More Information About Potosi
The Department of Potosí boasts two of Bolivia’s most famous attractions, Uyuni Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, and the Siloli Desert. Its capital is the city of Potosí, whose history of Potosí has been dominated by the legendary Mount Potosí, at whose foothills it lies. More popularly known as Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, it has been the largest and most prosperous silver mine in the history of the world. According to oral tradition, the name Potosí itself is rooted in the onomatopoeic Quechua word potoq, which reproduces the sound of a hammer striking ore.
The narrow streets of Potosí are lined with a wealth of baroque churches (as many as one every couple of blocks) and stylish colonial mansions. These, among them architectural wonders such as the gothic Potosí Cathedral, and the 18th century Torre de la Compañía convent date back to the city’s legendary heyday and reflect the splendor of that period. Arguably one of the most important colonial buildings is the the Casa Nacional de Moneda, which was once the royal mint and now houses one of South America’s best museums, boasting an expansive religious art and contemporary art collection and artifacts from its colonial history. The architectural and historical wealth are also the main reason that in 1987 Potosí became the first place in Bolivia to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Geography of Potosi
The Department of Potosí is very popular with travelers as it houses the world’s largest salt flat, Uyuni Salar, with its great expanses of salt and its “islands” of prehistoric coral. Many who visit Uyuni Salar also visit the Siloli Desert in the same tour, to appreciate its colored lagoons with feeding flamingos, its noisy fumaroles, and its surreally shaped eroded stones.
The city of Potosí is the capital of the department of the same name, in the province of Tomás Frías in southwestern Bolivia. At 13,420 feet above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world. In fact, it is the highest large city (meaning a city with over 100,000 inhabitants). The city lies at the foot of Mt Potosí (otherwise known as Cerro Rico), whose peak is currently 15,827 feet above sea level, although it was originally higher. The intense exploitation of its immense riches actually caused the mountain to diminish in height a few hundred meters.
Today, the cooperative Cerro Rico mines continue to be its greatest attraction. Visitors enter the mountain tunnels bringing small gifts for the miners they meet during tours, and learn about a mining process that has not changed much since colonial times, and other elements of local culture, such as the offerings left to the statues of El Tio, a diabolical figure held to hold the safety of the miners in his hands.
History of Potosi
Opulence and Exclusion
The Spanish founded Potosí in April of 1545. Like the rest of Bolivia, it was part of Alto Perú, under the boundaries of the Peruvian Viceroyalty (it would move to the La Plata Viceroyalty just 30 years before the wars of independence). Potosí flourished as a mining town, soon becoming the major silver supplier and the most important city in the Spanish empire. It acquired its own colonial mint, which can still be visited today, and thirty six splendidly ornamented churches. In San Francisco Church and San Lorenzo Church, one can observe art collections boasting a mixture of indigenous and Christian symbols.
After only 25 years, it already had 50,000 inhabitants. Throughout this time it was actually a mining seat pertaining to the city of La Plata (now Sucre) but acquired its autonomy and the rank of city in 1561 through a capitulation by the then Viceroy of Peru, Diego López de Zúñiga y Velasco. It then received its official name, the Villa Imperial de Potosí.
By 1672, its population had boomed to over 200,000 people and it was one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities. A Spanish saying, valer un potosí, coined by Cervantes in his famous work Don Quijote meant to be worth a fortune. Fortune is a definition of potosí still used today by the Real Académia de Español. However, by this time the silver veins of Cerro Rico began to deplete.
The impressive growth up to this point was fueled by indigenous laborers, some paid workers and some forced to work the mines by Francisco de Toledo, the Count of Oropesa. They died by the thousands due to exposure, brutal labor, 16 hour workdays, and mercury poisoning. A diminishing work force necessitated the importation of African slaves in the beginning of the 1600s, both for mining and to work as human mules in the mint, where actual mules died off in only a couple months and were more expensive to replace.
Independence and Decline
While the Spanish Crown was occupied in the Napoleonic wars of 1808 and the uprisings of La Paz and La Plata in 1809, Potosí assumed a leading role in the Bolivian Wars of Independence. It fell under both Royalist and Patriot control numerous times over the 15 year struggle. During this time, the population fell to only 8,000 inhabitants. Under the Royalist occupation of Juan José Castelli of the 1st Auxiliary Army from Buenos Aires, with its attendant martial excess, Potosí became almost completely hostile to the Spanish cause.
The fabled silver mines were largely exhausted by this time, causing tin to become Potosí’s main export and marking the beginning of a slow decline. Tin, a metal which the Spanish never afforded much consideration, saved Potosí from becoming a ghost town. The exploitation began in the first half of the 19th century, but by the 20th century over-production caused international prices to fall, and Potosí fell into poverty.
In 1991, local authorities undertook an ambitious Plan de Rehabilitación del Centro, renovating many previously neglected streets and buildings, including the very popular Casa de la Moneda and the Cathedral.