of silver and salt
Legend says that when the Inca Huayna Kapac sent men to work on the Sumaj Orko hill, a frightful thundering sound was heard and a voice followed, saying “get out of here, for this richness will belong to others.” When the laborers told the story to the Inca, they used the Aymara word potojsi, which means “to explode”. This occurred 83 years before the arrival of the Spaniards to Potosí.
At 4,067 metres above sea level precisely at the central plaza, Potosí is dealt a cold and dry climate, with only an 8 degree centigrade average temperature (47ºF). With its 132,000 inhabitants, Potosí shares with Llassa the honor as the highest city in the world. Both Potosí and its hill Cerro Rico have been named as World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
During the Colony, at the height of silver exploitation, Potosí had more inhabitants than the great European capitals of the time. With the plummeting of silver prices in the middle of the nineteenth century (the Spaniards had gotten out just in time), Potosí was obligated to mine tin and other minerals. The architecture of its buildings, the layout of its streets, and other styles and traits of those colonial periods are still evident in today’s Potosí.
Thus reads the slogan on the city’s first coat of arms and it wasn’t far off the mark. But then, any city with a mountain of silver in its backyard is sure to cop some attention. As a matter of fact, the Spanish still have a saying “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) for something incredibly rich.
A good example is the city of San Luis Potosí in central Mexico where silver was discovered in the 1600s. San Luis, however never did live up to its Bolivian namesake. Even as far away as China, the name signified wealth and the mythical city of riches in Chinese legend came to be known as Bei Du Xi after the real city of riches in Bolivia. That one probably didn’t measure up either.
No-one really knows how much silver was extracted from the mountain and carted off to Spain but a popular boast of the day was that they could have built a silver bridge to Europe and had some left to carry across on it. It goes without saying then that most all of the shiny stuff saw its way across the ocean...
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So Potosí was once the largest, wealthiest city in the Americas. It now has the air of a dignified, but destitute old man showing the signs of a decadent past. All around are reminders of its silver-mining past, from the many crumbling old colonial buildings, to the massive mint, where the silver was smelted into coins for the Spanish Crown. Towering over the city is the giant pink hulk of Cerro Rico – Rich Mountain – from which the silver was extracted. Visitors can burrow down into its bowels through a series of tunnels and shafts, meet the devil face to face, and experience what life was like many centuries ago for those who were forced to enter the ‘Mouth of Hell’.
Potosí is one of the saddest and fascinating places you’ll ever experience in Bolivia.
Potosí – Historical Sketch
Touring the City
Just wandering around the center of Potosí is fascinating in itself and will take you past many colonial buildings. While Viceroy Toledo tried to bring order to the city’s layout in 1574, the boom had led to fast and unplanned development which has left Potosí with a less-than-gridiron plan full of small streets with unexpected twists and turns – including the Pasaje de las Siete Vueltas (Seven Turn Passage), off Junín – which adds to the city’s charm. There are lots of beautiful and ornate religious buildings well-worth seeing – during the colonial period there were 32 churches in the city. An active restoration project is permanently going on, organized by the city council and the Spanish Cooperation Agency, but there is a lot of work to do – the city boasts more than 2,000 colonial buildings.
Our tour of the city may well begin in the central plaza as it is surrounded by some of the city’s best buildings. Museo de Santa Teresa, Convento de San Francisco, Torre de la Compañía, Convento de las Monicas, Portal of San Lorenzo, Portal of the Marquis of Otavi, and of course the Casa de la Moneda (see collapsible panel below) are just a few of the recommended sightseeing stops.
Casa de la Moneda (Imperial Mint House)
El Cerro Rico – The Mountain that Eats Men
We have a saying in Potosí:
This is no hyperbole. In the 450 years since Spanish Conquistadores started forcing locals to extract silver from the mountain, an estimated 8 million people have died in this one mine. Miners are near the bottom of the social strata but were instrumental in making the city of Potosí one of the richest and most populous in the world in the past and today, support the multi-million US dollar business of our contemporary mineral industry.
