Potosi is an ancient mining city that saw rapid expansion after the discovery of silver and tin in the 16th century; it’s also one of the highest cities in the world, found at 4,090 metres above sea level.
Away from the mines, Potosi is full of winding streets lined with grand churches and ornate architecture, including crumbling colonial mansions and the former national mint. Potosi’s slightly dilapidated charm makes for a fascinating destination on any itinerary through Bolivia; Potosi holidays offer a different perspective on the country, and being just three hours’ drive from either Sucre or the Uyuni salt flats means holidays combining multiple highlights are easy to arrange.
The city was once the largest in the Americas, however, after the 20th-century collapse in the metal market the need for mining all but dried up, leaving behind a poor community high up in the Andes, with few prospects for future development. The city’s good fortune once bankrolled the Spanish empire, at a time when the mining community boomed and the metal in the hills of Cerro Rico – meaning ‘rich hill’ – seemed almost inexhaustible. Today, though the mining of ore, tin, lead and other minerals has dwindled, the hills around the city are still mined – it’s a far cry from the provincial years that saw the city proclaim upon its first coat of arms: ‘I am rich Potosi, the treasure of the world.’ Conditions in the mines have barely improved from the cruel environments suffered by the 13,000 indigenous men forced to work in the mines during its heyday, though it remains a vital resource for a city struggling to survive – and tours of the mines display just how treacherous the job is even today.
Potosi’s story is rarely heard outside of Bolivia, and it’s a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in the history of Latin America and its once-booming mining industry.