The Silver Memories of Potosi

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.

The Silver Memories of Potosi

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 15, 2007

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.

Café Internet Candelaria

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by SeenThat on June 2, 2008


Placed a few meter from the Casa de la Moneda and the Central Plaza, few establishments in Potosi can compete with Candelaria in their location.


However, location is not everything; accessibility matters too. Here, Candelaria fails miserably due to a very steep and shaky staircase leading from the street to the establishment. Elders and people with disabilities would have a hard time - or would simply fail – to enter the restaurant; moreover, considering the establishment is well over four-kilometers above the sea level, the task becomes even harder.

Once inside, things get better. Five crowded basic tables are covered with colorful awayo clothes. The last are traditionally used by Aymara women, mainly for carrying the children on their backs. The low ceilings are almost hidden due to the bad lights, but the overall effect was cozy and warm – an important consideration during the fierce Potosi winter. Several books and newspapers are offered to the customers, but they were neither relevant to the place nor actual.

This setup combined with the obvious altitude sickness symptoms of the tourists surrounding me (I arrived fully acclimatized from La Paz) to remind me of Kathmandu and the Himalayas and put me in the mood to forgive them anything (though I was careful not to mention that to the waitress).


I ordered a double espresso for roughly a dollar (most coffees were similarly priced) and was pleasantly surprised; the beans used were Bolivian and the machines were properly tuned.

The menu included also several teas; the boldest in a group of travelers sitting next to me ordered a coca-tea. In Bolivia there is a widespread legend claiming that coca-tea helps to ease altitude sickness symptoms. Actually, one of the main mechanisms the body uses to cope with the low pressure is to decrease the amount of water in the blood (in such a way, the hemoglobin concentration is artificially raised until the body produces more, meanwhile more oxygen can be carried by a given volume of blood); this effect leads to a quick dehydration. Thus any tea – coca or Darjeeling – would ease the dehydration as long as it is not a diuretic. It is important to emphasize that untreated coca-leaves are completely innocuous.

Fruit juices are very popular in Bolivia, but the remoteness of Potosi dictates a limitation on the fruits arriving from the tropics. Bananas, papayas, oranges and pineapples summarized Candelaria’s list; finally, carrots’ juice emphasized the lack of the tropic stars in the menu.


Candelaria serves set meals and single dishes. The breakfasts include the American (18BOB), Continental (15BOB), Basic (12BOB) and the leading offer, the Granola one (25BOB – a bit above three dollars). The last includes granola, toasts, yogurt, coffee, jam and butter. The American breakfast exchanges the granola with eggs and bacon, while the other two are leaner versions of the American one.

Cakes and hot sandwiches can be ordered as well. In one of my visits, I ordered a hot cheese sandwich and got a tiny-bit of the very salty white Bolivian cheese within slightly warmed – but not toasted – slices of bread.

Small pizzas and basic salads are available for less than two dollars each. The salads are very basic; one of them included just tomatoes and onions. Salad dressings in Bolivia are almost non-existent, llajua (a spicy mix of chilies and tomatoes) is the most popular one.


Set meals with four courses are available for dinner, the meal includes starters (mainly salads), a soup, a main course and a dessert or a coffee. The regular meal costs 30BOB (four dollars), while the vegetarian version is offered for 25BOB. The set meals are combinations of dishes that can be ordered independently.

Beyond the expected burgers, the place offers llama schnitzels (20BOB). The item is highly attractive, but the animal is known to carry trichina and thus is not recommended. The parallel vegetarian menus offer lentils and cheese burgers or omelettes.


Anyone ordering a full breakfast gets complimentary fifteen minutes of internet.


The staff speaks English, is knowledgeable of the area and very helpful. Several travel agencies are in the immediate vicinity.

Casa Nacional de la Moneda

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 15, 2007

Maybe the best museum in Southern Bolivia, the National Coining House is where the silver extracted from the nearby mines was transformed into coins. It is next to Potosi’s central plaza; its construction began in 1572 and the center worked until 1767 using rudimentary technologies and slaves work. In 1773, the structure we see nowadays was inaugurated on the original – albeit expanded - site; the upgrade included facilities to create high quality coins. Built of stone and brick in Baroque style is the most magnificent colonial structure in town after the main churches.

