It’s been a while since a South American blog has appeared on this website. After traveling to Russia in early 2020, and then the COVID pandemic hitting the headlines, travel blogs took a bit of a backseat. The thought of writing about great travel memories is a bit tough with no traveling to look forward to!
Having finished off the Russia blogs, it’s time to continue with our South American travels. Last time out we were in the wonderful city of Sucre, Bolivia. We hopped in a taxi one early, cold morning looking for a bus that would take us to the city of Potosi.
It’s hard not to find a bus to Potosi, to be honest. There are countless people shouting ‘Potosi, Potosi’ in the Sucre bus terminal. We are approached by two women as soon as we hop out of the taxi. They are both trying to get us to take their bus. We have been traveling around South America long enough at this stage to know that, although they have good intentions, these sellers will never be the most honest. We politely told them that we don’t need help (they follow us anyway, shouting the whole time), and go to check out the best bus for us to get. In no time we are on our way to Potosi.
Truth be told, we hadn’t planned to go to Potosi. There wasn’t much there to attract us and it isn’t exactly on the standard tourist trail. We were beginning to think about the famous salt flats of Bolivia and were still trying to make our minds up. Do we go to Uyuni to do the traditional route, or do we go to Tupiza, which takes the less known, but increasingly popular route to the Bolivian Salt Flats. Looking at the map I saw that Potosi was almost the perfect position for us to make our minds up, it serves as almost a fork in the road, one way goes to Uyuni, the other to Tupiza. So on the bus, we went, and I began reading my rarely used Lonely Planet book to see what exactly there is to do in Potosi.
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the whole world, standing at an impressive 4,090 meters above sea level. Perhaps this is why it isn’t so touristy. It can get hard to breathe at this altitude if you haven’t acclimatized correctly. We have been in the Andes for almost 3 months now, so altitude sickness is not an issue.
Potosi and Cerro Rico Mountain
Potosi is well known due to the mountain that protrudes over the city. A mountain that has brought so much attention and devastation. Cerro Rico – Spanish for the rich mountain – was THE major supply of silver for the Spanish Empire until the 18th Century. The silver would get transported, via llamas and mules, to the Pacific coast, up to Panama, across the short isthmus of Panama to the Atlantic coast, and then across to Spain. This town, and this mountain, kept the Empire flourishing. Indeed there is a Spanish saying that still exists – “vale un Potosi” – essentially meaning “to be of great worth”.
After about 3 hours, our bus pulled up on the outskirts of the town. This is quite unusual as they would normally pull into a bus terminal. We hopped out and instantly you could feel that the temperature had dropped, despite the clear blue skies and the sun beating down on us. We jumped into a taxi that looked like it was being held together with glue and told the driver the name of our accommodation.
Things to do in Potosi
We had quite a short time planned in Potosi – just 2 nights – and so we quickly began planning what to do. It was about 4 pm when we arrived, so really we just had a couple of hours today and then all of tomorrow, not much time. Below is what we managed to fit into our short stay:
San Francisco of Potosi Temple and Convent
This one came well recommended by any blogs we visited, so it was quite a relief when we realized it was literally a stone’s throw away from our hostel. One thing the blogs didn’t mention, and we won’t be able to correct, was a lack of opening hours. You see in not particularly touristy cities in South America, opening hours are flexible, and not set in stone. So it was a massive relief when we saw that the church was indeed open!
We had to pay 20 Bolivianos (~€2.50) for a tour of the church, which ends with the highlight on the roof. More on that later. The tour itself was pretty random and just involved us looking at the church altar before heading down to view some catacombs. San Francisco is the oldest monastery in Bolivia it seems. The highlight of the tour, and what most people come for is at the end when they take you up to the roof. Here you get some great views of the city, and of course Cerro Rico.
Don’t expect the tour guide to speak any English. We have heard that sometimes the tour doesn’t run but they will still allow you to go to the roof for 20 Bolivianos (~€2.50). I wouldn’t worry too much about missing the tour, the roof is the highlight!
Go underground on the Cerro Rico Mine Tour
Cerro Rico Background
Cerro Rico dominates the city of Potosi. Both geographically and also historically. As I have already mentioned, this was the main source of silver for the Spanish Empire. The mountain was pillaged by the Spanish for centuries. Slaves, especially the indigenous community in Potosi were put to work here in order to keep the Spanish Empire thriving. Its history is dark and brutal. So it may come as a surprise that this isn’t necessarily history. Cerro Rico mines are still open and operational today.
The Devil’s Miner
One night in Arequipa, after returning from our Colca Canyon tour, we watched a documentary on YouTube, called ‘The Devil’s Miner’. This 2005 film follows a 14-year-old Bolivian boy who works in the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi. The young age of Basilo and his 12-year-old brother is shocking enough, but then you see the conditions they work in. They will often chew coca leaves just to nullify the hunger they are feeling, in order to work longer shifts. The film focuses on the character “Tio”, a devil-like statue that all workers pray to and give offerings to keep them safe in the mines, and to help them to find a vein of silver, in a mountain that has been depleted of it for 3 centuries.
So we were intrigued if anything had changed since this documentary was released. 13 years had passed, so it was hard to believe that there were still people working these mines. It was also very important for us to do as ethically sound a tour as was possible. To ensure that our money went to the tour guides (who are miners themselves) and not to some company who would then pay the guides little. We organized the tour through our hostel, Casa Blanca, who assured us this was the case.
The Cerro Rico Mines Tour
The first step on our tour was to go to the tour agency office, Potochij Tours, to collect the other members of our group. We only had 3 other people in the group, 1 of whom wasn’t actually going into the mines but wanted to see the other parts of the tour.
