Nowhere else in South America have we felt more emotional than in Potosi. A source of immense wealth for the Spanish has resulted in an equally immense pain for the indigenous population. This mixed legacy remains clearly on display in this unique Bolivian city and undoubtedly, no understanding of South American history can be complete without visiting Potosi.
And only to imagine that we would have skipped the city altogether if not for it being conveniently located on our way from Uyuni to Sucre.
Somehow Potosi is not on top of the list of the gringo trail and many travelers visiting Bolivia opt to follow the Uyuni – Sucre route (or vice versa), which makes sense if you’re on a tight schedule. However, if you have an extra day or two, love to learn about history and want to see a different side of Bolivia, I believe Potosi is worth the detour.
- Read more: Our Uyuni Salt Flats Tour with Cruz Andina
Here are 5 reasons why you should consider adding Potosi to your Bolivia itinerary.
1 – A glimpse into Potosi’s past
If you have never heard of Potosi, I can’t blame you. Back in the 16th century, however, Potosi was one of the most important and influential cities in the world, with as much wealth and an equally large population as London and Paris. The reason for its wealth? Location of a mountain – Cerro Rico – filled with silver that is still being mined 600 years later.
Over time, as profitability of the silver mining has declined, so has the riches of the city. Potosi is now only a shadow of its former glorious self but its well preserved and ostentatious colonial architecture remains. So does the source of its past wealth – Cerro Rico. Visiting both is an essential way to witness the legacy (good, bad and ugly) of colonial times.
2 – Into the dark
Taking a tour inside Cerro Rico is one of the most popular activities in Potosi. Despite the fact that Cerro Rico was the largest industrial complex of the Spanish colonial empire, working conditions in the mines have changed little since then.
Today, hundreds of workers continue to risk their life digging what mainly remains today: tin, zinc, copper and lead. The tour takes you inside a mine where you can put yourself in the shoes of the miners, walk along the narrow and dark tunnels and interact with them.
If you’re able to cope with confined dark spaces, you’ll be in for a truly eye-opening and humbling experience.
3 – The significance of Potosi to the Spanish empire
Casa Nacional de la Moneda is a beautiful and impressive building where the silver from Cerro Rico was turned into coins and shipped off to Spain. It now houses a museum with 20 galleries showcasing religious art, collections of colonial coins and the original wooden minting machines.
In combination with the tour in the mines, you’ll get a full picture of the effort, labour and sacrifice that went into making coins and the role played by Potosi in funding the expansion of the Spanish empire.
4 – See it now or regret it later
Potosi is full of masterpieces of colonial architecture and artworks blending Baroque-like style with indigenous motifs that have remained untouched. Famous landmarks like San Francisco Church, La Compania and San Lorenzo, as well as the cathedral and the cabildo give you a glimpse into the city’s past grandeur and wealth.
Potosi was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 but in 2014 it was added to List of World Heritage in Danger due to the potential degradation of the historic side by the mining operations, risk of collapse of the Cerro Rico and deficiencies in conservation.
It is hard to know what the future holds for Potosi in the next few years but one thing is certain: it won’t look the same.
5 – A hidden gem off the typical tourist trail
Potosi can be considered an off-the-beaten-path destination and it is definitely less visited than Sucre, for instance. For that reason, we felt Potosi was definitely more affordable and “authentic”. We could count with one hand the number of foreigners we came across on the streets. Most of the people were locals carrying on with their lives (no aggressive touts or pestering towards tourists like we’ve seen in other major cities).
Useful Information and tips for your Potosi visit
– Potosi is perched at 4,200 meters above sea level. At the first sign of altitude sickness, chew coca leaves or buy altitude sickness pills. Walk slowly and avoid strenuous activities.
– Casa de la Moneda offers tours in English and Spanish – the whole visit can take up to 3 hours. Wear warm clothes as it gets cold inside. Closed on Mondays.
– Taking the Mine Tour is absolutely not for anyone suffering from asthma, claustrophobia or for those not acclimatized to the altitude. Ask around a few tour operators before you decide on one as quality and price may vary. Our tour operator was Altiplano Agencia de Viajes y Turismo de Aventura located in Ayacucho Street N 19 (in front of Casa de Moneda)
How long should I stay in Potosi?
If you plan to visit Casa de la Moneda and Cerro Rico, you’ll probably want to stay at least two nights.
Where to stay in Potosi
We booked our stay at Hostal San Marcos. Close to the city center and budget-friendly. All rooms have private bathrooms. Check reviews here.
Browse all Potosi hotels here.
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