Potosi, Bolivia

At an elevation of 4090 meters above the sea level at the foot of the mountain Cerro de Potosi lies one of the most important cities of Bolivia, Potosi. It is also known as the Imperial Villa of Potosí. Besides being one of the world’s highest cities, Potosi is also famous for its unique history and economic relevance.

In the 16th century this city was one of the world’s richest cities that were influencing the world politics and economics. The Mount Cerro, otherwise called Mount Rich (Cerro Rico) was in the mid-Sixteenth Century to mid-Seventeenth the largest silver resource in the world. It still plays a significant role in the city’s economy today’s.

Potosi was mentioned in the second part of the famous novel of Miguel de Cervantes “Don Quixote” (published in 1615) as a symbol of extraordinary wealth. Since 1988 the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Facts About Potosi:

  • Cerro de Potosí’s peak is 4,824 metres (15,827 ft) above sea level.
  • Potosi is the second highest city in the world, following its neighbor El Alto.
  • Its average altitude is 3900 meters.
  • It is the seventh largest city in Bolivia

Potosí’s History

The city of Potosi was founded in 1545, a year after the Spanish conquistadors discovered rich silver ores of the Cerro Rico. The mountain Cerro de Potosi is also famous as the Cerro Rico, i.e. Rich Mountain. Spanish conquistadors after long searches for the Eldorado, the mythical country of gold, discovered instead the fabulously rich Cerro Rico with its incredible silver reserves. Cerro de Potosi was the world’s largest silver deposit. Since 16th century to the end of 20th up to 60,000 tones of silver were extracted from the rich silver ores of this mountain. No wonder that in Spanish there is a proverb saying “to be worth a Potosí”, i.e. “to be of a great value”.

In a short period of time Potosi became the world’s largest industrial complex of the 16th century. By the 17th century the population of Potosi was already more than 150,000 people which was a significant number for the times. In the mid-17th century Potosi was the richest city of the New World. In 1672, there were more than eighty churches in Potosi. It became the site of the Royal Mint. For several centuries Potosi had a status of “Imperial city” and was the major colonial-era supplier of silver for Spain.

The silver mined from Cerro Rico has influenced the course of the world history and for several centuries was the basis of prosperity and power of the Spanish monarchy. Thanks to the silver of Potosi, the Spanish Empire had a huge fleet and was able to conduct extensive construction in every corner of the monarchy. In rare cases when ships with silver traveling from Bolivia to Spain fell victim to the storms or pirates, one of the most powerful empires of the time was experiencing a period of financial difficulties. The silver mining was so intensive here that the height of the Cerro di Potosi went down for about 350 meters during the last 4 centuries, and in 2004, US scientists have even predicted that soon or later the mountain will collapse.

Along with its historical glory Potosi was one of the most tragic places in Americas. Millions of people died here because of the hard work and mercury poisoning. Poisonous mercury was actively used in the process of extracting silver. Historians assume that between 1545 and 1824 up to 8 million American Indians died in the mines of Potosi. Later Spanish colonists began also importing African slaves as a workforce in Potosi mines. African slaves were also forced to work as human mules. Since mules were dying after a couple of months of working in the mines of Potosi, the colonists replaced them with African slaves.

Of-course the prosperity of Potosi could not last forever. During the boom of the precious metal reserves seemed inexhaustible, but the depletion of silver mines started in the early 19th century. This is when the period of the decline of the city and the poverty of its inhabitants started. As a result of the fall in silver prices in the mid-19th century, the city declined even more. The population was reduced to less than 10, 000. In the 20th century only thanks to the demand for tin Potosi was partially recovered.

The climate of the city is not good either. Because of the high elevation of the city average temperatures here are between 5-15 °C. Once the richest and most populous city of the New World today Potosi is only the ghost of its former power and prosperity.

Architecture of Potosí

Today Potosi with its population of over 160 000 inhabitants has a little difference from other poor cities of Bolivia. The only sign of the city’s prior glory is its historical architecture, preserved in the city center. Narrow streets, colonial buildings, overhanging wooden balconies above the streets and beautiful old churches are still reminding that Potosi once was the richest city of the world. The architecture of Potosi is a mix of baroque style with the incorporated native Indian elements.

To truly grasp the history of Potosi one must visit the National Mint of Bolivia (Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia). It was the largest building in the Americas at the time of its construction. This former Spanish Royal Mint is now the main attraction of Potosi and one of the best museums in Bolivia.

Your visit to Potosi cannot be considered complete without being in the underground mines of Cerro Rico. Despite the slight improvement of production technology, working conditions in these mines are almost the same as 500 years ago. In case you are sensitive to human suffering and inhumane working conditions, you may consider skipping an excursion to the mines.

It definitely worth visiting the Santa Teresa Convent and Museum. There are also at least two distinctive churches in Potosi constructed during the colonial period worth visiting, first of them is the church of San Francisco. It houses the patron of Potosí, El Senor de la Vera Cruz. The second church is the church of San Lorenzo, built in 1548 in the local Baroque style. There are also numerous other historical buildings in Potosi, the largest high-altitude city in the world.

How to get there

There are no commercial flights to Potosi. The easiest way to get there is by bus either from La Paz or from Sucre. Buses leave daily from Sucre from the central square of the city. There are also regular bus connections from La Paz to Potosi. Buses leave almost every hour, especially in the evening.

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