The institution did all the coining works in situ: from treating the metal and designing the coins to controlling their weight and color. Black slaves who had troubles to adapt to the work in the mines were brought here. In its first twenty-eight years, the institution coined more silver coins than there were in circulation in all the European countries combined. Coins were prepared also for other countries and territories and most countries from those days have coins from Potosi in their historic archives.

Three types of coins were prepared here for Spain. The "Macuquinas" (from the Quechua word for "hammered") were coined until 1773 using hammers to shape them; they had different values and figures on them. The "Columnarias" were more sophisticated, and included two distinctive columns that gave them their name. The "Busto" coins were coined for Spain until 1825 – the year of Bolivia’s independence – and include the face of the current king. Special medals were coined whenever a new king ascended to throne. In 1813, special coins were prepared for Argentine once it began the struggle for its independence. Afterwards, the institution continued issuing coins for the new Republic of Bolivia, including gold and copper coins.

The machinery was renewed in the 19th century with American steam machines. In the twentieth century, electric machines were brought and finally in 1953, after the mines were nationalized, the institution ceased to work.

In 1930 part of the structure was transformed into an art museum, which included works collected from the Municipal Museum and different churches. Divided into several collections, it includes paintings, coins, coining machinery, weights, sculptures, minerals and archeology. On the second floor of the second yard is the Colonial Salon, where a painting of the Sacred Family by Pieter de Coecke, dating back to the sixteenth century, rest in appropriate splendor. Other splendid paintings share the space. The museum has a massive archive encompassing the whole history of the place and the area.

The most striking feature in the structure is the mask of a Quechua man hanging on an arch visible from the main entrance. Resembling a caricature, it has high cheeks, slanted highs, a strong nose and straight, black hair. Its huge, mocking smile is unforgettable. It is not known whom it depicts, but it had become a symbol of the institution and of Potosi; it appears in many official publications.

Tours in English are available for groups; photographing is not allowed.
Casa Real de Moneda
Calle Ayacucho
Potosi, Bolivia

The Churches of Potosi

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 15, 2007

Little is left of Potosi’s eighteenth century splendor. The main clue to it is the incredible amount of magnificent colonial churches, which surpass many times the needs of the small modern town. Downtown Potosi alone hosts sixteen colonial churches in different styles, including Mestizo, Baroque, Renaissance and Neoclassic. A single day would not be enough to study them, though a quick survey can give a good idea of how the town looked a quarter of millennia ago.

The most interesting churches are within walking distance from the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre. On the plaza itself is the wonderful Catedral de Potosi, which was at the time of my visit hiding behind scaffoldings due to a massive restoration process. It was built between 1808 and 1836; thus the temple is a later addition to the colonial town. Built in stone and brick, it includes two gorgeous towers and is considered to be the best neoclassic structure in Bolivia. In 1924 it became a cathedral.

The Convento de Santa Teresa on Chichas Street includes a splendid church in earthly red tones and a monastery with a wonderful collection of religious art; it was founded in 1684. It was constructed in Baroque style with Mestizo influences. The attached monastery was built in 1761 and includes a collection of religious paintings and objects; the nuns prepare and sell sweets called mazapan.

The San Lorenzo Church is next to the central market, on Bustillos Street, and was built from 1548 onwards; in 1775 it was not finished yet. Originally it was aimed as a missionary center for the indigenous people of the surrounding areas and thus the Mestizo influences on its basic Baroque style are especially strong. Its unique facade is one of the best examples of Mestizo style in the country; the many indigenous people appearing in the carvings are a unique characteristic of this temple.

Iglesia y Torre de la Compañía de Jesús on Ayacucho Street, one block from the central plaza, is a tower of bewildering shape and is considered to be the most important structure built in the eighteenth century in Bolivia. It roughly resembles a triumph arch with three domes and thirty-two columns. Built between 1581 and 1599, it was massively renovated in the eighteenth century, when it got the actual facade. It is possible to climb up the tower and get good views of the city; despite that it is almost impossible to take a picture of the tower itself, since it is placed in a quite narrow street.

The Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco on Nogales Street was the first church established in Potosí. Its construction began in 1547. The construction seen nowadays was constructed between 1707 and 1727, and belongs to the Golden Era of Potosi. It includes a collection of paintings from colonial days and a museum of religious art. On a stone-blocked side door there is a wonderful wood cross.

