Ever heard of Potosí, Bolivia’s infamous city?
I write infamous as there’s a history to this city that sees many of its locals working in abysmal conditions in mineral-rich mines, whilst still starving for food.
Make your way to Potosí either from Sucre or if you’ve just experienced the fantastic and memorable Salar de Uyuni, then from the town of Uyuni.
Uyuni’s dusty bus station on Cabrera Avenue can do with a revamp. Guess under these salty and corrosive conditions, most things need an overhaul.
The four-hour local bus from Uyuni along the ascending winding dirt road is rustic, but gets you there in one piece, which is always a bonus. Lucky it’s dry at the moment as I have heard of travellers getting stuck between Uyuni and Potosí, due to this road becoming muddy with a little rain.
So far, roads are not great in Bolivia and drivers are not too experienced.
Arriving in Potosí’s old bus station on Av Universitaria, now it’s time to find the abode to rest in for a few days.
The Conquistadores ‘founded’ Potosí in the mid-1500s and soon started to use its silver to finance the Spanish empire.
Believing that the valuable mineral would never run out, Potosí became one of the wealthiest and largest cities in the Americas, only to have its silver eventually dry up, and see the city slide into poverty.
Today, Potosí does still hold its own charm and with 32 churches built during colonial times, there is no shortage.
Becoming quite sick with food poisoning from yoghurt and confined to the hotel room, I didn’t explore Potosí as much as I usually do when visiting a new destination, so my photos of this city are limited.
Casa Nacional de Moneda
The fact that Bolivia’s Mint (‘house of money’) is in Potosí but now a museum, displays how opulent this city became in the height of its richness, population growth, trade expansion, and general unexpected boom. It was here that silver mined from Cerro Rico was converted into coins, then shipped to Spain for the Spanish Crown.
Founded in 1572 by Viceroy Francisco Alvarez de Toledo, this complex has been rebuilt several times during the centuries.
In 1865, the strange and rather disturbing face of Bacchus (God of wine) was included at the museum’s entrance, by Frenchman Eugenio Martin Moulon – no one knows why. Perhaps he was drunk on wine at the time?
Since gaining independence from Spain in 1825 and until 1953, Bolivia made its own money in this mint. Although nowadays, Bolivia’s paper money is made in Britain and coins in Germany.
The museum is extremely interesting and well-worth visiting whilst in the city.
Relax in the museum’s pleasant stylish courtyard.
A lot of ancient mint equipment is still exhibited at the museum, which is considered one of the most important in Bolivia.
Lovely to just walk around the complex and discover new areas.
Plaza 10 de Noviembre
Surrounded by colonial architecture, small restaurants, churches, a set of pretty arches, and a good view of Cerro Rico, this is a great spot to relax and do some people-watching.
Wander around the streets of Potosí and imagine what this city must of been like in its wealthier times, with gorgeous colonial architecture and opulent churches still gracing the streets.
With intertwining streets, there doesn’t seem to be much organisation, and may be the result of the city’s fast expansion during the mining boom.
Locals are proud and defiant…
…although time, hardship, and poverty are evident in the creases of their faces.
At 4,067 metres above sea level and quite hilly, your chest may feel heavy and you may need to take small rests, whilst exploring Potosí.
Cerro Rico mine tours
Many travellers arrive in Potosí to do a tour in the Cerro Rico (rich hill) mine – one of the largest silver mines in Bolivia. Guide books also push this tour.
As this is the reason for Potosí’s infamous history and the shocking conditions in which today’s miners still work – unchanged for centuries – decided against this tour and instead, to just enjoy the city.
If you are in two minds about doing this tour, then think about the 15,000 miners that work here with a ‘life expectancy of around 40 years’. This is due to miners not receiving protective work equipment for constant dust inhalation (and toxic gases), which lead to Silicosis. The mine is also known as the ‘mountain that eats men’, as a large number of workers die in the mines.
After centuries of silver mining, the hill is said to resemble honeycomb with holes throughout and has had to be filled with cement in parts, to stop the mountain’s collapse. At around 4,800 metres high, this is not a comforting thought for the still thousands of miners that work this mine.
Daily, the miners pay tribute to Pachamama (mother earth) and El Tio (‘Lord of the Underworld’) for protection, before commencing work.
A taste of the conditions filmed by Leonor Suárez Periodismo con móvil.
Another sad encounter of a Bolivian child worker is also documented by The Guardian.
A much longer and excellent BBC documentary from 2014 below, if you’re interested to learn more.
We eat the mountain
and the mountain eats us.
It is estimated that 8 million people have died in this mine since the Conquistadores started forcing locals to extract the mountain’s silver, 450 years ago.
Also controversial is that this mine is exempt from taxes even though it produces billions of dollars in mineral exports each year, whilst the ‘private sector pays 37.5% plus royalties’.
Fancy soaking your tired travelling bones in thermal baths?
Only a half-hour minibus-ride from the city centre and you arrive at Tarapaya. Take a short walk from Tarapaya and you are in Ojo del Inca – a naturally heated outdoor lagoon, which was originally Inca baths.
To get to Tarapaya, catch the bus from near the old bus station at the Chuquima Market, in Potosí.
Thoughts on Bolivia so far
After travelling in Bolivia for the past twelve days absorbing the incredible beauty, its welcoming humble locals, but amidst contrasting poverty, I really can’t see where all this country’s extreme wealth in minerals has gone, and is still going.
As one of the poorest countries in Latin America, it’s obvious that Bolivia is being heavily exploited and also by foreign countries.
I’ve read that Bolivia’s lithium reserves in the stunning Salar de Uyuni equals 50 to 70% of the world’s reserves – an enticing motivation?
In addition, the country’s zinc, tin, silver, and natural gas should ensure that Bolivians are so much better off, but they’re not, and many subsist in the poorest conditions.
Bolivian and global governments have a lot to answer for…
Only two blocks from the main Plaza 10 de Noviembre, Hotel el Turista offers varying types of accommodation. Choose from clean shared rooms (backpacker-style) to a spacious double with private bathroom, which includes a good breakfast.
This hotel is one of the oldest in Potosí and a beautiful grand timber staircase graces the reception area.
Opposite the Mint and off the square, the Koala Cafe (part of Koala Tours) offers inexpensive and good food, including western meals.
Climb upstairs to the quaint restaurant’s brightly-coloured table cloths and cool wooden floors – great place to relax.
A short bus ride northeast of Potosí takes us to Sucre and hopefully to catch up with friends from Salta, which we keep bumping into on the travels.