Despite –or because of– the shocking conditions, a visit to the mines within Cerro Rico is possibly one of the most eye-opening and rewarding experience of your whole Bolivia trip.
El Cerro Rico – Potosí Mine Tours
About the Nature of our Mine Tours in Potosí
There is a lot of debate that surrounds the (un)ethical and voyeuristic nature of the mine tours in Potosí, let alone the tours’ safety. But for the miners who guide our tours and dozens of others, it is a lifeline that has helped them get out of working the mines and given them the opportunity to live past their 45th birthday.
If you are unsure about the mine being used as a tourist attraction, especially in light of the number of people who have died in the mines over the years, think of the tour as an enlightening and humbling educational experience.
There is a vicious cycle of poverty in Potosi and at this point we are not sure whether tourism truly is hurting or helping the families, but we feel the best way to understand Potosi’s community is to record its underbelly, the daily life of families, and the miners surviving day to day by whatever means necessary. You may then decide for yourself whether the best way to understand the mines is to experience them in person or alternatively, through another of our tours for people who don't like tours.
Please feel free to contact us for more information about our responsible tourism policy.
What to do around Potosí
To/from Tupiza – Welcome to the WWWest
In the southern tip of Bolivia, some 90 km away from the Argentinean border and 256 km south of Potosí, Tupiza feels like a town out of a far west movie.
Set in spectacular countryside, Tupiza is the capital of the Sud Chichas province within the Potosí Department. The city lies in the valley of the Río Tupiza, and is surrounded by rugged scenery – weird eroded rainbow-colored rocks cut by tortuous, gravelly quebradas (ravines, usually dry) whose slopes are studded with cactus. The colorful jagged mountains are imposing, and incite a feeling of the Wild West, with the Río Tupiza the only adversary to break through the landscape.
Tupiza has a lot to offer the traveler. Explore the surrounding hills and canyons on horseback, check out where the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid story ended or embark on a tour of the Southwest Circuit to Uyuni, a route that’s attracting growing numbers of travelers.
The climate is mild year-round, with most of the rain falling between November and March. From June to August, days are hot, dry and clear, but nighttime temperatures can drop to below freezing.
Tupiza is accessible from Villazón to the south (and thereby both Argentina and Tarija) and Potosí to the north.
To/from the Salar de Uyuni and Sud Lípez
To the southwest of Potosi one encounters eerily beautiful scenery. Lodging in local nunneries or even in the spartan local hotels of Uyuni is part of the adventure, which lasts from two days and up to a week or more. The engaging trip from Potosi to Uyuni takes five hours, passing through small mining settlements and solitary villages, in the midst of mountain terrain and fertile mesothermic valleys, until arrival on the arid high plain of Uyuni. This remote and spectacular region of white deserts, icebound volcanic peaks and mineral-stained lakes is home to a surprising array of wildlife, including great flocks of pink flamingos and herds of vicuñas.
See also Uyuni, Bolivia - Salt Flats and Sud Lípez in this website
Potosí is located in the southwestern part of Bolivia.
Potosí is best combined with a trip to Uyuni and Sucre, and is also accessible from Oruro, Tarija and Tupiza.
Through our intimate, small-group tours and private expeditions in this area you will be able to visit sites most tourists, even seasoned travelers, never find.
Join us on a discovery of a lifetime in Potosí.
Check our selected excursions in this area:
The following packages also include this area
Feel free to customize any travel package according to your own personal interests and the specific activities you expect...
Join us on one of our Natural History Tours or a Cultural Exploration into the heart of South America. Our programs are offered throughout the year, on a (very) small group basis and mostly in private.
You may also want to make an enquiry or design your own program of activities in this area.
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You may also check other Special Interest Travel and unusual tours or expeditions around Bolivia, including:
• La Paz, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca
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