A mythical land of riches

Casa de la Moneda. Potosi
Casa de la Moneda - © Valdiney Pimenta/Wikimedia.org

Capital of the department of the same name, Potosi is regarded as one of the highest cities in the world - its elevation reaches 4,090 metres (13,420 ft) over sea level.

However, its fame and historical importance doesn't come from this fact, but the silver mines that converted the city into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world by 1672.

Those were the days when the city reached over two hundred thousand inhabitants, with over eighty six churches built, and acquiring an economic importance far superior than London and Paris at the time.

So important than it was mentioned in Miguel de Cervantes' famous novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha, where it was described as as a land of "extraordinary richness".

It is estimated that over 60.000 tons of silver were extracted by the Spanish Crown during three centuries of colonial rule, at the cost of millions of lives lost between indigenous labourers and African slaves brought to compensate the diminishing labour force. Miners were often below ground for weeks at a time.

African slaves were also forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda (mint) as human mules - acémilas humanas. Since mules would die after a couple of months pushing the mills, the colonialists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves.

View of Potosi.Bolivia
View of Potosi - © Joachim Pietsch/Wikimedia.org

It was born as a mining town in 1546, after the discovery of rich silver deposits in the Cerro Rico - Cerro de Potosí - the mountain south of the city which overlooks it.

This outstanding example of a major silver mine comprised 22 lagunas or reservoirs. Using an intricate system of aqueducts, the forced flow of water produced the hydraulic power to activate the 140 ingenios or mills to grind silver ore.

The ground ore was then amalgamated with mercury in refractory earthen kilns called huayras and then moulded into bars and stamped with the mark of the Royal Mint.

It reached full capacity by 1580 and continued until the 18th century, slowing down only after the independence of Bolivia in 1825.

The Imperial City of Potosi, as it became known after Francisco de Toledo's visit in 1572, excerted great influence in the central part of the Andes, contributing to a very unique architectural style where the Baroque blended with Indian influence.

As for the origin of its name - Potosí - it's believed to be part of Quechua language, however, others place it in the realm of the Aymara language.

Potosi Attractions

Potosi was included in the Word's Heritage List as Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1987. It was also declared Monument City of Americas by OEA.

El Suillar. Potosi, Bolivia
El Sillar. Potosi, Bolivia - ©Pattrön

How to Get There

Capitan Nicolas Rojas Airport - Potosí Airport (POI) is located 5.6 km / 3.5 miles from city center and regarded as the world’s highest commercial airport.

If you travel overland, the new bus terminal in the barrio Las Lecherías is about 30 minutes by taxi from downtown. There are daily bus connections to/from Oruro (6 hours), Sucre (3 hours), Tupiza (4/5 hours), Uyuni (6/7 hours) and Tarija (9/10 hours).

There is also a train service between Potosí and Sucre (6 hours) three times a week at the time of this writing.

Where to Stay

Potosí has a good number of lodging facilities, find some of the best hotel rates in town. If traveling on a budget as a solo/independent traveler, there are some very good hostels to choose from.


Return from Potosi to Bolivia
Unique South America Travel Experience Home