Bolivia / Travel

Potosí: The El Dorado of Times Gone By

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After one night in the small town of Uyuni, our Bolivian journey continued on to Potosí. Potosí was once the largest and richest city of the Americas, rich from the vast quantities of silver of the nearby Cerro Rico mountain. However now the silver has pretty much dried up, it is now a mining city with heaps of history and character, but riddled with poverty. We (Toby especially) had been looking forward to visiting Potosí, as we had heard it was incredibly interesting, and we were very fortunate to be able to go at all. A few weeks before there had been huge protests in the city, because the citizens want more opportunity in Potosí (like the building of a new airport for example), sick of relying solely on the mines. The protests created blockades in and around the city, making it near impossible for anyone to get in or out, without walking for miles and miles past the blockades, usually at night. We weren’t sure if we would be able to go to Potosí, and up until a week or so before, the British Foreign Office was advising against all trips there. Fortunately protests had stopped and the blockades were lifted before we arrived, and it was deemed safe for us to go. We were so grateful they were.

Potosí is strangely and unfortunately overlooked by many en route between Uyuni and Sucre (possibly due to the recent instability), Bolivia’s beautiful capital, which is such a shame as it’s a fascinating place to spend a few days. One of the main attractions of the town is a visit to the mines, which have famously awful conditions. Miners work long days and many die young due to the terrible conditions. We didn’t much fancy a tour to gawp at other people’s misery, but I understand that some tour companies work as cooperatives, putting some of the money back into the mines, so perhaps it’s not as unethical as it immediately seems. Bolivians we met seemed very surprised we didn’t want to go on a tour of the mines, it seems many tourists are very keen. Nonetheless, without visiting the mines, Potosí still had a great deal to offer for the few days we were there.

Walking the streets of Potosí is interesting within itself, and had a completely different atmosphere from all the places we had visited so far. It’s a bit rough around the edges, to say the least, with small children trying to make a few bolivianos by selling things on the streets, toxic smelling buses hurtling round the roads, and it’s tourist attractions are not the most obvious, but once we scratched beneath the surface, we became very fond of Potosí indeed.

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Potosí is full of colonial architecture, grand churches and very interesting religious museums and convents. There were two places in particular that we enjoyed. We visited the Casa Nacional de la Moneda, an excellent museum which was once the national mint, where colonial coins were produced. We had a brilliant tour, which we managed to understand despite it all being in Spanish! We also took a trip to Museo y Convento de San Fransisco, which was conveniently on the same road as our hostel, which is the oldest monastery in Bolivia. It’s got loads of examples of religious art (and a spooky crypt full of the remains of some of the city’s first European inhabitants), and after another tour in Spanish, we were taken up onto the roof for an absolutely excellent view of both Potosí and the imposing Cerro Rico.

For those entering Bolivia from Uyuni I would strongly advise you not to miss Potosí. It’s en route to both Sucre and La Paz (in fact the bus from Sucre to La Paz goes back via Potosí), so there’s no excuse to miss it!

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