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Potosí takes a sad place in history. When the Spanish conquistadores found silver ore in the surrounding mountains they built silver mines. They named the mountain Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) and used slave labor to bring the riches of the mountain to the surface. Indians perished by the thousands not simply from exposure and brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning.

The city of Potosí is one of those places where you want to get away from as quickly as possible. The Silver Mines are the tourist attraction and are a must see to have a slight idea of the still abdominal working conditions that rule there.

Soon after the foundation of Potosí on April 10th, 1546 on the foot of the hill the Cerro Rico proved to be very fertile. The fabulous wealth it produced soon made the city the largest of the Americas with a population over 200,000 people.

In 1672, a mint was established to coin silver and water reservoirs were built to fulfill the growing population's needs. At that time more than 86 churches were built.

Areal View from Potosi - Bolivia During the early 19th century many churches were looted when Alto Peru (the name of Bolivia before independence) was struggling with independence.

Check out some of these wonderful Potosi budget hotels and splendid hotels in Potosi!

Today Potosí is the highest city of the world. It lies on an altitude of 3,967 meters (13,015 ft) in Southwestern Bolivia and has a population of 143,000. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The Silver Mines of Potosí

Silver mine worker in Potosi - Bolivia The main attraction for tourists are the Silver Mine Tours Potosí has to offer. It will make a big impression on you. Imagine yourself entering in a mine shaft at an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) where the air is very shallow already. Feeling dizzy?

That's exactly what happened with me when I entered the dark mine shaft. My guide had advised me to buy some coca leafs as they perform miracles against sorroche, or high altitude sickness.

I'd just entered the pitch dark shaft when I suddenly felt my blood draining from my body. I knew I was going to faint soon. Quickly I started chewing on some coca leafs and yes... the discomfort disappeared immediately.

Devil Statue in the Cerro Rico in Potosi - Bolivia The mine workers chew coca leafs all day. Not only does it alleviate sorroche (altitude sickness), it also allows them to work long hours without feeling hungry.

In the middle of the Cerro Rico there is a chamber where the workers worship a devil statue. It's offered coca leafs for prosperity and good luck.

If you take a silver mine tour you can offer the mine workers a bag of coca leafs or, if you prefer, some cigarettes.

Working conditions are horrendous to say the least but I can highly recommend taking the tour. It'll be remembered till the end of your days.

Learn more about Potosi here

Other Must See Bolivia Travel Places

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Lake Titicaca La Paz Salar de Uyuni


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© All photographs by Mark Van Overmeire*

*Photo "Areal View of Potosi" by Gerd Breitenbach