walking through history. We spend a few days exploring the old colonial quarter, wandering up and down the steep streets, the immediate streetscape changes, but the outer views are essentially the same.
Look downhill, down any narrow alley of polished cobbles and your view will disappear through a cradle of electrical wires, down into a vanishing point of balconied houses. Look to your left or right, the street will roll off the side of the mountain’s flank, leaving a distant view of far off hill horizons. Now turn around. You’ve been presented to a Morloch. A brooding monster that has expected and extracted extreme and terrible sacrifices. You’re in an audience with the enormity that is Cerro Rico. It’s unremitting presence, it’s unrelenting essence is a dark shadow that fills in the space between city and sky. A black shadow that falls across all the intricate stone carvings, the delicate wood mouldings that festoon the basilica’s façades and altars. With it’s excoriated skin and scoured-out entrails, it’s spoil heaps and it‘s ‘pieces of eight’, it once created the world’s richest men and the world’s richest city, driving the economy of old world Spain and consequently, the history of colonising Europe. The city and the mountain, the prison and the servant, ended up, one and the same.