Whatever bus you take in Bolivia, you are sure to hear the screams of “Potosi, Potosi, Potosiii” from the ticket touts. The call rings through the crowded terminals and chaotic streets to bring people to the right bus. The reason for hopping on the bus to Potosi is to visit the city famous for two things: it is the highest elevated city with more than 10,000 inhabitants and it is home to one of history’s highest yielding silver mines during Spanish rule.
Having planned on staying for 1 night, we ended up spending 5 days in the city and discovered the sad and frightening history of the mines, tasted the delicious food and witnessed the incredible hospitality of the locals during the Aymara New Year.
Disembarking the bus from Sucre, the first thing that hit us was how difficult it was just to walk. At 4,100 meters above sea level, even walking the small inclines seemed like trekking a mountain. The 2 minutes walk from the main square to our hostel left us huffing and puffing. A visit to the local market to pick up some coca leafs was our first stop, the rest of the day was spent acclimatising to the high altitude.
A very brief history of Potosi
Potosi was founded in the 1500s as a Spanish mining town. Local indigenous people from Bolivia and Peru, as well as African slaves, were brought to Potosi to mine Cerro Rico for Silver. The mines produced so much silver for the Spanish that the term “worth a Potosi” was used to describe something of high value and Potosi was considered the richest city in the world at the time.
The abuse of the mines and the miners left tens of thousands of people dead from many causes. Lung infections are one of the main reasons which reduced, and still reduces, the life expectancy of the miners to between 40-50 years. Child labourers were also very common, and some say they still are.
By the time Bolivia received its independence the mines were empty of all value.
These days the government has stopped funding the mines, but about a thousand miners still work as part of a cooperative. They look for less profitable metals such as lead, zinc and copper, with the hopes of maybe finding silver. However, with no health care and dangerous conditions, the miners know their faith but have no other options to earn a living wage in the city.
Tourists now come to Potosi to take guided tours of the mines and use it as a stop before or after the famous Uyuni Salt Flats.
The Silver Mines – Cerro Rico
The towering Cerro Rico dominates the city. For centuries the mountain provided wealth and security, but these days nothing more than hope keeps the mines open. Men venture into its depths of the “Rich Mountain” to earn a measly salary. However, some of the mines have been opened to tourism. Tours enter every day to show travelers the conditions and how to mine precious metals.
We came to Potosi for the mines, but after reading plenty on the topic we were unsure of the ethics of such tours. The descriptions of the working conditions, the wages, the health issues that almost certainly affect all who enter were enough to make us think twice. Steven decided to join a tour and to make up his own mind while Jenny, stood by her principles and stayed at the hostel eating plenty of Salteñas.
The tours tend to be cheaper with bigger groups, depending on negotiation skills which is why Steven joined forces with a group of French. We booked our tour with Koala Tours, which hires former miners as guides. They also have a hostel and a vegetarian café in town. At 7am they collected us from our hostel and brought us to a safety briefing before trying on our sexy overalls and helmets. We then visited the market to pick up gifts for the miners.
All tours ask to purchase gifts which can be anything from coca leafs to soda or dynamite and 96% alcohol. Yes, you can buy dynamite and pure alcohol in the same shop.
During the tour we learned how the miners work, the state of the current mine, the sacrifices and worshiping of El Tio, the “God of the underworld”.
Read our full account of the tour to the Potosi mines.
Recommended watching before visiting the mines
Movie – The Devil’s Miner – https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_devils_miner/
Vice Documentary – Bolivia’s Child Labourers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd36qxXVePU
A birdseye view of Potosi
For the best views of Cerro Rico and the city, you can climb the steps to the roof of San Francisco Church. The red tiled roof is a great place to relax in the mid-day sun and take in the city without the sounds and pollution of the buses below. While we were there, no one else came up to the roof. Sadly, the girl who let us in only seemed to want us to stay for 30 minutes and started calling for us to come down.
The Aymara New Near
Originally planning on meeting friends in Peru for the Inti Raymi festival, we instead found ourselves in Bolivia in the lead up to the important Andean New Year. While Uyuni and Tiwuanacu are famous places to witness celebrations of the new sun, many smaller and local celebrations can be found in every Bolivian town. We were lucky enough to be invited to the local celebrations just outside of Potosi.
The Aymara New Year is a celebration welcoming the sun, therefore the party starts very early in the morning to be sure to see the sunrise. At 4 am we gathered on top of a mountain with locals dressed in traditional clothing and preparing 96% alcohol cocktails. During the 4 hours on top of the mountain; we danced, took part in Aymaran sacrifices to Pachamama, witnessed the slaughtering of a Llama and drank pure alcohol. An incredible experience that is unlikely to be forgotten.
What to eat
Salteñas is a type of Empañada that can be found in the northern part of Argentina (region of Salta) and in the whole country of Bolivia. Filled with chicken or meat, and vegetables, the Salteñas are sweet with a little bit of spice. Pure Perfection!
In our opinion, the best Salteñas in all of Bolivia can be found in Potosi. Our friend over at He Needs Food once again found a gem. The unmarked Salteña shop is only open from 11 am, but expect queues of locals to start gathering at 10.30. That has to be a good sign. The Salteñas here are smaller than others we have tried, but that’s ok because they sell them by the half dozen.
Otherwise, Potosi isn’t a culinary hub, but it does have many delicious fried chicken shops and a small but decent central market to pick up fresh fruit and veg or a cheap menu del dia. Try the chicken, chips and juice combo or take a seat in a cafe to get your Coca Tea fix, essential while in Potosi.
Other things to do in Potosi
Plaza 10 de Noviembre
Being at altitude means two things, you will be fatigued and the nights will be very cold. But the good news is that the days are warm, which is a great excuse to sit around the central square relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. Take in the shoe shiners, the photographers using ancient cameras, the zebras directing traffic and the Cholitas.
As Casa Blanca hostel had a kitchen, we ventured down to Mercado central to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. For those who like to know where their food comes from, visit the meat section. There you will find everything from whole sheep carcasses to lungs hanging from poles, bowls our hearts and every piece of meat imaginable. Outside, meet the zebras directing traffic or the ladies selling goats cheese.
While under Spanish rule Potosi was home to the Spanish Colonial Mint where silver coins for use around the empire were produced. The Casa Nacional de la Moneda is the place to learn more about the history of the silver production and use.
Where to stay in Potosi
Recommended by many backpackers while in Sucre, the Hostel Casa Blanca is a hit. A bit expensive but the hostel has a nice vibe and is a good place to meet people. We will forever recommend this hostel because the owner was so nice to invite us to the new year celebrations just as we were thinking of leaving. Other than Casa Blanca the options are limited to some forsaken hostals. Best to give them a call to make sure they have availability.
Costs and Useful Information
Exchange rate (avg. June-August 2017) : €1 = 7.82 Bs
Bus Sucre – Potosi: Bs 10 (€1.28) pp
Local bus from terminal to main square: Bs 1.50 (€0.20) pp
Bus Potosi – Uyuni: Bs 25 (€3.20) pp
Tour of the mines: Bs 100 (€14.29) pp
Gifts for the miners: Bs 19 (€2.71)
San Francisco Convent Entrance: Bs 20 (€2.55) pp
Hostel Casa Blanca – private room: Bs 140 (€17.90) pn
Hostel Casa Blanca – dorm room: Bs 58 (€3.51) pp/pn
6 Salteñas: Bs 15 (€2.14)
** note that all the links we add are FYI. We are not remunerated by either the companies/organisations, nor per click.
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