One of the world’s highest cities, Potosí is best known for its mining riches.
At its peak in the 16th century, the city produced 60 percent of all silver in the world and was associated with remarkable wealth. Centuries later, Potosí’s Cerro Rico (literally “Rich Mountain”) has been honeycombed to great depths by extraction workers yet still contains the world’s largest silver deposit.
POTOSÍ: RICH MINING HERITAGE AT HIGH ALTITUDE
My main motivation to visit Potosí was precisely to explore its mining heritage. Tours to Potosí’s many cooperative mines are organised by numerous agencies in the city (I went with Altiplano) and often come discounted in low season. In theory, it is better to shop for an agency with a fair profit sharing scheme with the miners, but few travellers normally get this picky.
I had been expecting a very muddy and dusty experience and came wearing my worst gear. While that would have been essential a few years ago, these days most agencies provide visitors with protective outer clothing, hard hats, rubber boots and even surgical masks. Our small group must have made quite a comical sight emerging from Altiplano’s changing outpost in the outskirts of Potosí into the steep narrow streets, ready to stock up on presents for miners and continue further up Cerro Rico.
I may have been well equipped, but nothing could prepare me psychologically for the actual experience of entering a working mine. I very much hate enclosed spaces: one of my most recurring nightmares is getting stuck in a dark cave, unable to see my next step. I can get aggressive if I feel cornered in any way. None of that, of course, made a great case for visiting a place as claustrophobia-inducing as a Potosí silver mine.
As we entered Rosario mine inside the mountain, lighting the way with torches attached to our hats in a true miner fashion, I found the experience almost tolerable. I could stand upright and found our guide’s commentary on the geological peculiarities around us fascinating. But things quickly got worse: the air got both hotter and dustier as we went deeper and the passage narrowed down, forcing all tall Europeans to walk bent nearly in half. Already struggling to breathe properly at altitude, I found breathing inside the mountain even more difficult due to the high concentration of minerals and dust in the air. And the surgical mask I had been given only made things worse: clinging to my face in the heat (temperatures in the mine can reach 40 degrees Celcius), it left me panting desperately for breath – the breath of that chemical-filled air already thin on oxygen.
The Rosario mine had celebrated a 14-year anniversary the day before and there were very few miners around. The few that were there made for a heart-breaking sight. Imagine thin men all covered in black dust, emerging from dark alleys manually pushing heavy wheelbarrows and frequently stopping to spit violently, and you will get the picture. Some cover their noses, eyes and mouth with protective gear but most go without. Each stint underground is several hours long, and a working day can last anywhere between 10 and 12 hours, six days per week. No wonder life expectancy of a miner rarely exceeds 40 years, and life-threatening diseases like silicosis and asthma are ripe.
The miners believe that the underground areas are the property of the Devil, or “Tio” (“Uncle”), as the miners call him. To pacify Tio, miners erect simple clay statues of him in the mine and leave offerings of alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes. As interested as I was to see the local version, by the time we reached it, I was suffering a mild-form panic attack. For the past 10 minutes, we had descended into holes emerging under our feet and were almost reduced to crawling through some particularly narrow sections of the mine. I was panting for breath, tears and sweat streaming uncontrollably down my cheeks, and desperately wished to return to an open area.
Thankfully, the Tio had been placed in a slightly larger niche at the end of our walk. I sat down for a rest and managed to compose myself sufficiently to walk slowly back and out of the mine – forever.
Potosí was not all about visiting claustrophobic places reeking of chemicals though. I had a quick walk around the city on two afternoons and found numerous architectural pieces in colonial style. I am possibly completely wrong, but some buildings in Potosí would not look out of place in Tbilisi or Baku all the way in the Caucasus.
As in Sucre, I found the best way to see Potosí was from the rooftops of tall buildings. I got a private tour of the city’s main religious symbol, the Cathedral, which included a visit to one of its bell towers for a great view of Potosí’s main squares, Plaza 10 de Noviembre and Plaza 6 de Agosto (commemorating independence of the Potosí region and Bolivia, respectively). My second rooftop visit was to Convento de San Francisco and I found the view from its large dome even more impressive.
Note: Following a very good experience, I recommend Altiplano Tours for visits to one of Potosí’s silver mines. If visiting a mine, take plenty of water along as temperatures can soar up to 40 degrees Celsius. I found the experience borderline unpleasant so prepare yourself mentally and remember that it will soon be over and it will all have been worth it! Potosí itself is somewhat run down but worth a couple of days’ stay. Like everywhere in Bolivia, I found it difficult to photograph locals without upsetting them, but the square behind the central market building is often busy and lets even an obvious “gringo” keep a low profile, providing perfect ground for candid shots.
POTOSÍ TO TUPIZA: UNEXPECTED RUSH AS BOLIVIA GOES CAR-FREE
My departure to Tupiza could not have been better planned. I had thoroughly investigated all bus timetables and was going to take the first departure at 7am, with a view to arrive in Tupiza around 3-4pm and still have some daylight hours to explore – before continuing to Uyuni the next day.
What I failed to incorporate into my plans was Bolivia’s Día del Peatón y del Ciclista (Pedestrian and Cyclist Day), which takes place every first Sunday of September. Between 8am and 6pm on the day, no automotive vehicles (besides some emergency services) are allowed to run in the entire country. Scheduled public services are cancelled and not a single car is in sight on Bolivia’s vast road network.
I could hardly be blamed for not knowing. Despite being around since 1999, the event is unique to Bolivia and is unknown elsewhere. I had seen the day being advertised on a large poster in Potosí but paid little attention: it is fair to say that no-one would reasonably interpret a “pedestrian” day as one with no vehicle traffic whatsoever. I had previously made inquiries at Potosí bus station for the specific date and was given the standard timetable. And even my hotel in Potosí readily ordered me a taxi to the bus station in the very morning of the Día del Peatón – mentioning nothing about the bus station being shut and no buses departing for the next 12 hours.
