I had no idea why I was even in Potosi in Bolivia, and I really just wanted to get out of the godforsaken place as fast as I could. But in the end, Cerro de Potosi (Hill of Potosi) blew my mind.
A couple of guys I had met in La Paz told me I had to go to Cerro de Potosi. They didn’t seem too clear of the reasons why, but it probably had something to do with mines. Shucks, that was good enough for me to throw my hat in with them.
The three of us made a long punishing bus trip to Potosi and got dumped on the edge of town. As far as we could understand some sort of public march, demonstration, strike or musical event has caused the road to the bus station to get completely blocked
So, we had to walk for about 15 minutes into town. Uphill. Under a blazing sun. With big backpacks on. At 4,090 metres (13,420 ft) of altitude. Those were possibly the longest 15 minutes of my life.
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world and is a remote, desolate, impoverished city that feels like the end of the world.
It is punishingly cold at night and during the day the rays of sun feel like tiny daggers on your skin. Why did they even build a city here and why did I decide to visit it? Well, have I mentioned the Cerro de Potosi mine yet?
That first night I put on every single item of clothing I owned and huddled under the covers of my hotel bed to read the story of Cerro de Potosi. I was stunned to discover that I was currently in one of the continent’s most famous and historic cities. At one point, Potosi was the biggest and richest city in the Americas, bigger than the contemporary European cities of London and Madrid. Nowadays it is the sort of adventurous destination that many people backpacking South America head to.
Cerro de Potosi – Legends of Obscene Wealth and Wanton Waste
The imposing Cerro Rico hill that overlooks the city is the reason for the fame of Potosi. Here, the Spanish found silver and other precious metals beyond their wildest dreams. Some historians even suggest that without the riches of this Potosi mine the European mercantile system would never have existed.
The tales of obscene wealth and wanton waste here are extraordinary, with expensive silver cutlery being thrown out to save washing it and the streets leading to the many churches being paved with precious metals.
Of course, all of this came at a cost. It is estimated that around 8 million miners have died here over the centuries, most of them slaves. That total isn’t far of the current total population of the whole country of Bolivia. Cerro de Potosi is currently one of the top Bolivia tourist attractions, but it still feels very far from a polished, slick travel destination.
Deep into the Cerro de Potosi Mine at last
I went on a tour of the mines the next day and it was as fascinating and depressing as any place with antiquated, dangerous working conditions and a history of death can be. I was blown away by the fact that people still mine this hill that the Spanish started exploiting in the 16th century. These days, miners scrabble out what metals they can, while drinking potent 95% proof alcohol, chewing coca leaves, and smoking unfiltered cigarettes that they ask tourists to buy for them. You can also buy a stick of dynamite for them to explode, if you like.
The tiny tunnels and the lack of obvious security measures made those fatality figures seem a lot more realistic than they had seemed the previous night. I heard that Cerro Rico is so filled with tunnels that it is now like a giant Swiss cheese and could collapse at any time, so I was very relieved to get out of there.
The Casa de la Moneda is also worth a visit, as it was the oldest Mint in the Americas and is now an interesting museum which is one of the Bolivia tourist attractions that attract a lot of national tourists.
However, as I left Cerro de Potosi I was still haunted by the images of sick looking miners –many of them kids- trying to make a living from a dangerous and exhausted old mountain. It isn’t a conventional type of travel destination, but if you want to see a different side of life while backpacking South America, then you won’t regret visiting Potosi.