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Potosi Bolivia

Potosí, Bolivia


of silver and salt

Legend says that when the Inca Huayna Kapac sent men to work on the Sumaj Orko hill, a frightful thundering sound was heard and a voice followed, saying “get out of here, for this richness will belong to others.” When the laborers told the story to the Inca, they used the Aymara word potojsi, which means “to explode”. This occurred 83 years before the arrival of the Spaniards to Potosí.

At 4,067 metres above sea level precisely at the central plaza, Potosí is dealt a cold and dry climate, with only an 8 degree centigrade average temperature (47ºF). With its 132,000 inhabitants, Potosí shares with Llassa the honor as the highest city in the world. Both Potosí and its hill Cerro Rico have been named as World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

During the Colony, at the height of silver exploitation, Potosí had more inhabitants than the great European capitals of the time. With the plummeting of silver prices in the middle of the nineteenth century (the Spaniards had gotten out just in time), Potosí was obligated to mine tin and other minerals. The architecture of its buildings, the layout of its streets, and other styles and traits of those colonial periods are still evident in today’s Potosí.


I am rich Potosí
Treasure of the world
King of all mountains
And the envy of kings

Thus reads the slogan on the city’s first coat of arms and it wasn’t far off the mark. But then, any city with a mountain of silver in its backyard is sure to cop some attention. As a matter of fact, the Spanish still have a saying “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) for something incredibly rich.

A good example is the city of San Luis Potosí in central Mexico where silver was discovered in the 1600s. San Luis, however never did live up to its Bolivian namesake. Even as far away as China, the name signified wealth and the mythical city of riches in Chinese legend came to be known as Bei Du Xi after the real city of riches in Bolivia. That one probably didn’t measure up either.

No-one really knows how much silver was extracted from the mountain and carted off to Spain but a popular boast of the day was that they could have built a silver bridge to Europe and had some left to carry across on it. It goes without saying then that most all of the shiny stuff saw its way across the ocean...

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So Potosí was once the largest, wealthiest city in the Americas. It now has the air of a dignified, but destitute old man showing the signs of a decadent past. All around are reminders of its silver-mining past, from the many crumbling old colonial buildings, to the massive mint, where the silver was smelted into coins for the Spanish Crown. Towering over the city is the giant pink hulk of Cerro Rico – Rich Mountain – from which the silver was extracted. Visitors can burrow down into its bowels through a series of tunnels and shafts, meet the devil face to face, and experience what life was like many centuries ago for those who were forced to enter the ‘Mouth of Hell’.

Potosí is one of the saddest and fascinating places you’ll ever experience in Bolivia.

click here to openPotosí – Historical Sketch

Chroniclers write that in 1545, the Indian Diego Huallpa, in search of a lost llama, has to spend the night on the hill. To fight off the intense cold he builds a bonfire. The heat of the fire smelts the minerals, leaving threads of pure silver.

This discovery convinces Captain Juan de Villaroel to forget about exploiting the mines of Porco (known since Inca times) and move his operations to Potosí as a throng of other people also rush to Cerro Rico. Within a short time, dwellings and streets are improvised and a mining encampment springs up, in time becoming the city of Potosí. The age of silver will continue up through the middle of the seventeenth century.

Viceroy Francisco Toledo arrives in Potosí in 1572. This great organizer re-implements the “mita” system. The mita was an Aymara-Quechua system of collective labor in which each community had to lend a proportional amount of service in the realm of public works. Institutionalized by the Incas, the mita was distorted to fit the motives of Viceroy Toledo, transforming it into a new tributary system in which the Andean ayllus (communities) provided free labor to the Spanish colonial administration.

In 1573, the first contingent of mitayos assigns more than 3,000 Indians to labor in the mines, construct mills and dredge lagoons. With the Spanish colonial abuse of the mita system, thousands or hundreds of thousands of Indians will die in the following decades.

