In Bolivia up to this day the saying that something is “worth a Potosi ” stands to indicate that this thing is worth a fortune.
And it is only by spending a few days in the streets of Potosi , the highest city in the world , and after being told the history of the city by ex- miners that you realize that this pearl , which was the richest city in the world , conceals surprises and not only those architectural.
Elected a World Heritage of UNESCO in 1987, the city boasts elegant and colorful neo-colonial architecture scattered along the roads all going uphill , but it is especially famous for being the highest city in the world , 4,090 meters above sea level , and for the mines that are still active.
It was here that for the first time I understood why it’s important to walk slowly when you are at these heights , every single step is an exhausting movement and the breathing is constantly heavy and difficult.
Here as in no other places walking has become increasingly slow and breathless . I am in one of the highest cities in the earth , where the sky is always blue , there are no clouds and , the ones that appear sporadically are blurred shapes that blend harmoniously to the deep blue of the sky.
Walking the streets of Potosi that always seem to be all uphill
Differently from the great cosmopolitan Sucre , Potosi is a small town , sleepy and peaceful , with an important history that is still palpable to this day walking through the alleys adorned by colonial buildings and visiting the mines that are still active.
Potosi is a beautiful colonial town on the slopes of Cerro Rico , the mountain from which so much silver was extracted that it was said a bridge could have been built from here up to Madrid , that had impressed me for the large number of elegant and impressive churches , where the houses with colorful walls are adorned with wooden balconies and the large buildings have opulent facades embellished by architectural details typical of the colonial style.
A city that is no longer the richest and most profitable in the world but whose narrow and one-way streets talk of its virtues and the ancient splendor.
The best part of the women dress in local clothes , the cholitas walk up and down the streets with the slow pace typical of the places at high altitude . The young ones have opened to Western fashion but its enough to go a little way from the city to find villages where traditions are still alive and are reflected in the way they dress
The history of Potosi – The highest and richest city of the Spanish empire
The old part of Potosi was born between 16th and 17th century . In those years , the city became one of the most populated urban centers and the richest in the world . The population grew to 200,000 inhabitants.
The main reason for this wealth and high population was the discovery of the silver resources at Mount Potosi , the mountain from which town extends , hence the name Cerro Rico ( Rich Mountain ).
In this way, Potosi became the richest silver mine in the world at the expense of the work of Indian slaves who have died by the thousands in the tunnels of the mines.
Founded in 1546 as a mining town it became the main prey of the Spanish colonists . The richest conquest in all of Latin America named imperial city by the will of the King of Spain Charles V.
The resources of silver gradually decreased and the rich and beautiful Potosi has become the quiet and attractive city that we can visit today, of which story was told to me by an elderly gentleman who has worked all his life in one of its mines, sitting in the cafeteria of the Central Market.
But if Potosi by itself is worth a visit for a few days , mine or not , the things to do are numerous , not only in the city but also a little way outside , where small villages can be reached by the many micro that depart mainly from Uyuni square , about 25 minutes walk from the center or reached with one of the many micro from the town square .
What to do around Potosi – One Sunday in Betanzos
As an alternative to tour the mine I decided to take a micro ( minibus ) to go in search of the villages where the first language is Quechua , where I could find myself away from tourist centers and where possibly, besides myself as a foreigner, on the bus and on the streets there was none other than the locals.
On my explicit request, I was advised to go to Betenzos ( 5 bolivianos bus plus 1.30 bolivianos for the micro from the hostel to Uyuni station just outside the center ) , that on Sunday comes alive for the colorful and vast market.
I arrived on a Sunday and on the occasion of the feast of San Juan , a national holiday. An ideal day to take part in the colorful bedlam that is the market.
Football tables along the streets entertain kids of all ages , whole families seated down on the steps of the village church under the sun that at that time of day is hot and makes you forget the cold of the night before.
The entire town center is a market , the traffic on this day of celebration is blocked if not along the main road , the secondary roads are occupied by women sitting on the ground with blank eyes that sometimes look a bit bored while waiting to sell their products : fruits , carrube , coca leaves , batteries and pans , cheeses , ice cream , jelly in glasses covered with cream and lots of bread.
I am the only tourist. The only one with a camera in hand , which I sometimes hide to steal some pictures , and a video camera at navel height to shoot scenes of a life so unusual ( for me).
It makes me happy , I chat with street vendors , someone take some photographs of me , they look at me , scrutinize me , they smile and I smile in return , the less shy ask me some questions hiding the face behind the hands and showing great embarrassment . Bolivians are shy , are not rude , and even just to ask a stranger where they come from is a matter of shame , their eyes speak and say what their mouth does not pronounce.
I buy a pack of coca leaves , some socks , eat at a comedor two salteñas ( Bolivian empanadas but bigger and tasty , there is the onion in the middle , the Argentine ones ) , I chat with the locals and then get back on the micro to return to Potosi happy about the special day lived.
Tour to the mines of Potosi
To date, the mines are still active and tours are organized to visit them . Whether you want to take part in this experience or not remember that it is not a tour for those who suffer from claustrophobia ( like me ) , and that it is potentially dangerous . In fact still today work is done under the same conditions of instability and lack of security of the past
From what I am told by those who had taken part in the tour, you will meet miners at work who every day goes down into that hell , the temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees , and they work in dangerous conditions hundreds of meters underground . The cost for the tour is around 100 bolivianos .
o know more on the experience at the mines refer to the article on 2backpackers.com entitled Ethics of Tourism Ethics of Tourism: Mines of Potosì.
Tarapaya – Thermal baths at Ojo Inca
Not far from Potosi, about 30 minutes of minutes of the Micro, you can reach Tarapaya famous for its thermal baths used since the times of the Incas . Called Ojo del Inca ( Inca eye ) for its benefits, ideal place if you are on the quest of some peace and tranquility surrounded by a calm and relaxing scenery , towering mountains and silence.
The thermal baths are used by the same locals , the entrance fee is paid, 7 bolivianos . In about 20 minutes walk to the mountain the top is reached where the crater of the lake is , swimming in this natural pool can be dangerous , but the view is spectacular.
You get to Tarapaya with a micro from Plaza Uyunu , for the return trip, wait along the roadside, the micros pass by every 15-20 minutes.
How to arrive in Betanzos from Potosi
I advise to go to Betanzos on Sunday for the market . I do not know how it is during the weekdays but I imagine that the spectacle is not the same as what I have had the pleasure of meeting.
The trip – Potosi Betanzos lasts about 1 hour in micro.
The micros depart as soon as they are full. In theory they leave every 30 minutes but if the minibus is not full it will not depart.
The cost of a one-way ticket is 5 bolivianos, or 60 euro cents .
More information in the post Travel in Bolivia by bus.