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Looking down upon Potosí from the barren heights of Cerro Rico, it’s hard to believe that it was once the largest urban center in South America and one of the richest metropolises in the world.

 

 

From 1545 through the mid 18th century, the Spanish empire extracted millions of tons of silver from the hills around Potosí, so much that colonists bragged that they had mined enough ore to build a silver bridge that could span from Potosí to Madrid. By the time Bolivia won its independence in 1825, the vast majority of the area’s mineral wealth had been shipped to Europe and the seemingly inexhaustible mines were in sharp decline.

 

 

Today, though, Potosí has little in the way of modern services and infrastructure to show for its age of affluence. Nevertheless, the old mines and the hopelessly friendly present-day miners tell a captivating yet sad tale.

 

 

Participating in a guided tour of Cerro Rico, once the most productive of all Potosí’s silver mines, is the highlight of any visit to Potosí and, for many, the most memorable experience they have of Bolivia. Tours, which are led by current and former miners, begin with a trip to the market where workers stock up on dynamite, blasting caps and other tools of the trade, as well as the coca leaf and cigarettes that help them tolerate the brutal conditions. Afterwards, you will climb down several levels into the mine, making your way through cramped tunnels to catch a glimpse of miners extracting silver ore much as they did during the colonial era.

 

 

If you don’t like the idea of slithering your way through narrow tunnels while miners hack and blast sections of rock away in search of the bits and pieces of a once vast silver vein, then you can cut out of the tour after the market and head over to the Royal Mint—a massive museum that once served as Spain’s first colonial mint and later as the headquarters of the Bolivian Army during the Chaco War—or take a stroll through the narrow streets of older neighborhoods to observe the city’s unique architecture.

 

Whether you brave the mines or are content to visit museums and the remnants of this once thriving mining hub, you will surely leave Potosí with a new appreciation for the bountiful human spirit that has enabled working-class poteseños to endure centuries of oppression and poverty.



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