Mining production in Potosí serves to enrich the Spanish Crown, promote the arts, building, and territorial expansion. In Potosí money is coined for the rest of the world, the finest Chinese and Persian silks are sold, pearls from Ceylon... according to the chronicler, Bartolome Arzans de Orzua.

So great is Potosí’s importance for Carlos V that he calls it the Villa Imperial and provides it with a coat of arms. Workshops of painters, sculptors, wood carvers, silversmiths, architects and musicians begin to thrive.

But a long period of recession is in store. Certain events serve as omens for the future. There are natural catastrophes and internal struggles such as a protracted street war between different Spanish factions from 1620 to 1641.

The inevitable crisis finally erupts in 1651 with a huge devaluation of the peso, with an ensuing socio-political reform that leads to the abolishing of the mita in 1691. Could it be that this system of silver exploitation can only function with forced labor? For with the rise in the cost of labor and production costs comes a parallel decline in the quality of the product, and the economic woes that accompany such happenings.

But Potosí will have a new boom (although of less magnitude as the first one) during the second half of the eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century mining activity is once more in crisis due to the independence wars and the decline in silver prices. But tin, which was known about but despised during the colonial period, is to rehabilitate the mining economy and corollary economic activity in Potosí. In 1879, with the War of the Pacific, Potosí loses its ports and a large part of its original territory. Finally, with the Chaco War (1932) and the 1952 revolution, the decline of mining activity in Potosí is hastened.



Touring the City

Just wandering around the center of Potosí is fascinating in itself and will take you past many colonial buildings. While Viceroy Toledo tried to bring order to the city’s layout in 1574, the boom had led to fast and unplanned development which has left Potosí with a less-than-gridiron plan full of small streets with unexpected twists and turns – including the Pasaje de las Siete Vueltas (Seven Turn Passage), off Junín – which adds to the city’s charm. There are lots of beautiful and ornate religious buildings well-worth seeing – during the colonial period there were 32 churches in the city. An active restoration project is permanently going on, organized by the city council and the Spanish Cooperation Agency, but there is a lot of work to do – the city boasts more than 2,000 colonial buildings.

Our tour of the city may well begin in the central plaza as it is surrounded by some of the city’s best buildings. Museo de Santa Teresa, Convento de San Francisco, Torre de la Compañía, Convento de las Monicas, Portal of San Lorenzo, Portal of the Marquis of Otavi, and of course the Casa de la Moneda (see collapsible panel below) are just a few of the recommended sightseeing stops.

click here to openCasa de la Moneda (Imperial Mint House)

The Casa de la Moneda (Royal Mint) is unquestionably the most important example of civilian colonial architecture in South America. It was constructed between 1753 and 1773 by Salvador de Villa, who had designed Mexico’s and Lima’s mint buildings as well. In this structure, carved stone, brick, wood and iron are combined in harmony. This was the strategic center for coining money to be sent to Spain.

Today it is a museum that includes halls on coinage, paintings, colonial archives (with more than 80,000 unedited documents), coining machinery of the age, as well as important collections of coining dies. Between the obvious tangible exhibits is the history of brutal exploitation of men and beasts in the dungeons where the machinery was operated around the clock. There is also the sad irony of the history of Bolivia, which now has its money minted in Europe in spite of the severe unemployment in the Potosí region, a point the Casa de la Moneda guides are quick to emphasize.

Notable is the hall of lamination, with its three enormous wooden gears brought all the way from Spain, the thick cedar beams which support the floors and roofs, the impressive foundry oven and its elliptical ceiling.

The smiling mask that adorns the entrance of Casa de la Moneda is possibly no more than a grotesque attachment, placed there at the outset of the Independence War to cover up what was likely a royal coat of arms.



El Cerro Rico – The Mountain that Eats Men

We have a saying in Potosí:

“We eat the mountain
and the mountain eats us.”

This is no hyperbole. In the 450 years since Spanish Conquistadores started forcing locals to extract silver from the mountain, an estimated 8 million people have died in this one mine. Miners are near the bottom of the social strata but were instrumental in making the city of Potosí one of the richest and most populous in the world in the past and today, support the multi-million US dollar business of our contemporary mineral industry.

