With an elevation just a touch below 4100 meters, Potosí is South America’s 5th highest city. Be prepared for shortness of breath plus a sudden inability to walk and talk at the same time!
This extreme altitude is not what makes Potosí famous amongst travellers though. It is the mines, deep within Cerro Rico, “the rich hill”, that have been drawing crowds to the city for over 400 years. For a time, Potosí was among the richest cities in the world and over half the world’s silver supply was taken from its mines. Arguably, without this fortune, the Spanish Empire would have been unable to become the all-conquering beast it turned out to be. Potosí is so famous for the wealth that was pulled from its land that the phrase “valer un potosí,” or “to be worth a potosí” is a synonym for “worth a fortune”.
Today you can visit the mines on an organised tour. It’s an eye-opening experience but don’t expect it to be a fun trip. The working conditions you will witness are so horrendous that many miners don’t make it past 40…
If you are claustrophobic, don’t like the idea of scrambling through tight tunnels or just don’t want to see the terrible conditions the miners are working in*, you’ll be pleased to hear Potosí offers far more than just the controversial mine tours.
*If this is your reason for not entering the mines, I urge you to reconsider. Seeing the conditions these human beings work in, just so I can have a decent battery in my iPhone and a shiny set of alloys on my car was thought-provoking to say the least.
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Climate in Potosí
Due to it being so high, Potosí can get really cold! Be prepared to layer up and wear long trousers. Jumpers and coats are recommended, especially at night. Don’t let the temperature deceive you though, at this altitude your exposure to the sun’s UV rays is increased massively. Make sure you pack your sun cream and sunglasses!
Things to do in Potosí
As with most South American cities, Potosí is dominated by religion and the splendid architecture that comes with it. These churches can be visited independently, or as part of an organised city tour. There is often an entrance fee of between 10-50BOB per church.
For you architecture buffs out there, head to Torre de la Compañía de Jesús. This bell tower was constructed in 1707 as part of a Baroque church. Today the church no longer exists but the tower is still standing strong and offers great views over the city. If you don’t fancy climbing the tower, you can still admire this ornate structure from the ground.
Convento Museo Santa Teresa is a must-see for art or history lovers. Get a good look at how cloistered nuns lived and follow the somewhat brutal history that surrounded this practice. Full of sculptures, paintings and various works of art, the museum is looked after by a few remaining nuns who live in a segregated part of the building.
Iglesia de San Lorenzo de Carangas is one of the oldest churches in Potosí. Built in the mid-1500s, it has been renovated many times throughout the years. Originally intended as a place of worship for the indigenous population the fine engravings around the doorway illustrate a clash of cultures as Catholic and Aymara symbolism collide.
Casa de la Moneda
With so much silver pouring from Cerro Rico it wasn’t long before Potosí was minting its own coins. A huge amount of silver was pressed here and shipped all around the world. The first mint was shut down after over 200 years of operation and a new one was constructed.
Casa de la Moneda was the second mint and construction finished in the mid to late 1700s. After closing shutting its doors as an official mint, it spent time as a prison and as a barracks for the Bolivian army. Today it is a museum.
Whilst no longer operational, the coin press is preserved and remains the centrepiece in a large exhibition of Bolivian history.
Potosí City Tour
Numerous tour agencies throughout the city offer walking tours. These range in price from 70 Bolivianos to 140 Bolivianos. If your Spanish is not up to scratch, most agencies offer tours in French and English as well. Just make sure your guide can actually speak the language well, a few travellers have reported that some ‘English’ tours were delivered entirely in Spanish, with the guide being unable to speak any English. You may have to pay a little more for an English speaking guide but it’s worth it if your Spanish still needs work.
Cerro Rico Mine Tours
Since vast silver deposits were discovered in Cerro Rico over 400 years ago, the mines have been a hive of activity. Initially, the people working in these dark, underground tunnels were enslaved local populations. During its most productive era, the mine also had more than 30,000 African slaves working within its bowels. It is said that over 8,000,000 people have died under the mountain and working conditions aren’t improving.
There are many agencies offering mine tours in Potosí but check reviews first to make sure the company you use is putting most of the money back into the mines. At South America Backpacker we recommend Potochij Tours. Run by an ex-miner, they give a large percentage of the tour cost to supporting injured miners.
The tour begins by kitting up. Once dressed in protective clothes, boots, helmets and headlamps you will be taken to the local market to buy gifts for the miners. This is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite on the street!
Following the shopping trip, you will be dropped off at one of the entrances to the mine, it could be the larger entrance where fully-loaded carts come in and out, or one of the smaller entrances, barely large enough to fit through.
Climb down into the tunnels and your guide will start explaining the history of the mines, as well as the average life of a miner. Whilst people are not forced to work in the mines like they once were, jobs in Potosí are hard to come by and the mines pay up to 5x the usual wage for the city! Many miners accept the significantly shortened life expectancy and brutal working conditions so they can support their families.
