Ethical Potosí: The worlds highest city is more than just mining tours

The tale of Potosí is a coin with two very contrasting sides, one of joy and opulence and one of unimaginable pain and poverty.
Cerro Rico, the name of the mountain that looms over Potosi, translates literally to rich hill. It was named such for the vast amounts of silver that once ran through her veins. During the 1600’s enough silver to bankroll the entire Spanish empire was extracted, which is thought to have contributed to over 50% of the total silver mined during the boom of that era. However, with great reward comes great risk. The saying goes that you could build a bridge to Spain with the amount of silver that has been taken from Cerro Rico, and beside it you could build a bridge of bones from the bodies of the men who have lost their lives extracting it.

We didn’t really know if we wanted to visit Potosí, we’d met several people who’d been and said it was a must in order to visit the silver mines and see the terribly dangerous conditions people were working in. To get a 1st hand tour inside “The Mountain That Eats People”. It’s thought that since 1545 over 8 million (mostly native Americans then later, once the death toll began claiming too many workers, imported African slaves) have perished inside the mines due to unsafe working conditions and degenerative lung diseases such as silicosis. To me, using the misfortune of others for my entertainment really didn’t sit well. Not to mention the numerous health and safety risks that came along with crawling through a crumbling swiss cheese mountain, filled with toxic dust and propped up by ancient wooden struts. However, I was curious to see the city romanticised throughout history as a city of great riches. Now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site at risk of destruction through irresponsible mining and referred to in stories condemning child labour in Bolivia.

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The view of Cerro Rico and Potosí from the roof of San Francisco Convent

We arrived to the city expecting to be greeted by extremely shabby conditions. We like to watch documentaries on youtube before arriving in a place to get a better idea of history, culture etc so after our Potosí viewing we had images of extreme poverty and hardship. To our surprise the people we met seemed friendlier than in the north of Bolivia and the streets had a kind of shabby sheik charm to them.
We checked into the Koala Den Hostel around 4.30pm, so decided that in order to get a full day in Potosí we would stay 2 nights before heading to Uyuni. If you are travelling from Sucre to Uyuni the easiest way is to change buses in Potosí and from what we experienced, even without the mines, it’s a pretty city to stop for a day or two.

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4060 is a popular choice of restaurant with locals and tourists

There are a couple of nice restaurants, we enjoyed both of our dinners at a restaurant called 4060 (which is how many metres above sea level we were). The 1st time we went the power was out so walking into a quiet, dark restaurant we weren’t immediately convinced it was a good choice, but seeing over half the tables had reserved signs on them we went for it! After filling up on beer and delicious BBQ burgers we were gluttonously convinced we’d made the right choice. Total bill for two litres of Potosina (the local drop), 2 burgers and mushroom soup set us back $115 bob ($21aud) including tip. But the feeling of satisfaction after a long days travel on the Ferrobus (which is another story) was priceless!

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The entryway to the National Mint of Bolivia is overseen by this creepy mask, the subject of which is greatly speculated. Some say it is Baccus the God of wine and intoxication, some say it is a cartoon of an old president and others believe it is a symbol mocking the greed of the Spanish. Our guide pointed out there are two halves to the face, one nice and one sinister. He feels this is reflective of the two sides to the people of Potosí.

The next morning we joined the 10.30 English speaking tour of the National Mint of Bolivia. Lonely Planet marks this as one of the most interesting museums in South America and states that the Spanish speaking tour is much more interesting and complete, but with our comprehension of the language the English tour made more sense.

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One of the scenes from the mint showing a worker using more modern techniques to mint coins

The museum itself is set in the actual mint which was built in 1753 (replacing the mint from 1572) and is huge, consisting of over 200 rooms and taking up an entire block. The displays inside include treasures from eras past crafted from antique silver and beautiful religious paintings. What I found truely fascinating were the rooms that had been set up to look just as they did when the mint was in use, smelting and pressing coins. The most impressive of which is complete with the ancient wooden machines that were used to flatten the silver ingots to the desired thickness.


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These giant pressing machines were used for over 500 years, later being replaced by smaller, more efficient steam powered devices
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The massive cogs above were turned by 4 mules of the floor below

It was mad to think that during its peak in the early 17th century over 170,000 inhabitants made this city bigger than Saville, London or Milan at the time. This swell in populous happened in just 70 years and although passage to the altiplano was sparsely granted, sailors were taking jobs on merchant ships only to jump passage upon arrival. They were desperate for a taste of the riches of Potosí. This combined with the influx of Andean natives and black slaves shipped in to work the silver meant the city was brimming with makeshift houses and conditions were terrible. However this relatively unknown part of the world went on to become the birthplace of capitalism and changed the face of the world forever. It also fell as fast as it had risen. By the end of the 17th century the silver stream was thought depleted and the population had fallen back to 60,000. The stories our guide told us, combined with the smell of the place (and a little imagination) really transported me back to a time where slaves were worked to death by the wealthy, and pirates sailed the seven seas in search of ships brimming with silver.

I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of all mountains and envy of kings
– Inscribed on the city’s crest

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During the 1700’s many ships went down, this means there is still treasure being found to this day! Most recently the Spanish galleon San Jose off the coast of Columbia

We also enjoyed our trip to San Francisco Convent, founded in 1547 it was the oldest convent in Bolivia. The current building was rebuilt in the 1700’s and can be visited with a guided tour each day from 9-12.30 and from 3-6pm. We went in the afternoon to enjoy the view from the roof over Potosí as the sun dipped low into the sky. Looking out over the city over the roof of the convent is beautiful, the best view in the city.

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The Jesus statue within the main alter of the Church has real hair which is thought to miraculously grow… Weird

The tour is only 20bob per person which also takes you through the church to visit the famous statue of Christ and below into the catacombs. The bones in the catacombs have been thoughtfully arranged into creepy displays, including a skull in a monks robe and a treasure chest full of skulls.

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Bones laid out in a coffin carrier in the catacombs of San Francisco Convent

Wandering the streets of Potosí is a treat in itself, here are some photos from our visit…

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All in all, if you find yourself heading to Uyuni from sucre (or vice versa) make sure you stop for a day in Potosí. It’s a charming city with a rich history which makes it arguably the most important city in the world to the current economic system.

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The view from the roof of San Francisco Convent

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