Despite –or because of– the shocking conditions, a visit to the mines within Cerro Rico is possibly one of the most eye-opening and rewarding experience of your whole Bolivia trip.

click here to openEl Cerro Rico – Potosí Mine Tours

Towering over the city like a giant pink headstone is the 4,824 m Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). Silver from this mountain made Potosí the biggest city in the Americas and one of the richest in the world, rivaled only by Paris, London and Seville. But Cerro Rico also claimed the lives of countless Indian slaves.

This painful history still haunts the city and is as much a part of its colonial legacy as the many magnificent old buildings which led it to be declared Patrimony of Mankind by UNESCO in 1987. Anything that is incredibly lucrative has come to be known in Spanish as un Potosí, but though Potosí’s wealth is now only a distant memory, it remains one of Bolivia’s greatest attractions and is certainly well worth a visit.

As a fitting complement to the circuit of the city, you may want to accompany the miners who work in Cerro Rico, sharing a moment of their harsh life, and experiencing their customs and rituals in the interior of this historic and tragic mountain.

El Cerro Rico is the symbol of the era of silver and the reason for visiting Potosí. It was overexploited through the centuries, although incredibly the miners are still extracting minerals from this amazing spot on the earth, mainly tin and zinc. Today most of the legendary tin mines have passed into the hands of cooperatives and private enterprises, but the same workers continue working the lodes, in conditions that have hardly changed since the colonial period.

Cerro Rico’s extraordinary fame is no exaggeration, for no other spot on earth has produced more silver throughout the history of mining, and it still possesses enormous potential for yet more mineral discoveries. The enormous multi-metal deposit was exploited for four and a half centuries. In all, 5,000 silver mineshafts have been worked in Cerro Rico alone, without counting the lodes of tin that gained importance in the world economy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some thirty minutes from the center of the city we arrive at one of the mining camps, where we are given a mining helmet, head lamp and boots, for what will be the singular experience of exploring through the dark, hot and humid mine shafts.

Even in our high tech era we won’t find much improvement in the living and working conditions of the miners. One recalls the early eighteenth century chronicles of Bartolomé Arzans de Orzua and his meticulous portrait of working the mountain:

“...rebounding echoes of the clinking hammers, with the confusion and intolerable work from one man to the next, and the frightful thunder of powder blasts, such noise must resemble the horrible sounds of hell...”

Today’s miners continue with interminable workdays, often paid on a piecework basis. Since pay thus depends on how much ore is collected during the day, ten-hour workdays are commonplace. Some hammer out the interior of the mountain while others haul blocks of ore out by wheelbarrow. The dark shafts are low and narrow, with the miners spending most of their day in a hunched position. To this add the strange sensations that envelop us: the dwindling sense of time, the air lacking in oxygen but heavy with dust, the bewildering heat, the total loss of a sense of direction in the labyrinth of tunnels. This is still tourism but it’s no Club Med.

The miners’ relationship to their mountain is remarkable. They chew the coca leaf to combat hunger and fatigue, making offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Tío or Supay (a malicious spirit, yet at the same time a protector). Each morning, in the depths of the mine, the miners render homage to their contradictory protector.

Meanwhile, the miners’ wives work outside the shaft, gathering the refuse and gravel that may still be processed for the extraction of a worthy mineral. Sons and daughters of the miners lend a hand as well, each as he or she can according to their ages, for earnings are slim and every contribution helps the family subsist.

After returning to the fresh air from this extraordinary experience, the visitor cannot refrain from a sigh of relief. Could all this effort be worth it?



Important note

About the Nature of our Mine Tours in Potosí

There is a lot of debate that surrounds the (un)ethical and voyeuristic nature of the mine tours in Potosí, let alone the tours’ safety. But for the miners who guide our tours and dozens of others, it is a lifeline that has helped them get out of working the mines and given them the opportunity to live past their 45th birthday.

If you are unsure about the mine being used as a tourist attraction, especially in light of the number of people who have died in the mines over the years, think of the tour as an enlightening and humbling educational experience.

