You really do need to try to take a deep breath when you visit the city of Potosi in Bolivia. You see, at 4,090 metres (13,420ft) above sea level Potosi is one of the world’s highest cities. So high, in fact, that most people need to acclimatise, to take it easy so as to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness known locally as soroche, before heading out sightseeing.
The reason for Potosi’s being is Cerro Rico, the rich mountain, upon which Potosi is perched. It is a mountain that is full of silver, enough to supply the New World Spanish Empire when Spain had control over most of South and Central America.
The silver was discovered in 1544 by a local indigenous inhabitant and by 1545 the city of Potosi had been established. It didn’t take long for large-scale excavation to begin at the site and soon after the first shipment of silver was sent to Spain. In 1672, a mint was established to coin silver and water reservoirs were built to fulfil the growing population’s needs. At that time more than eighty six churches were built and the city’s population increased to nearly 200,000, making it one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Latin America and in the world.
During three centuries of silver mining, before the mineral was depleted and tin miners took over, it is estimated that about 60,000 tonnes of silver was taken, but at a great cost of human life. Estimates of how many died in the mines oscillate, but it is generally agree that a minimum of two million people died working there.
One of the attractions in Potosi is to visit the mines, which have not really changed all that much over the years. To see the working conditions can come as a bit of a shock, particularly as it is common for the 10,000 miner who work there to die in their 40s of silicosis.
The city itself is very attractive, filled with narrow streets and magnificent colonial mansions where the wealthy held sway.
Another place worth visiting is the Casa Nacional de Moneda, which is the former Royal Mint. Nowadays it services as a museum, but it used to be one of the world’s richest mints. Naturally, you see exhibits of the silver and gold coining which took place there which has good collections of art and artefacts.
You cannot fly to Potosi so if travelling by public transport the best option is bus from several cities in Bolivia, although the easiest and best serviced is the route from Sucre just three hours away.