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Looking down upon Potosí from the barren heights of Cerro Rico (4,824 m / 15,827 ft), it’s hard to believe that it was once the largest urban center in South America and one of the wealthiest metropolises in the world.
Potosí (population: 145,057), one of the world’s highest cities (4,067 m / 13,343 ft), has little in the way of modern services and infrastructure to show for its age of affluence. Nevertheless, the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its vibrant history, colonial architecture, and grand residences.
The city was founded in 1546 after the discovery of silver ore on the mountain known as Sumaj Orcko (a Quechua word meaning Beautiful Mountain), later renamed Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). From 1545 through the mid-18th century, Potosí prospered, becoming one of the world’s leading silver producers, its newfound wealth leading to a substantial population increase (over 200,000 inhabitants). The Spanish empire extracted millions of tons of silver from the hills around the city. Colonists bragged that they had mined enough ore to build a silver bridge that could span from Potosí to Madrid. The city’s coat of arms read, “I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, the king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings.”
Working conditions in the mines were horrific, resulting in scores of illnesses and death in the male indigenous and African slave labor populations. By the time Bolivia achieved independence in 1825, most of the area’s mineral wealth had been shipped to Europe, the seemingly inexhaustible mines were in sharp decline, and the city was contracting. A drop in the price of silver in the 20th century dealt a further blow to the city’s fortunes. The following century, Potosí rebounded slightly with the discovery of tin in the mines–by 1945, Bolivia produced nearly 50% of the world’s supply.
Participating in a guided tour of Cerro Rico, once the most productive of all Potosí’s silver mines, is the highlight of any visit and, for many, the most memorable experience they have in Bolivia. If you don’t like the idea of slithering your way through cramped tunnels while miners hack and blast sections of rock away in search of tin and the bits and pieces of a once vast silver vein, head to the Casa Nacional de Moneda —a massive museum that once served as Spain’s first colonial mint and later as the headquarters of the Bolivian Army during the Chaco War.
Hang out in the main plaza or take a stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets–particularly Calle Quijarro – of older neighborhoods to observe the city’s unique architecture. Take shelter from the typically brisk weather in one of Potosí’s many restored churches, which range in style from neo-classical to baroque, explore the crypts and catacombs of Iglesia de San Agustín, and take in views of the city and Cerro Rico from the city’s bell tower.
Get an education in metal refinery on a tour of the old smelters along the Río Huana Mayu, and drop your bolivianos on jewelry, precious metals, and indigenous handicrafts at Potosí’s artisanal and tourist markets.
Hotels and hostels, from budget to luxury, congregate in the vicinity of the main plaza, and the ornate buildings of in area conceal cafés and restaurants serving a mix of local and international fare. Hearty Bolivian meals can also be bought at market eateries for next to nothing. Dress warmly, as many businesses lack heating.
Popular destinations within striking distance of the city include the Lagunas del Kari Kari, a series of man-made lakes, built around 500 years ago to provide a constant flow of water to the city, where you can camp and hike among astounding scenery, and Tarapaya, to the northwest, which has natural hot springs and trekking excursions.
The Villa Imperial (as the city was known, in honor of the king of Spain) no longer counts on what it takes out of the mines, but rather what tourists put into it. Potosí displays the in dominatable spirit of its working-class, who have endured centuries of oppression and poverty, to travelers who come to tour the tunnels and take in the remnants of this once-thriving mining hub.
Other places nearby Potosí: Tarabuco, Around Cochabamba, Tarapaya, Parque Nacional Torotoro, Sucre, Quillacolo, Cochabamba and Cordillera de los Frailes.
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