There is a vicious cycle of poverty in Potosi and at this point we are not sure whether tourism truly is hurting or helping the families, but we feel the best way to understand Potosi’s community is to record its underbelly, the daily life of families, and the miners surviving day to day by whatever means necessary. You may then decide for yourself whether the best way to understand the mines is to experience them in person or alternatively, through another of our tours for people who don't like tours.

Please feel free to contact us for more information about our responsible tourism policy.


What to do around Potosí

To/from Tupiza – Welcome to the WWWest

In the southern tip of Bolivia, some 90 km away from the Argentinean border and 256 km south of Potosí, Tupiza feels like a town out of a far west movie.

Set in spectacular countryside, Tupiza is the capital of the Sud Chichas province within the Potosí Department. The city lies in the valley of the Río Tupiza, and is surrounded by rugged scenery – weird eroded rainbow-colored rocks cut by tortuous, gravelly quebradas (ravines, usually dry) whose slopes are studded with cactus. The colorful jagged mountains are imposing, and incite a feeling of the Wild West, with the Río Tupiza the only adversary to break through the landscape.

Tupiza has a lot to offer the traveler. Explore the surrounding hills and canyons on horseback, check out where the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid story ended or embark on a tour of the Southwest Circuit to Uyuni, a route that’s attracting growing numbers of travelers.

The climate is mild year-round, with most of the rain falling between November and March. From June to August, days are hot, dry and clear, but nighttime temperatures can drop to below freezing.

Tupiza is accessible from Villazón to the south (and thereby both Argentina and Tarija) and Potosí to the north.

To/from the Salar de Uyuni and Sud Lípez

To the southwest of Potosi one encounters eerily beautiful scenery. Lodging in local nunneries or even in the spartan local hotels of Uyuni is part of the adventure, which lasts from two days and up to a week or more. The engaging trip from Potosi to Uyuni takes five hours, passing through small mining settlements and solitary villages, in the midst of mountain terrain and fertile mesothermic valleys, until arrival on the arid high plain of Uyuni. This remote and spectacular region of white deserts, icebound volcanic peaks and mineral-stained lakes is home to a surprising array of wildlife, including great flocks of pink flamingos and herds of vicuñas.

See also Uyuni, Bolivia - Salt Flats and Sud Lípez in this website


Potosí is located in the southwestern part of Bolivia.


Potosí is best combined with a trip to Uyuni and Sucre, and is also accessible from Oruro, Tarija and Tupiza.

Through our intimate, small-group tours and private expeditions in this area you will be able to visit sites most tourists, even seasoned travelers, never find.

Join us on a discovery of a lifetime in Potosí.

Check our selected excursions in this area:


incl. Tarabuco Indian Market & Silver Mines
{ short bolivia excursion - fully customizable }

The following packages also include this area
among other destinations.


Santa Cruz / Sucre / Potosí / La Paz
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }


Santa Cruz / Cochabamba / Sucre / La Paz
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }


Santa Cruz / Sucre / Potosí / Uyuni / Sud Lípez / La Paz / Lake Titicaca
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }


Santa Cruz / Sucre / Potosí / Uyuni / La Paz
{ special itinerary - small group travel }

Feel free to customize any travel package according to your own personal interests and the specific activities you expect...

Join us on one of our Natural History Tours or a Cultural Exploration into the heart of South America. Our programs are offered throughout the year, on a (very) small group basis and mostly in private.

You may also want to make an enquiry or design your own program of activities in this area.

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You may also check other Special Interest Travel and unusual tours or expeditions around Bolivia, including:

• La Paz, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca
• Uyuni Salt Flats & Sud Lípez Red & Green Lagoons
• Colonial Cities of Sucre and Potosí
• Central, Inter-Andean Valleys of Cochabamba
• Santa Cruz - the Lowlands & Jesuit Missions
• Bolivian Rainforests & Amazon Basin
• Cuzco & Machu Picchu Extensions

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