A February 2007 trip
to Potosi by SeenThat
Quote: Sitting on a silver mountain, Potosi was the biggest and richest city in the Americas; nowadays, it’s a memorial to the slaves who died mining.
At an altitude of 4070 meters above the seal level, Potosi is – amazingly – almost four hundred meters above Lhasa, Tibet’s capital and thus probably is the highest city in the world. Actually the miners’ neighborhoods climb Cerro Rico well above the 4200 meters line. It was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico by the Spaniards and by the end of the eighteenth century, more than a million people lived there; the biggest and most glamorous city in the Americas.
At the 19th century silver production waned and decline began. Nowadays, hardly 120 thousand Quechua people live in poverty, trying to scratch out enough minerals to live a miserable life. Little of the former splendor is left, since most of the old structures were made of adobe and melted back to earth once they were abandoned. However, over two thousand colonial buildings still exist in the city, including twenty-two artificial lakes constructed to make the mills used in the silver processing work.
The almost only visible hint to the former splendor is the churches; sixteen major churches survive in the downtown area. Mostly built in Baroque style with Mestizo influences, they provide the best views of Potosi at its peak. Around the city center, live the poor miners neighborhoods and beyond them are the huts belonging to farmers that run away from the countryside poverty, exchanging it by a worse fate.
Potosi’s main attractions are the silver mines and the Casa de la Moneda (The Coining House). The mines are operated nowadays by cooperatives and it is possible to visit them and see the miners in work; their idols – plastic representations of Satan, the ruler of the depths – and the daily offerings the miners give them, provide a fascinating view into their spiritual world. The Casa de la Moneda is the best museum in Bolivia, and maybe in the whole continent; it hosts a significant art collection beyond the obvious collection of coins and the machinery for their production.
Potosi can get very cold at night; it is worthy to check how many blankets the hotel provides. Heating is available only at upscale hotels and even then, Bolivian Highlanders define anything above the water freezing point as warm and cozy. As in La Paz, packs of wild dogs take control over the city during the nights and early mornings; they should be avoided.
The few blocks surrounding the central plaza follow a regular grid pattern; however, beyond that things get awry and finding the way can be tricky. A map is recommended. Potosi is surrounded by many attractions. The Uyuni’s Salt Lake is a major one and can be reached in two or three-day trips. A two days one costs forty dollars and includes little more than a drive over the salt plains. The three days trip includes the "Laguna Colorada" (Red Lake) and the "Laguna Verde" (Green Lake); two geothermic formations who offer strange landscapes and a colony of flamingos that arrived from the Pacific Ocean coast and got trapped here due to unfavorable air currents. The last option costs eighty-five dollars.
Another option is the Kari Kari Trek. The walk begins at the city outskirts and descends to the lower valleys through an astonishing landscape. A one-day trip costs twenty dollars and takes seven hours; while a more extensive two days trip costs forty dollars. If leaving the city towards Argentina; it is worthwhile to plan a stop at Tupiza, halfway to the border. The little town is placed in a narrow alley amidst gorgeous red mountains. It offers a reasonable tourism infrastructure and local agents can help to arrange treks in the area.
Sucre – Bolivia’s constitutional capital – is three hours away by bus, or two by car, and offers an unspoiled colonial look. Despite the government not being there – it moved to La Paz a century ago – the town hosts many important national monuments in relaxed surroundings. If leaving for Cochabamba, a good idea is to stop over in Sucre, at least for a few hours. It is not a good idea to bring a digital camera with a mouse to the mines; they are so dusty that the mouse may get obstructed.
Potosi can be reached with flights from La Paz and Cochabamba, or with buses from all the other cities in southern Bolivia. The last option is quite uncomfortable since buses are sporadically stopped and searched for illegal substances by the local police. Moreover, unexplained identity checks are performed regularly; holding your documents handy at all times is imperative.
The city centre is small and easily accessible by foot. Any other option will spoil the views of colonial buildings. However, an antiquated but extensive system of buses still exists and taxis are inexpensive (a quarter within the downtown area).
Travel agencies provide private transport to the lakes, to the mines and to Uyuni, though the last is readily accessible from the main bus-terminal. Tours to the salt lake can be arranged from Uyuni.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 2, 2008
Attraction | "Casa Nacional de la Moneda"
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 15, 2007
Casa Real de Moneda
Tel Aviv, Israel