Cerro Rico: A Visit to the Kunti Mine

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 15, 2007

A somber landmark atop a base of almost pure silver, the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) casts its dark shadows over Potosi. Dark clouds over its summit cry the memory of endless slaves who died while mining the metal for their masters. One of the worse shows of inhumanity ever seen, it cost the lives of eight million slaves, as much as the actual Bolivian population.

The summit reaches 5183 meters above sea level and was discovered by the Spaniards on April 1, 1545. Since then and until the nineteenth century, over fifty-six thousand tones of silver were extracted. In 1952 the mines were seized by the government and slavery was officially abolished. In 1985, after the extraction was not rentable anymore, the mines were given back to some fifty labor unions which still operate them nowadays. Apparently there are another fifty thousand tonnes underground (even the UN is participating in the plans to extract them while preserving Cerro Rico’s shape)

In 1572 the Mita – a form of slavery – was instituted by the Spaniard governor. Once every seven years, every male between 18 and 50, worked in the mines for four months. They were not paid and they often died. In 1638, a monk calculated that each "peso" produced cost ten dead men.

In a sense the slavery continues nowadays. Fifteen thousand workers – with well over a thousand of them being children – work in the mines. Only 3500 have some kind of pension and most of them die prematurely due to pneumonia silicosis. If the dead miner did not have a pension, then his children or wife take his place in the mine and are added to the following decade list of dead. They earn pennies scratching out, almost literally with their nails, the scarce silver, tin and zinc left in the depths. Most work is still done by hand, though some of the mines (there are 420 entries to the mountain depths) have compressed-air facilities. The miners work for some ten hours per day, in which no food is consumed and no air filtering equipment is used. Coca leaves give the workers the needed stamina and they are also a powerful appetite depressant.

Many agencies in town arrange tours to the mines. A half-day tour costs 50BOB (around six dollars); all the equipment needed to enter the mines is included in the price. The specific mine to be visited is difficult to control; it depends on which ones are working in the given day. In the way to the mines, a short break at the "Mercado de los Mineros" (Miners Market) allows to have a miners breakfast (a thick soup) and to buy some gifts (soda drinks and coca leaves) for the miners in the mine to be visited.

We visited the Kunti Mine (Kunti – Quechua for "Encounter Place") and that was a fortunate choice. A few days prior to the visit, the tunnels of other mine collided with the ones of Kunti, and we witnessed how the miners were settling the conflict. The new gates connecting the colliding tunnels were being guarded and talks to settle the conflict were in progress.

Narrow tunnels flooded with polluted water made our path through the mine; the boots we got provided the needed protection. The guide was listening for approaching wagons – loaded ones coming out and empty ones reentering the mine – and warned us each time one approached us. Flattening our bodies to the wall was all we could do to avoid being run over by them. The place was so dusty, that my camera mouse got stuck; the camera needed professional care afterwards. After seeing such damage within a couple of hours, it is hard to understand how the miners survive a decade or more of work in such conditions until they die of pneumonia silicosis. The tour is very impressive: shaky ladders connect between tunnels at different levels, rudimentary tools dating back to the colonial days compete with modern air compressed equipment and colorful metal veins – following a general north to south direction – adorn the otherwise naked walls. Whenever we met miners we left them a bottle of soda and a small bag of coca leaves we bought beforehand in the market. At the very end of the tunnels was the "tio."

At first, the concept is confounding. "Tio" means "uncle" in Spanish and that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the nosy visitors. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant "D." Hence, the Spanish "Dios" (God) became "Tio" while the Quechua people tried to pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and soda drinks on a daily basis. Our guide – not a miner, but a Quechua woman – was very careful to light a cigarette and put it on the idol’s mouth. At its feet was a fake human-skull which got a similar treatment. As the visit was during the carnival, the figure was adorned with colorful strips of paper (and the tunnels with tiny flags). After the idol got his share of the feast, the miners killed a llama at the mine entry, spilled its blood on the entrance to calm the Pachamama (the earth god) and then barbequed it. Is the Satanic cult an answer to miners’ enslavers? Probably not, there are signs that the cult goes deep within the local cultures past. Moreover, the Quechua and Aymara languages – before getting their share of Spanish - had many words for daemons but none for God.

Few places manage to evoke so powerfully the past, with modern people still living – and dying - it.

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