This tour company is run by an ex-miner called Antonio, who is also going to be our tour guide. Antonio is a character, to say the least. We hop into a minivan and are taken to a storehouse. Here we get fitted for the outfit we will wear down the mines. We get overalls, helmets, boots, and torches. Some obligatory photos are taken and off we go.
The Miners Market
The next stop is to a local market, “The Miner’s Market”. The tourists are taken to this market in order to buy gifts and supplies for the miners that you will meet. The main recommended items to buy are coca leaves, chocolate, fizzy drink, dynamite, and err, cigarettes! A healthy bunch I guess. Then again, their occupation isn’t exactly the healthiest. We purchase some coca leaves and fizzy drinks while Antonio poses with some dynamite in his mouth. I did say he was a character! Yes, you can buy dynamite on the side of the road in Bolivia. This is apparently the only place in the world that this is possible. We also bought some surgical face mask’s to wear. Antonio recommended them as the dust can be quite intense down in the mines.
Into the Mine
With supplies in hand, we headed back to the minivan and up to Cerro Rico. Antonio gave a brief history of the mine we were entering, and how he used to work in it himself. He gave up working in the mines after his father, who worked there also, passed away. Indeed, since the times of the Spanish Empire it is estimated that around 8 million people have died in, or because of, the Cerro Rico mines.
Antonio had purchased 98% alcohol at the Miners Market and he poured some of it at the entrance to the mine. For Pachamama, for a safe journey… The entrance to the mine was small, with a ladder going down to the first floor. Claustrophobia cannot be a concern for people doing this tour, that’s for sure. We head down, turning the torches on our helmets on for good measures. It’s dark down here. We were glad that we had bought the face masks and were wearing helmets. It’s cramped and dusty We are lucky that it is just for a few minutes we have to be down here, and not every day.
Our first stop was to see the mine’s “Tio”. As I mentioned early, this was a god-like figure that the miners trusted to keep them safe, in exchange for offerings and prayers. God was who they believed in above ground, Tio is their God in the mines. He is an extension of Pachamama. Antonio gave an offering of coca leaves, took a sip of the 98% alcohol, and poured some for Tio also.
We backtracked a bit and headed further into the mines. Antonio let out a shout and we heard a response back. We met our first miner. He was pleasant and gave us a smile while Antonio handed some of our gifts over to him. A small price to pay for being able to see this man working in such unsuitable conditions. Antonio explained to us how the mines are still the biggest employment opportunity for people in the city. It has its health risks, but the money is a lot better than working in other areas of the city.
After going down another level we bumped into some more miners who were working down a particularly small passage. Antonio told us that they were about to explode some dynamite and we could stick around and watch it if we liked. We all backed off and stopped below a shaft wall waiting for the dynamite to explode. It was at this point, cramped into a small Bolivian mine, thousands of miles from home, that I began to wonder just what exactly I was doing! We waited, and waited, and the dynamite never exploded. Not sure if that was a good thing or not. But a part of me was definitely relieved!
After about an hour stooped in the mines, our eyes adjusted to the sunlight and our dust-covered overalls. I was relieved to be out of there, but also happy that I did tour. Many people fear that this is a voyeuristic tour – looking at people less well off than you working in these abhorrent conditions. I would counteract it with the fact that it opens your eyes to where the things we take for granted come from. This is where silver comes from, and this is what the people who retrieve the silver have to do to get it. There is a human cost to some of the luxuries that we are able to enjoy.
The tour cost 80 Bolivianos (~€10) and going with Potochij Tours means that the majority of that money gets pumped back into the mine. The Miners Market gifts cost roughly 20 Bolivianos (~€2.50) per person. Do not do this tour if you have a fear of small, cramped places. Also, remember that this mine is not intended as a place for tourists to visit. it is an active, working mine, and accidents can and will happen. So do this tour at your own risk.
National Mint of Bolivia
The National Mint of Bolivia or Casa Nacional de la Moneda is probably the best museum in Potosi. It is the place where Bolivia’s first coins we produced. As we have seen, there was a good supply of silver in the area to do this.
Having seen where the silver was excavated from in the morning, we decided to head to the National Mint in the afternoon. Tours are advertised as taking place at 9am, 10:30am, 2:30pm & 4:30pm Tue-Sat, 9am & 10:30am Sun. This was a Saturday so we planned to take the 4.30 pm tour. We had just missed the 2.30 pm tour due to lunch. Unfortunately, when we got to the museum they said that unless more people showed up, we wouldn’t be able to take the tour. Nobody else showed, so there was no tour for us! While this was a shame, we still got to see the fascinating courtyard. Plan ahead for this one! Tickets cost 40 Bolivianos (~€5) for entrance and another 20 BOB (~€2.50) for photography.
Plaza 10 de Noviembre
Potosi’s main square was probably the biggest surprise of our visit here – we didn’t expect it to be quite so beautiful. The park is also comprised of the Obelisco Potosi – the perfect spot to sit on a bench and people watch.
Where we stayed
As we mentioned we stayed in the Casa Blanca hostel. The location is perfect, close to both Plaza 10 de Noviembre and San Francisco church. It is also the main hostel in the town, so it will be full of like minded travelers. We were quite tired when in Potosi and it was hard to get to bed early as the noise in the hostel went on quite late. This is our only issue with the hostel though, and we would definitely recommend it when in Potosi!
So after a whirlwind 2 days in Potosi, we had experienced the mines of Cerro Rico, and also, decided on our Salt Flats route! Research had shown us that the route through Tupiza both started and ended in Tupiza, but we needed to get to Chile, so we would be taking the traditional route. With that in mind, we hopped on a bus destined for Uyuni!