Huddled on the bleak Altiplano some 230km south of La Paz, ORURO was Bolivia’s economic powerhouse for much of the twentieth century, centre of the country’s richest tin-mining region. Mines established in the nearby mountains in the late nineteenth century turned Oruro into a thriving industrial city. After the fall of world tin prices in 1985, however, Oruro’s fortunes plummeted, and though it’s still the biggest city in the Altiplano after La Paz and El Alto, years of economic decline have turned it into a shadow of its former self.
Situated 3709m above sea level and swept by bitter Altiplano winds, Oruro is a cold and rather sombre place. This dour demeanour is deceptive, however, as every year Oruro explodes into life when it celebrates its Carnaval. At other times, however, there’s little reason to stop here, though given its importance as a transport hub you’re almost certain to pass through at some stage.
Although a few buildings dating from Oruro’s heyday still survive, the city is dominated by the unappealing, functional architecture you’d expect to find in a mining town at the wrong end of half a century of decline. Architecture aside, the Museo Antropológico Eduardo López Rivas is one of Bolivia’s better provincial museums. The Santuario del Socavón, focus of the Carnaval, which sits on top of an abandoned mineshaft now occupied by the Museo Etnográfico Minero, is also worth checking out.
Originally named the Villa Imperial de Don Felipe de Austria in honour of the reigning Spanish king, Felipe III, Oruro was founded on November 1, 1606, a decade after the discovery of rich silver deposits in the nearby Cerro Pie de Gallo. Though its mines never rivalled Potosí’s, Oruro grew quickly, and by the 1670s was the second biggest city in Alto Peru, with a population of about eighty thousand.
It was the biggest Spanish city to be captured during the Great Rebellion of 1780–81, when the city’s mestizos and criollos joined the indigenous uprising led by Tupac Amaru, massacring the Spanish-born population. This multi-class alliance did not last long: the rebel army raised from the ayllus of the surrounding Altiplano soon turned on the criollo instigators of the uprising, looting and burning their houses and killing their leader, Sebastián Pagador, before meeting the same fate themselves at the hands of the royalist army when it eventually retook the city.
Oruro changed hands several times during the Independence War (1809–24), and its economy was severely disrupted. The city gradually recovered as silver production grew again, aided by foreign capital, improved industrial technology and the completion of a railway linking Oruro with the Pacific coast in 1892. The railway meant Oruro was perfectly placed to exploit the growing world demand for tin, which was found in great abundance in the surrounding mountains.
The three Bolivian mining entrepreneurs who controlled most of the mines of Oruro – Aramayo, Hochschild and Patiño – soon came to dominate the national political scene, but their treatment of the miners sowed the seeds of their downfall. The radical FSTMB mineworkers’ union that emerged from Oruro’s mining camps played a key role in the 1952 revolution that led to the nationalization of the mines. However, when the price of tin crashed in 1985, the mining industry collapsed; with it went the power of the miners’ union and Oruro’s economic fortunes. Most of the mines were closed and thousands lost their jobs; although some (gold and tin) mines have opened since, Oruro has never really recovered.