Learning the news at the bus station, I was more amused than anything else. I could of course stay on in Potosí until the evening and catch the evening bus to Tupiza. That would however mean getting to Tupiza well in the middle of the night and having barely a moment of rest before departing on a 4-day jeep tour to Uyuni the next day. That would also mean missing any chance to see more of Tupiza. And, frankly, two days were more than enough for Potosí.
My Spanish is not the world’s best, but I quickly found out that a limited number of vehicles were running for another 30 minutes (8am being the cut-off point). I made my way from Potosí’s glitzy new bus terminal to the “old” bus station, still used informally by locals for southern routes. Predictably, of the handful of buses and minibuses there all were heading to Tarija, Bolivia’s vineyard capital a much larger city than Tupiza. I briefly considered going to Tarija and continuing to Tupiza in the evening but the thought of 8+ hours in an impossibly crowded vehicle seemed anything but appealing. Moreover, I was not at all sure how those informal transfers would be allowed to run the entire way: I was told police checkpoints had been planted on all roads precisely to prevent locals from bending the Día del Peatón rules!
After a second’s consideration, I ended up playing my “rich banker on holiday” card and stroke a private deal with a minivan owner to take me all the way to Tupiza. This would cost just south of Bs. 800 – ridiculous money for a budget country like Bolivia – but would solve all other problems. Conveniently, I had been told that the price included the bribes payable at police checkpoints along the way and would get me to Tupiza in under four hours.
We exited our first checkpoint at Potosí city border at 7:59am sharp. A little longer and I would not have been allowed to travel on! The checkpoints continued and the adrenaline was positively overflowing at every stage. About half-way to Tupiza, in Santiago de Cotagaita, a key bridge had been cordoned off by police and lengthy negotiations by my committed driver did not help. We ended up driving our modest (and decidedly non 4WD) minibus around the bridge along bumpy country roads and even crossed a not-insignificant river (heaven knows what damage was done to the vehicle) before rejoining the main road for the final stretch to Tupiza.
Albeit miffed by the whole Día del Peatón experience, I could not help complimenting myself on choosing to pay up and depart in daylight. The landscapes along the way were increasingly spectacular. The mountains around became more and more colourful, and the terrain – more and more dry, with cacti of all shapes soon dominating the landscape. In the backdrop of the impossibly blue skies, the surroundings were absolutely breath-taking. I would definitely have regretted travelling overnight and missing this.
Note: Do remember that the first Sunday of September in Bolivia is Día del Peatón! No vehicles will be running for most of the day anywhere in the country. Not having vehicles around will be a joy if you want to explore a city but a nightmare if you need to get somewhere far. Scheduled public transport will restart again at 6pm on the day. On any other day, getting from Potosí to Tupiza is easy enough: there are at least two early morning buses and two evening buses daily. The distance between the two is nothing insurmountable (about 250 km), but this is Bolivia and the journey will not take less than 8 hours.
TUPIZA: QUIET CITY IN A SPECTACULAR SETTING
Upon reaching the city border of Tupiza, my driver seemed to have had enough of the police-dodging stress and refused to go any further. I walked the final 3km to my hotel. This is when I truly appreciated the advantages of Día del Peatón: choking traffic everywhere was one of my biggest challenges in Bolivia and made every city exploration an ordeal. Seeing Tupiza residents strolling and cycling casually on roads normally occupied by vehicles made a welcome change.
Void of obvious tourist attractions, Tupiza quickly won a place in my heart for its peacefulness. The city certainly did not look deserted, but the pace of life here seemed to happen slowly. Locals were enjoying their Sunday sitting along the banks of what would have been a river (Rio Tupiza) but had dried out almost entirely. Tupiza does not receive much rain during the year, and pretty much none at all during between June and August.
I spent a few hours walking around Tupiza’s quiet streets. The central square (Plaza Independencia), first eerily empty, was gradually filling up with local families. On top of a small hill in the middle of the town, Cerro Corazón de Jesús, local teenagers were busy taking selfies and making attempts at smoking: pretty much like anywhere else in the world. The views from the hill towards the crimson red mountains around the city were absolutely worth the short hike to the top. And a delicious fry-up was waiting for me in town after descent. The border with Argentina being quite near, several eateries in town were advertising meat “straight out of Argentina”.
Tupiza is a perfect base to explore the surrounding countryside, which can best be described as a series of stills from a western movie. The scenery here is criss-crossed with deep ravines (quebradas), colourful mountains and entire fields of cacti. It is popular to explore on foot and horseback; sadly though, I did not have any time set aside for Tupiza’s spectacular surroundings. After a short night’s sleep I had planned to depart on a 4-day jeep trip towards Uyuni, across some of the most amazing scenery I will have seen in my life.
Note: Tupiza may look boring at first but I would personally have loved to stay longer, just chilling before continuing to Argentina (via Villazon) or Uyuni on a jeep tour. There is little to do in Tupiza itself but its spectacular surroundings certainly justify a longer stay. Tupiza has a train station, with trains departing to Uyuni and Villazon erratically and often during the night. The railway link to Uyuni reportedly follows a non-scenic route, making the bus a much better choice (having taken the 4-day jeep tour between the two cities, I missed out on either). I can highly recommend El Arriero restaurant on Tupiza’s main street (Avenida Regimento Chichas): it may look a little shabby but serves great churrasco (jucy grilled meat) during the entire day (and not just lunch and dinner as is common in Bolivia).