Visiting one of the world’s highest cities – Potosí, Bolivia

Famous for its silver mines and an altitude of over 4000m, Potosí was the second stop in Bolivia on our tour with Dragoman. Roughly a three hour drive from Sucre, we would definitely recommend a day trip to learn about the city’s history as ‘the birthplace of capitalism’.

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Potosí existed as a small Incan hamlet until the mid 1500s, when it was industrialised at a rapid rate by Spanish colonisers – in 70 years becoming the fourth largest city in the Christian world, with a population larger than those of London or Madrid at the time. The city and its mines were responsible for 60% of all silver production in the world during the second half of the 16th century.

For the powerful emperor, for the wise king, this lofty mountain of silver could conquer the world.” – King Felipe II

Whilst its silver production is revered, we must also acknowledge the devastating effects this had on the local population – labour in the mines was carried out by Inca villagers who suffered and often died in the dangerous conditions. When the population started to diminish, the Spanish then turned to Africa and used enslaved people to continue the increasing rates of production. Potosí supplied the world with the material required in an age of increasing capitalism, but the damaging effects of precious metal extraction on the land and the people of the Americas cannot be ignored.

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the SIlver mines

The main reason travellers visit the city is to scale through the mine networks, and that is exactly what I (Elliot) did. Cost: approximately £13 (120BOB).

The half day tour began with purchasing some coca leaves* and dynamite (yes, dynamite) from a local store on the hills. These items were given to the miners currently working underground, all except for one stick of dynamite that was saved for us to detonate. Unfortunately, the mining work in Potosí is still very dangerous due to the lack of protective equipment, so many workers are at risk of lung disease or sections of the mine collapsing. Our guide also gave us some ‘Cocoroco’ to be used as an offering to the Pachamama, Mother Earth, whilst in the network of tunnels. This turned out to be a 96% alcoholic drink made from sugar cane. It smelt like paint stripper.

*note that coca leaves are legal in Bolivia and are traditionally chewed in order to reduce the effects of altitude sickness.

Before entering the network of tunnels, we took a tour through the machinery above ground that is still used today to refine the ores from the mines. At this point, our guide decided it was the perfect opportunity to blow up a part of the mountain with the left-over dynamite.

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We descended into the mine via an old ladder one by one and proceeded to crawl through the tunnels.

Our route took us through some increasingly tight tunnels. After a quick stop to talk to a miner, we made it to the ritual site. The statue of the Pachamama is in view in the hope of providing good fortune and safety to the workers, an old Incan tradition.

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considerations for those that are visiting

  • Do not enter the mine if you have any respiratory conditions or are claustrophobic (some of the tunnels are very, very narrow).
  • This mine is many of the local’s livelihoods, carry yourself with respect when in and around the area.
  • Tip your guide, if they weren’t taking your tour then they’d probably be working in the mine.
  • Think carefully about how this affects the locals. As tourists we were able to enter the mines solely for the experience, whereas this is something the workers have to do every day to provide for themselves and their families.
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beyond the mines

For those among us who aren’t so good with confined spaces (like me, Ellie), Potosí is also home to the Royal Mint of Bolivia. The walk through the city to find it showcased narrow streets and colonial architecture, and some beautiful views of the Cerro Rico mountain in the background.

The Mint itself is beautiful, a UNESCO-listed building that spans an entire block. After the departure of the Spanish, production ceased and the Mint has since been used as a prison, and even an army headquarters. Today, a guided tour is available for 60BOB (approx. £6.50), including a camera fee which allows you to take photos inside. The tour was excellent, taking us through various sections of the Mint to first see an art collection currently housed there, and later to workshops where the coins were made. The wooden machines used to flatten and cut the metal have been preserved to this day thanks to the arid climate in the southern highlands. The grand scale of the Mint and all that has been preserved inside it really gives the impression of the opulence of Potosí’s heyday as one of the richest cities in the world. In colonial times, its reputation spread, with a saying: ‘valer un potosí’ (to be worth a fortune) being coined to represent the scale of the operation.

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Final thoughts

Potosí was not initially on either of our lists of places to visit, but after learning about its history we would both recommend a visit/day trip to find out more for yourself if you’re near Sucre or travelling through the South. With such an important history that affected the rest of the world as we know it, reflecting on the not-so-glamorous aspects of its effects on the local population and land definitely reinforced our responsibility as tourists to travel with empathy and respect…

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do you have any off the beaten track locations you wouldn’t miss? let us know in the comments!

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