Updated May 14th, 2019.
The mirage of a ‘flowing-silver mountain’ turned into reality in 1545 with the discovery of Cerro Potosí, also known as ‘Cerro Rico’, the rich hill.
Due to the abundance of the precious metal, even horseshoes were made during the golden, or rather ‘silver era’ of Potosí. During the 16th and 17th centuries Potosí was the richest city in the world and people said that Cerro Rico ‘ate slaves and vomited silver’ Nowadays, however Potosí is just a small and isolated city of the south west of Bolivia.
Read our guide to Bolivia backpacking!
Potosì is one of the highest cities in the world with an elevation of 4,067 meters, it has a cold unpleasant climate and it’s quite difficult to reach, but I can assure you that it worth the effort.
Here, in this small town, the story of the entire world has been written, with precious ink and strong colors. A story of Spanish colonization, industrialization and slavery.
Today, nothing remains but memories; as the silver mine contains stories of adventurers, conquerors, traders, priests, artist and nobles who once walked Potosí’s palaces, churches and theatres. We can barely imagine the splendor of the ‘main nerve of the kingdom’, only the spoils of an ancient glory.
Where to Stay in Potosí
The entire city center is full of hostels, guesthouses and hotels; if you haven’t made a reservation, there’s a high chance that you can stumble upon a comfortable and cheap place to stay, so don’t worry!
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 center 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.
Calor de Hogar con Altura is a little way away from the action, but what it lacks in location, it makes up for in comfort, welcoming staff and price. A double room will cost around 125 bolivinos per night. It is worth noting that some rooms also come with kitchen access so you are able to prepare and cook your own food.
Hostel Casa Blanca Potosi is the backpacker favourite. The rooms are colourful with thick mattresses and the whole hostel has a cozy 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 bolivanos per person.
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.
Things to do in Potosí
Salar de Uyuni
Potosì is the nearest city to the incredible Salar, so you can arrange your trip here from the ‘comfort’ of Potosì. For those of you who don’t know, the Salar of Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flats and offers the traveller a glimpse into a wild and almost unnatural looking environment…
The best way to explore the Salar is by car or motorcycle during one or two days. You can also enjoy the ‘Isla del Pescado’, the volcano Licancabur, the green and the red lagoon. Read more about Salar de Uyuni.
Casa de la Moneda
Here in Potosí back in the day, silver bars were mainly turned into coins to be spent and sent all over the Spanish empire. This process needed a lot of energy and during the past centuries animals and slaves provided the manpower to work big and complex machines.
La ‘Casa de la Moneda’, the house of the coin is a big old complex in the very center of the city, a guide will show and explain you how the transformation worked step by step.
The centre of Potosí, with its narrow, steep streets, shows a rare and strange beauty, the charm of decadence. Even if you are fit and healthy: sorochi, altitude sickness, can be very annoying.
Tour The Mine
You can ask travel guides, tourist offices or your hostel to organize you a tour inside the Cerro Rico. You will start from a store where your guide will give you protective clothing, boots, helmets, and lamps; then the tour begins, following the narrow-gauge wagon tracks into the pitch blackness!
You will experience the horrendous conditions in which miners still work today. Conditions that over the years have taken the lives of more than 8 million people. During the tour, you will meet “Tio” (uncle), a representation of the devil that miners give offerings to in order to protect their safety.
By Bus: Potosì 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 12hours from Salta.
By Plane: Potosì, due to its altitude and lack of space have a very small landing strip so there are not so many scheduled flights. Two companies are currently operating flights to and from La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Uyuni: TAM and Aerocon, with the beautiful Fairchild Metrolainer.
Where to go next?
Salta: 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.
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.
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 wood working company for a different job and started traveling 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!