Potosi is the capital city of the Potosi department. At an astounding elevation of 4,090 metres (13,420 feet), it is one of the highest elevated cities in the world. The city lies at the foot of Cerro Rico (‘Rich Hill’), the mountain and silver mine which made Potosi such a historically important city.
Potosi was a major supplier of silver for Spain during the New World Spanish Empire. The silver was carried to the Pacific coast and up to Panama City. From there it was taken to Portobelo, a port city in Panama, where it was put onto the Spanish fleet ships.
At the height of its time, Potosi was a rich booming city due to the metal industry and its supply of silver, but went into decline and poverty after the silver diminished. There are still miners extracting metals and ores today, but the job is difficult and conditions are not ideal. One can still visit and see the miners at work. Aside from this, Potosi has many impressive churches, and walking the streets you’ll see colourful colonial architecture. Below is our Potosi travel guide with information on all the best things to do, places to go and what not to miss.
CASA NACIONAL DE LA MONEDA – The main attraction of Potosi, this is one of South America’s finest museums. The first mine was constructed in 1572 on the site of the current Casa de Justicia. The Casa Nacional de la Moneda is the replacement one - taking up a whole block of the city, this is a fascinating, historical building. The building was built between 1753 and 1773 in order to control colonial coins. Those bearing the mint mark “P” were named Potosi. This structure has walls one meter thick, and over time served as a prison, as well as the main headquarters for the Bolivian army during the Chaco War. Just inside the entrance a beautiful stone fountain can be found, and a mask of Baccus was hung there in 1865 by Eugenio Martin Moulon.
Apart from the beauty of the building itself, there are quite a few historical items. Contained here are famous paintings, including the painting “La Virgen de Cerro”, an anonymous work. Also included are wooden cogs driven by a mule, used to shape the silver to the right size. These cogs were replaced by steam-powered ones in the 19th century. The last coins minted were in 1953. Here you can find 2 hour guided tours offered in both Spanish and English, with the Spanish tour being more detailed.
SANTA TERESA CONVENT – This convent was founded in 1685. Here you can do a tour lasting approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes, which gives a great perspective of what life would have been like for the nuns living in this convent. It even describes how it was when these 15-year-old girls arrived at the door, with this being the last time that they would see their families. Inside are a number of famous art pieces, including the superb Madonna by Alonso Cano, and multiple works by Melchor Perez de Holguin (the most famous painter in Bolivia). You can also see the remnants of a skull sitting on the dining tables, as well as wire whisks which the nun used for self-flagellation. The building itself is also beautiful, with two lovely courtyards.
MUSEO AND CONVENTO DE SAN FRANCISCO – Founded in 1547 this is the oldest monastery in Bolivia. Due to its small size, it was destroyed in 1707 and over the following 19 years rebuilt. This building also contains some fine religious art, including “The Erection of the Cross” by Melchor Perez de Holguin, as well as some works done by Juan de La Cruz Tapia. This museum and convent offers a tour lasting 1 hour and 30 minutes. It takes you up to the roof where you can get a view of all of Potosi, as well as below to the catacombs where you can find many human bones and remains.
LOS INGENIOS – On the banks of the Rio Huaman Mayu in upper Potosi, the remains of the smelter that was used to extract the silver can be seen. Originally there were 82 of them along a 15 kilometre stretch. Some of the smelters can date back to the 1570’s and were used up until the 1800’s.
CATEDRAL – The construction of the cathedral of Potosi began in 1564 and was completed by 1600. It lasted up until the 1800’s when it collapsed. Today most of it is reconstructed, built to resemble the original. Here you can climb up the bell tower to enjoy the view of the city.
LA CAPILLA DE NUESTRA SENORA DE JERUSALEN – Built in honor of La Virgen de la Candelaria, it was rebuilt more lavishly in the 1700’s. This beautiful chapel contains a series of paintings depicting biblical events, as well as some work by Melchor Perez de Holguin.
*** WHAT NOT TO MISS ***
The main tourist attraction is the Cerro Rico.
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the silver mining and the mint.
Some cheap food can be found in Mercado Central (Villa Imperial) – here you can find pretty much anything, even giant, mouth-watering cakes.
If you fancy dining out, try Sky Room (Calle Bolivar 701), where you’ll get a nice view of the city, as well as of Cerro Rico. A small but fantastic restaurant is Manzana Magica (Oruro 239) – here the food is very good, reasonably priced, and is suitable for vegetarians. The service is also excellent. Another couple of places worth visiting are Potocchi (Millares 13), for its delicious menu and hospitable owner, and 4060 (Hoyos 1), which has more of a pub atmosphere.
One of the best places to enjoy the nightlife is La Casona 1775 Pub (Frias 41) – this is in the 1775 home of the royal envoy. It’s a friendly place that on Friday nights stages live bands. The music isn’t played super loud, so it doesn’t intrude too much if you want to relax, or have a drink with some friends. The food is pretty tasty too, if you get peckish.
The climate is quite cold in Potosi due to its altitude. From October to April the average temperature is 9 degrees Celsius, and from May to September it’s 6 degrees Celsius. The highest temperature is in November (at around 12.4 degrees), and the lowest is in June (at around 4.6 degrees). There is little rainfall throughout the year, with the most precipitation occurring in January, and the least in July.
There are overnight buses offered from La Paz, leaving around 9pm, and ranging from B$47-B$147 in price. The more expensive ones provide a bed-like seat (cama), and the less expensive ones come with just a seat. There are washrooms onboard. The journey time is 10 hours, arriving into Potosi the following morning at the Nueva Terminal, located 20-30 minutes from the city centre.
Daily buses from Oruro take 6 hours. Buses in the morning and evening from Tupiza take 4-5 hours and cost 40-50 B$. If you want to travel by plane from La Paz, the journey time is around 2 hours to Potosi with BoA, and the flight goes via Cochabamba.
Most of the places to stay in Potosi can be found in and around the main square of the city. Hostal Eucalyptus (Linares Street 88) is a good option: the rooms are spacious and clean, the staff are very friendly, breakfast is included, and there’s even a rooftop bar where you can enjoy the city views. If you feel bad from the altitude, there’s free mate de coca available, and you can use the hostel’s kitchen to cook your own meals if you’re on a budget.
Like all cities in Bolivia, make sure you are not wandering alone after dark, and choose your taxis carefully.