After only a couple of hours in the mines, you can feel your breath coming harder, your eyes stinging and once the coughing starts, it’s hard to stop. Getting back to the surface is a relief but the memories you make in the mines will stick with you long after your trip is over.
If you want to know more, check out our full review of the Potosí Mine Tours.
Tarapaya Hot Springs
If you’ve finished sightseeing and need something to fill half a day, or are on a downer thanks to the mine tour, El Ojo del Inca hot springs are the perfect place to relax and unwind.
To get there, grab a minibus displaying Miraflores or Tarapaya signs from Mercado Chuquima. These leave when full and run all day. The cost of approaching the pools varies depending on the guard on duty (good old South America) and on how friendly you are upon your approach but don’t expect to pay more than 20 Bolivianos.
It used to be common practice to swim in the pools but due to the number of drowning victims (as many as 3 per month), the pools were temporarily closed in 2017. Whilst it is possible to visit the pools now, some travellers have been prohibited from getting in the water. However, others have been allowed to enter the pools with no issues.
If the guard on duty does let you into the water, listen to and follow their instructions carefully. Do not swim across the pools. At the deepest points, the water is 22 metres and the geothermal activity can create strong undercurrents which can easily suck a person down. As long as you heed any warnings the guard gives you, you will be perfectly safe.
Plaza 10 de Novembre
No continent does main squares better than South America and Potosí is no exception. Plaza 10 de Novembre is the perfect place to sit back, recover your breath and spend an hour or two watching the world go by. This bustling city centre is hemmed in by grand colonial buildings and filled with street food vendors selling everything from popcorn to Salteñas.
Dominating the centre of the square is a statue of liberty, watching over the city whilst the flag of Potosí flaps in the wind atop a white column. If you are lucky enough to be in the city on a carnival day (let’s be real, that’s every other day in South America) then Plaza 10 de Novembre will be the beating heart of the celebration.
Where to Stay in Potosí
Hostels, guesthouses and hotels are dotted around the city centre. Whilst we recommend booking at least a day in advance, during low season you can probably get away with turning up and seeing what is available.
The majority of the hostels are modern and you can pay with a credit card but in some cases, you’ll be asked to pay by cash.
Hostel La Casona: A big colonial-style house in the very centre of the city with different room types available. They have everything from dorms to doubles at reasonable prices. I can strongly recommend staying here because the service is good, the internet is free and the place is spectacular! A dorm bed starts at 50 bolivianos per night.
Hostel Casa Blanca Potosí is the backpacker favourite. The rooms are colourful with thick mattresses and the whole hostel has a cosy feeling. Everything is very clean and the staff are friendly. There is an on-site bar and a kitchen for communal use. A night in one of the dorms will cost from 60 bolivianos per person.
The Koala Den offers both private rooms and dorms. With its rudimentary onsite bar, shared lounge and kitchen, it’s a great place to meet other backpackers. The staff are super friendly and are can arrange any tours around the city. Don’t expect a 5-star experience but with dorm beds starting at 50 bolivianos a night you can’t complain. The rooms and bedding are clean and comfortable, even during the cold nights!
Hostal Santa Mónica is a swankier option and a great choice for the backpacker looking splurge. The old colonial building has plenty of charm, with bare wooden beams in the ceiling and typical white-washed walls. Expect to pay upwards of 360 bolivianos for a night.
Getting to Potosí
By Bus: Potosí can be reached easily by bus from any major city in Bolivia and from the border of Argentina. The journey takes approximately 10 hours from La Paz, 3 hours from Oruro and 12 hours from Salta.
By Plane: Potosí has an airport but flights are infrequent, sometimes as few as a single flight per week. Most travellers take the bus.
Where to go next?
Salta, Argentina: Known for its typical colonial charm and surrounded by some of the most wonderful landscapes of South America, Salta la Linda (the beautiful) is an absolute must for all backpackers who are travelling in South America. Read more about Salta and its surroundings here.
Mendoza, Argentina: Lose yourself in the vineyards of Malbec – cycling and tasting some of the finest South American vines. Check out this article about Wine Tours here. Or read more about Mendoza here.
La Paz: Set at a staggering 3,600 metres above sea level, La Paz is likely to literally take your breath away. La Paz is colourful, chaotic and full of life, with its abstract markets and bustling squares. Read more about La Paz here.
Uyuni – Carry on exploring the Altiplano by visiting Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s most popular tourist destination. Don’t let that moniker put you off, it is truly incredible to see and so vast that you never know how many people are there at one time.
About the Writer: My name is Greg, I’m an Italian guy passionate for everything that flies. I graduated in 2011 and worked till 2013 in the informatics field, then I join a Panamanian woodworking company for a different job and started travelling through Latin America. In 2014 I started a new career in Argentina: I’m currently trying to be an airplane pilot! Read my blog (only in Italian) here!