Potosí: Bolivia’s Infamous City

July, 2011

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.

Potosi, Bolivia, South AmericaGetting there

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.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Beautiful colonial door


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.

Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Cerro Rico in the near distance

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.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Entrance – buildings extend to a whole city block

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?

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Odd entrance

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.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Foundry exhibit

Relax in the museum’s pleasant stylish courtyard.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America

A lot of ancient mint equipment is still exhibited at the museum, which is considered one of the most important in Bolivia.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Mint relics

Lovely to just walk around the complex and discover new areas.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Ancient arch

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.

Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Plaza stroll
Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Standing guard

Potosí streets

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.

Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Artisan seller

Locals are proud and defiant…

Potosí, Bolivia, South America

…although time, hardship, and poverty are evident in the creases of their faces.

Potosí, Bolivia, South America
In a hurry

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.

Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Rest time

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.

Potosí’s saying:

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’.

Hot Springs

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.

Leaving Potosí

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.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Bolivia at Image Earth Travel.

Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosí, Bolivia, South America
Windows to the soul

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40 responses to “Potosí: Bolivia’s Infamous City”

  1. Francis.R. Avatar

    As having Bolivian ancestry myself I’d say is just centuries of colonial mindset. People don’t consider that they should make their culture and technology but that it is natural that others do it for them. The native cultures where wiped of their high culture that progressed and mostly what there is left is the culture of peasants that being marvelous as it conserves what was in the past is also traditionalist and don’t take risks except they are told by others to do; the Westerner culture is one that comes from medieval Spain that (different to the modern Spain) is almost one that has not self stem. They expect that the knowledge and progress in science should be given from metropolis of more powerful countries. With that mindset actually natural resources are a curse because they have an excuse to don’t struggle to fight, just waiting for a company to arrive. Chile is far more developed despite not having meaningful natural resources because their people always needed to work to create richness, also they have a more Westerner modern society, even their native population. As a society that received migration from Germany or other countries they are less traditionalists and indeed it is the closest country in South America to be considered first world. Said that I think that with Evo Morales Bolivia has been developing far better than in previous governments.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Francis for your great insight on a very delicate situation in Bolivia, which is still my favourite country in South America, so far…

      I guess I hadn’t understood Bolivians as you explain – it’s a very different view to what I’ve read about Bolivia. And yes, Chile is definitely more developed than Bolivia. Each country I’ve visited in South America is spectacular, but as you point out in not so many words, a traveller only scratches the surface.

      1. Francis.R. Avatar

        Of course I could be wrong as it is my perception. But certainly I forgot to mention that the photographs are wonderful. In your Bolivian chronicle I love specially the ones in the open nature. ^_^

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Well, I think with Bolivian ancestry, you definitely know more than most and thank you for your kind feedback. Peru chronicles are next. 😉

  2. Vinay reddy Avatar

    Your photography is simply superb!! When I am seeing your posts about travel, my heart is telling we wanna vist those places but I can’t!! Huhuhu

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you and glad my photography makes you want to travel to the destinations.

      1. Vinay reddy Avatar

        It was my great pleasure!!

  3. Unbound Roots Avatar
    Unbound Roots

    Love, love, love your photography! Just beautiful.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you – very kind of you to leave such a great comment. You’ve made my day! 🙂

  4. fancypaperblog Avatar

    Reliving my time in South America through your posts. I found Potosi had a tragic air. The clownish Bacchus grinning at all below and a watchful mountain- a town that needs humanity.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Excellent! I’m happy that the posts are bringing back your travel memories.
      Sad isn’t it? But on the upside, the locals are really friendly and helpful.

      1. fancypaperblog Avatar

        The locals were so nice. It was just the stories you heard about the mine.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, throughout Bolivia, locals were lovely. I find that the poorer the locals, the more giving they are…interesting. Didn’t have any theft issues in Bolivia as in Peru…more chapters to come. 😉

      3. fancypaperblog Avatar

        Very true. I also had no theft issues there but when I got back I was was living one week in England and was robbed in Oxford Street.
        Looking forward to the next chapters.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I guess it can happen anywhere in the world, it just seemed a lot more frequent in Peru.

  5. gillmorris Avatar

    Great post Nilla, insightful writing into the plight of these people, how awful for the people working down those mines and shame on the governments who are ripping them off- its all about money and no thought or care to the people 🙁

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Gill.

      Yeah, it’s tragic. And, the fact that tour companies are making money out of miners’ misery is incomprehensible – another reason why I didn’t do the tour.

      1. gillmorris Avatar

        It happens everywhere, doesn’t make it right though 🙁

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        No, not at all. It’s usually the big offshore corps reaping the benefits, which goes straight out of a country, whilst the locals subsist in poverty. In South America with all it’s richness, you see this all the time – it’s heart-wrenching.

        One thing that I’ve been saying for the past 20+ years is that water will be the future’s gold. Big corps like Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola are buying up water rights in many countries, bottling the water, then selling it back to the population that once received water for free. It’s ludicrous that governments around the world allow this and unaffordable to many locals, not to mention the amount of plastic this generates.

        Water is a basic human right and shouldn’t be regulated and controlled by big (often foreign) corporations.

      3. gillmorris Avatar

        I agree, the governments and the companies are in cahoots to make as much money as they can and to hell with the people 🙁

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        In too many countries. I hate seeing this side of humanity.

  6. Sea Stroll Avatar

    Thanks for the tips and vivid descriptions. I will be in bolivia in just over a month. Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Glad you found my post helpful – you’ll have a ball! For how long are you staying in Bolivia?
      I have many more on Bolivia to publish yet, so stay tuned each Sunday for a new post. 😉

  7. da-AL Avatar

    great post – your writing is always as poignant as your photos, Nilla

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for the great feedback! I try to tell it as it is and not fluff up experiences – but then again, another travel can have a totally different experience. 🙂

      1. da-AL Avatar

        yes, & each of our trips even to the same place change…

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar


  8. idjourneys Avatar

    Very informative! I only knew there are mines there.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your comment.
      I’m not sure that many people have heard of Potosí, unless you’ve been to Bolivia.

  9. the eternal traveller Avatar

    Funny that you should find a café with the name Koala there. Great photos!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I thought the same – we’re omnipresent! Thank you for your feedback. 🙂

  10. Valerie Cullers Avatar

    Love the post and the pictures of the people…oh their faces can tell such stories!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Valerie.
      I have many more to share yet. Candid (and street) photography is my passion.

      1. Valerie Cullers Avatar

        Will look forward to them!

  11. Rob Avatar

    Thank you for this honest and transparent view into this city. Those faces say everything. Very powerful images.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Rob…I try to always write honestly, whether good or bad, and don’t sugar coat my experiences. 😉

  12. narasimhansrikanth Avatar

    Great tour ! Beautiful destination with elaborate descriptions 👏👏👍

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your kind feedback. 🙂

  13. Emma & Nathan’s Travels Avatar

    Wow. Just wow!!! 😊

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Emma and Nathan – glad you enjoyed this post. 🙂

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