Potosí, Bolivia: former silver-paved heart of the Spanish empire
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Potosí, Bolivia – not to be mistaken for the mountain in Bolivia called Huayna Potosí – is often visited by travellers as a stop-over between Uyuni and Sucre, but it’s certainly worth a few days of exploration. This guide aims to help you discover interesting things to do in Potosi, Bolivia, where to eat and where to stay, plus give you some helpful tips on how to get to Potosi bus terminal.
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We’d be lying if we said we adored Potosi. In truth, we only went there as a sort of bus layover to be able to get to Sucre from Uyuni and our salt flat tour friends were headed there too, so it was a speedy decision to go for less than 24 hours. Things went from mediocre to bad when political protestors shut off the road into the city and we had to walk to last 2.4 uphill miles, not helped by the thin air thanks to a very high altitude. But hey, we made the most of it as always!
How to pronounce Potosí: poh-toh-SEE
History of Potosi, Bolivia
Potosí was once the richest town in the world thanks to its silver mine and the conscription of indigenous people as roundabout slaves, and legend has it that the people here paved the streets with silver just because they could. While a few mines are still active, employing some 10,000 locals who face lung disease and early deaths as a result of their careers, a slowdown in supply and lack of worldwide demand means the city has spiralled into poverty, which is evident from the moment you set foot in Potosi.
Nowadays, there’s hardly any sign of the wealth that used to be there, bar the looming obelisk of the main square, Plaza Principal 10 de Noviembre. However, you can expect to find some very traditional culture, interesting cobbled streets and beautiful views over the mountains.
Altitude in Potosi, Bolivia
Potosi is actually the highest city in the world, sitting at 4067m (13,420ft). This means that you will feel short of breath, and in some cases experience symptoms of altitude sickness, such as nausea, dehydration and headaches. Drink as much water as you can, avoid alcohol and opt for coca tea whenever it’s offered. Locals like to chew coca leaves as well, you’ll see them with big balls of it stored in their cheeks like hamsters. Symptoms should pass in a few days, but don’t expect to be back to running up hills in that time (realistically, did we ever run up hills?!).
This high altitude also means you’re at risk of getting sunburn or general sun damage, so make sure you’re protecting your skin. Things can get warm during the day (probably because even going up a few steps will make you sweat), but expect to want to wrap up warm at night. Any decent hostel will provide thick blankets! One thing that always springs to mind when thinking back to being in Potosi is feeling mega-snug under 6 heavy wool blankets in a hostel dorm of 4 double beds.
Things to do in Potosi, Bolivia
1. Dig deep into the reality of the Cerro Rico mines
Though we didn’t stay for very long, our friends from the Uyuni tour stayed in Potosi for a couple of days after we left. According to them, one of the best things to do in Potosi is to visit one of the silver mines. What they weren’t expecting is that the mine is still active, so they got to witness first hand how exhausting, hot and dangerous this work is. During the miners’ lunch break, they got to sit down and talk with some of them about their life and experiences.
Miners work in teams, as cooperatives, and get paid a measly amount for a full cart of metal (on average they expect to get $10-15 each a day). These days, there’s not much silver left in any of the mines, so they’re mostly digging for non-precious metals such as tin and lead. The miners have a penchant for drinking 96% alcohol to get them through their workday. The legal age to work in Bolivia is 10 if self-employed and 12 if contracted, so if you go during the school holidays you will sadly see many a young child down the mines with their fathers.
These tours last around 3 hours in tight spaces with already low-oxygen air, so this isn’t for the faint-hearted. You will be picked up at 7am, and you may be asked during the tour to buy small gifts (coca leaves, dynamite sticks, more alcohol…) to offer the miners that stop to talk to you – you’re taking time out of their productivity, after all! Big thanks to The Nomadic Vegan for contributing this photo of her time visiting the Potosi mines:
2. Have a mint time at the Casa Nacional de Moneda
As Potosi was once such an important player in the silver industry, it’s only fitting that the Bolivian mint should be here to turn all that hard-earned precious metal into shiny new coins for the Spanish to ship back to Europe. Entry to the mint costs 40Bs (quite expensive on Bolivian terms but still only £4), and offers a range of museum exhibitions from the colonial era, including artwork and coin-making artefacts, as well as a statue of Jesus that is rumoured to grow its own hair. Yep.
3. Barter for your dinner at Potosi’s Mercado Central
Right across the road from the Casa Nacional de Moneda, you can find the Central Market. Inside, you can find fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses to haggle over, and outside, a few cheap clothes shops.
This is both a convent and a museum, and is actually Bolivia’s oldest monastery, so it’s jammed-packed with stories for all those history lovers out there. However, the beauty lies not in the collection of religious art, but what can be found above and below San Francisco. Under the ground, you can spot human bones in the catacombs, and above, you can walk along the roof of the convent to see views of the city. Entry costs 20Bs including the tour, or just 10Bs for the roof only.
Eats in Potosi, Bolivia
Fried chicken, everywhere! And for some reason, also a lot of pizza. There is an area a few blocks around Plaza Principal 10 de Noviembre with a fair few restaurants aimed at tourists near all the tour agency offices, but give these a miss. They are SO OVER-PRICED. You shouldn’t be paying more than 12 Bs (£1.20) for a meal in Bolivia. Nuh-uh. No way. Head further down the hill to find one of the many tiny family-run places who will give you beef soup and fried chicken for a quid.
One thing we missed out on which we regret SO MUCH was the fried llama in food stalls next to the central bus terminal. My, oh my, did it smell good, but we were midway through our blockade-induced hike from hell and figured we could get it anywhere in Bolivia, so we gave it a pass. However, we didn’t see anything like this anywhere else in the country, so if you find it, try it!
Where to stay in Potosi, Bolivia
We stayed at a great hostel called Koala Den, the only downfall of which is that it’s at the top of the great big f-off hill. Beds were pretty comfy and could fit two people, and the breakfast included fresh bread, juice, fruit and eggs made to order. We paid 70 Bs (£7) each for a homely 5-bed dorm with a private bathroom.
If we had our time in Potosi again, we’d probably look to stay in Hostel Casa Blanca Potosi, which is currently the highest rated hostel in Potosi on Booking.com. The spaces are beautiful, reviews say vibes are great and it’s slightly closer to the action than Koala Den.
If you’re carrying a little more cash in your travel belt, definitely check out Hotel Santa Mónica for a little more colonial luxury.
Getting to the Potosi bus terminal
The bus terminal is pretty far out of the city, so unless you want to pack yourself into a tiny Micro bus we recommend you get a taxi. Once there, don’t go with the first annoying lady who screeeeeches your destination, wait and see what all the annoying ladies can offer you. Remember, high quality is key!
Unlike other terminals across South America, food choices in Potosí’s terminal are poor, with just one shop that sells only sweet things open in the day and a few miserable salteña stalls outside. Don’t forget to snack up before you get there!
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