Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 9

The Richest Part of the Empire

The Third Attempt, Part 5

Upper Peru, now called Bolivia, was always considered by the Incas as the richest part of the Empire. The Jesuits came to the country some years before the last Inca Chief died, and found and continued to work many of the richest gold and silver mines belonging to the Incas, prospecting and exploring the Andes and the tropical rivers all the time they were in Peru. They thought so much of Upper Peru for its great mineral wealth that they actually plotted a revolution against the Government, their idea being to form a republic of their own in the country that is now Bolivia. It was for this reason that the Government of Lima, on discovering this plot, expelled them from the country.

The Jesuits never worked for long at a mine that was not a good one, and in prospecting for old mines the good can always be told from the bad by the way they have been worked. There are many fabulously wealthy mines which have been lying idle since their times, and up to the present have never been denounced. I personally know of several, gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, quicksilver and others. I have a sample of copper out of a lode six feet wide taken from one of these old mines, which gives fifty-nine per cent of copper and is still undenounced. Mining companies, instead of sending men to prospect for new fields, would do well to send and look for some of these abandoned Jesuit mines.

In the provinces of San Juan and Rioja in the Argentine and in Bolivia I have seen many so rich that the lodes are actually in sight and no dump is to be seen. The famous silver mines of Potosi, to which I have already referred, gave in three hundred years a total value of £340,000,000 worth of silver, and is still giving £40 to £50,000 worth a year. The Cerro Potosi is 15,400ft. high, the town 13,200ft., and the atmosphere is so rarified that many children die soon after birth. The Indians in this district eat clay dumplings which they put in their stew. Then there are the silver mines of Muanchaca, 13,200ft. high, which exported 8,000,000 ozs. of silver annually between 1892 and 1897, till the lower workings of the Pulacago mine were flooded with water.

The silver mines of Oruro for years yielded 1,700,000 ozs. a year, Colguechaca 1,500,000, and Guadaloupe, 700,000. The most valuable tin mines are those on the Huanuni near Oruro; there are others at Inquisivi, Tres Cruces (?), Arque, and other places. I discovered one at the Tres Cruces that was afterwards taken up and sold for £19,000. The tin mines of Bolivia are very rich, and the higher altitudes seem to yield a bigger percentage than the lower, and the workings are more accessible. I once located a tin property that gave at 13,000ft. 9 per cent, 15 per cent at 14,000ft., 25 per cent at 15,000ft., and at 16,000ft. as much as 60 per cent, according to samples essayed at Lima. The same thing happens in the case of gold, silver, and copper; the richest mines are often found in the most inaccessible places.

Prospecting for old mines is a rough life, but when your journeys take you along the Cordilleras you are sure of a healthy and enjoyable time in an exhilarating climate. You have bright sunshine all day and freezing cold at night. There is a fair amount of sport to be had on these trips, and it is advisable to take both gun and rifle. For the gun there are geese, duck, martinettes, partridges, woodcock, and snipe; and for the rifle you get jaguar, bear, wild cattle, puma, vicuña, deer, guanaco, and the white-collared condor, the biggest bird that flies. On several occasions when I was far away from any kind of civilization, and there was no habitation in sight so far as the eye could see, vicuñas have remained staring at me, and allowed me to get up quite close to them before galloping off. I remember once suddenly coming across a herd of eleven vicuñas, which stood up in a line not more than fifty to seventy yards off, and remained stationary for quite two minutes; they were wondering I suppose what object it was that suddenly appeared on a big black mule. They looked so graceful that I did not disturb them and never fired at all. I have shot them for their pelts when the Indians have told me the fur is at its best, and on two occasions for meat when we ran short; their flesh is not very nice to eat, but not quite so nasty as llama. I managed also to get three puma on these prospecting trips; one was a pretty good one measuring 7ft. 7ins. when green, another was 7ft. 2ins. and the third 6ft. 7ins.

While on one of these trips to locate silver mines and bring back samples for a German firm, I was travelling one day with fourteen cargo mules, two saddle mules, bell mare and horse, and happened to be riding along with a gun in front about halfway up the forest, with my boy walking behind carrying the rifle, when I heard some poujil. I got off the mule to get a stalking shot, and on turning the corner just round the bend came on a magnificent jaguar, lying down sunning himself on a green bank not twenty yards off. I was much relieved when he got up and trotted quietly away into the jungle. These beasts will never attack a man in daylight unless they are hungry or angry. The natives in the interior of Bolivia near Santa Cruz hunt them with the spear, rifle, and dogs, when they can locate them in the savannas or grass plains, and the Government pay them £2 10s. for each skull, as they are known to be dangerous man-eaters. But they only go after men when they get too old and inactive to catch wild cattle, deer and pigs. It is also said that once they have tasted human blood they prefer it to any other kind of food.

In spite of all the trouble I had taken, I had eventually to give up the search for the treasure on the Caballo Cunco Hill. Neither Solis Mendizabal nor I could get the necessary number of men to continue the work satisfactorily, and we tried several times to form a small company from Chili to go into the work, and also to uncover the many smaller tapadas that still remain intact near the convent and the church, but without success. Colonel Trollope, of Lord’s Castle, Barbados, who was interested in the project and promised me the money to take over fifty men from Barbados in 1912, unfortunately died before this could be done. A well known mining engineer came all the way from Tacna at my suggestion to look at my handiwork, and see whether he thought what was being uncovered was the work of man or nature; I have his report in which he forms the same idea as I do.

Now what has this big cave been dug out of the mountain side for, and why has it been covered over with so much care? Not for any amusement, I am sure. The only thing I know for certain is that José Ampuera found a big gold bell there, sixty years ago, but ceased excavating because one of his sons was killed by a piece of rock. Then there is the case of the two mule men, who uncovered one of the numerous smaller tapadas, and in eight days took out £1,500 worth of treasure. I still have hopes of being able to bring, say, forty men from the West Indies for each dry season, May to September, and finish the job. It might or it might not be a success; who can tell?


One thought on “The Richest Part of the Empire

  1. Prodgers’ three attempts weren’t the end of it: two threads at treasure-hunting websites detail those who followed in his footsteps in the 1920s and 1960s, in the fruitless search for the Sacambaya treasure. One of these, Dr Edgar Sanders (who heard the details from Prodgers himself and set out in 1925) found inside a tunnel a wooden box containing a parchment that read:

    You who reach this place withdraw. This spot is dedicated to God Almighty and the one who dares to enter, a dolorous death awaits him in this world and eternal condemnation in the world he goes to. The riches that belong to God Our Master are not for humans. Withdraw and you will live in peace and the blessing of the Master will make your life sweet and you will die rich with the goods of this world. Obey the command of God Almighty our Master in life and in death. In the name of God the Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

    Daniel Buck wrote about the “Sacambaya yarn” for the Peruvian Times in 2000, and in the journal Américas the same year.

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