Potosi (Bolivia)

Part of Unesco’s World Heritage List, the colonial city of Potosi is established at 4090m altitude making it the highest city of +100 000 habitants in the world (even higher than Lhassa in Tibet)! A small mountain, the ‘Cerro Rico’ (rich mountain), culminates at the border of the city. Inside you can find the still very active mines of Potosi, in which more than 6000 men (and children!) work hard every day to extract the little silver that is left in unfortunately extremely precarious conditions. Today there are about 200 mines in the Cerro Rico which has more holes than a gruyere cheese… There are 17 levels and the deepest tunnels are 450m deep.

From the 16th till the 19th century, Potosi experienced golden years and was a city as important as Paris and London as it produced more than 80% of all the silver in the world. Back then the mines were exploited by the Spanish conquistadores who extracted all the silver of the main arteries and sent the equivalent of 50 billion dollars back to Europe. At that time the work was performed by slaves equipped only with shovels and oil lamps who were forced to enter and live in the mine for several months; most of them never came out again (there were living quarters and even markets inside the mine). Several historians claim that this influx of money to Europe was one of the conditions for the development of capitalism! During those years amazing colonial buildings and churches were built all over the town which can still be admired today.

At our own risk we visited and entered the mines accompanied by a former miner who showed us around. Retrospectively, this might not have been the best idea as there is a serious risk of collapse and there are more than 30 deaths a year… The 2-hour visit was a shocking experience as we went deep into the heart of the Cerro Rico, equipped with headlamps and coca leaves, and watched miners at work. The work they perform is extremely hard and under very though conditions (very hot and humid, lots of dust, hard to breathe, low visibility…). We’ll think twice next time we buy a silver bracelet!

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Magnificent colonial buildings on the Plaza 10 de Noviembre 
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The Cerro Rico in the background viewed from the centre of Potosi

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View on Potosi from the Cerro Rico
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Miners pushing a wagon full of silver ore out of the mine
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Miners returning into the mine with an empty wagon
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Starting the visit of the mine
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Inside the mine (very dark, dusty and claustrophobic)
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Having to bend down most of the time when walking inside the mine
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Walking over shafts going 40m down on simple wooden planks

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Miners at work inside the mine
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“El Tio”, the miner’s god. Miners bring him daily offers consisting of cigarettes, coca leaves and 90 degrees alcohol
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Grasping for fresh air after spending 2 hours inside the mine
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The unloading area
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Typical street in Potosi

 

Our favourites:

  • Koala tours (if you choose to visit the mine)
  • 4060 café pub
  • Hostal Carlos V (in general we recommend to stay in the South-Eastern part of the city which is much nicer)
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