Potosi was founded in 1546 after the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico (“rich mountain” in Spanish). For 200 years, an estimated 40,000 tons of silvers was mined, which helped the Spanish Empire become the richest country in the world at that time. In 1672, the Spanish built the Colonial Mint, making Potosi the richest city in the world. By 1825, Bolivia became independent from Spain, and the mines had run out of silver.
Potosi still has mining as its main industry today extracting minerals from Cerro Rico.
I did the mining tour with Potochij Tours. Antonio, the tour guide, is an ex-miner who worked inside Cerro Rico for many years.
Before entering the mine, I dressed up in protective clothes, rubber boots, a helmet, a lamp, a rucksack, and gloves. The whole time I was in Potosi, it poured rain making the mines one big mud pit. Wear clothes you’re willing to get dirty and leave valuables at your accommodation.
We first stopped at a tienda (store) near the mines to pick up some goods. Things you can buy at this tienda include dynamite, mining cigarette (which can include coca leaves or marijuana), and industrial-strength alcohol for both Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the miners. We also had to buy a bag full of snacks, drinks, and coca leaves for the miners. Each bag cost Bs. 20. You can also pick up a medical mask for Bs. 2.
Almost Inside the Mine
Then, we got to the mining site. Before entering, Antonio did a ritual offering Pachamama coca leaves and alcohol for protection before entering.
I got as far as the ladder down the mine and one tiny tunnel before I chickened out. I forgot to mention that Potosi is 4,090 m (13,420 ft) above sea level, so I was struggling to breathe. Also, I couldn’t see much. I was crawling and squatting. (I got a bad knee.) Both the other girl and I in the group left after 5 minutes and sat outside in the rain until the rest finished.
While waiting, I met Carlos, an inspector of the mines. He talked about the harsh conditions that face the miners every day. While chatting, he kept pointing at the miners coming out with 20 kg bags of minerals. They were all covered in dust. Carlos said some of the miners are as young as 16 years old. Two hours of waiting later, we returned to Potosi each with a small piece of silver, which I promptly lost.
Notes on the Mines Tour
- The tour cost Bs. 60 ($8.70) and includes transport and the equipment needed for the mines. There is a compulsory Bs. 20 ($2.90) bag of goods for the miners. I was able to share with another person in my group.
- I did the tour in Spanish as the tour only goes with four people. The other three people in my group were from Argentina, so Spanish won out. For an English speaking guide, the tour will cost Bs. 80 ($11.60).
- If you are at all claustrophobic, do not do this tour. I thought I wasn’t one, but once I entered the mine, I freaked out.
Casa Nacional de la Moneda
With all the silver that was mined back in the day, the Spanish built the Casa de Justica in 1572, which churned out the first type of global currency. From 1753 to 1773, the building minted coins for the colony. The building was not only a mint but also a prison for the workers who made the coins.
There’s a show called “La Casa de Papel” (Money Heist) that I’m watching about a robbery at the Spanish mint. I kept imagining myself locked up in the mint and forced to print money like on the show.
Notes on Casa Nacional de la Moneda
- The tour costs Bs. 40 for foreigners and is only in Spanish. There is a Bs. 20 camera fee that I didn’t know about until I entered the building. Hence, I have no pictures of the inside.
- The tour lasted about two hours and went through the history of the mint. Many of the original machines and equipment are still intact. There was also an exhibit of minerals that are mined in Cerro Rico.
- It is not open on Mondays.
Other sights in Potosi
Potosi’s central market isn’t one of my favorites. The building is partially uncovered. With the constant rain, it made the floors very slippery. With a limited food selection, I wasn’t too impressed with the market.
Plaza 10 de Noviembre
Plaza 10 de Noveimbre is Potosi’s main square. Benches are plentiful to sit and people-watch when it is not raining.
My favorite part of Potosi and the plaza was the crossing guards dressed as zebra-bears. There were about eight of them within the center of the city all stopping cars and allowing pedestrians to cross the street while entertaining the drivers. And they were there for the majority of the day.
For me, Potosi is a good place to break up the trip between Uyuni and Sucre. However, I was happy to leave after two days. I think I was just surrounded by too much gray and silver. That’s what happens in a mining town!