Potosi, highest city in the world

After a very late check-in, we slept in and started our first day in Potosi around 11 a.m. At first we were thinking of switching hotels since the one we were at was a bit pricey and not everything was working as it should (tv, telephone, toilet, lamp, etc). But eventually these problems were fixed and we decided to stay.

We went to the Torre de Compañia de Jesus and climbed to the top where we had a spectacular view of the city and Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”), the mountain that made Potosi wealthy and famous. You see, silver was discovered in Cerro Rico, and that led to a mining boom. The truth is that during colonial times, Potosi was the largest city in the Americas and the source of enormous wealth for the Spanish empire. This led to the construction of tons of beautiful churches and buildings across the city. But all this came at the expense of the lives of Indians from across the region forced to work as slaves in miserable conditions in the mines.

The stairs leading to the top of the Torre were unbelievable tight and tiny. It was the sterotypical dark stone spiral staircase from the movies. All we needed was a torch and the movie set would have been complete. That made it all the more fun, though.

We spotted several churches from atop the Torre that we later decided to visit. After leaving the Torre, we walked down the street and saw the Convent of Santa Theresa. We then walked further south to the Arco de Cobija, a stone arch which original marked the entrance to the Spanish city from the Indian neighborhoods outside. We continued down this street to find another arch called Mejillones, and eventually another church, Iglesia de San Benito, which was in the process of being restored.

I am not exaggerating about the number of churches in this city. There are tons of them. And most have their own unique decorations, often in the mestizo-baroque style.

We ate dinner at Sumaj Orcko (the Quecha name for Cerro Rico, meaning “beautiful mountain”). What did we have? Llama steak with egg and mashed potatoes. It was quite good! Llama is lean and tasty.

Then we took the long walk back home. As we walked the city over the course of the day we noticed something different about the air. It was somehow … cleaner than in the other large cities we’d been in. Later we learned the reason: the micro buses were on strike. The truth is we’ve only used a bus in this city once. There is so much packed into the city center, that we can walk anywhere we want to go. This is quite a bit different than in La Paz or Santa Cruz.

Friday morning we took a tour of la Casa de la Moneda, the royal mint built in Potosi by the Spaniards. It is an enormous building covering an entire city block with towering walls. It looks like a fortress from the outside, and in a way, it was. They didn’t want anyone stealing gold, silver, or finished coins.

Cerro Rico produced vast quantities of silver, which is what enriched the Spaniards and made Potosi such an important city. This silver was minted into coins in the Casa de la Moneda. We got to see the huge machines that originally made this happen. Casa de la Moneda minted coins until 1953, and now it is only a museum – but the best museum in all of Bolivia. They have a vast array of artwork, coins, archaeological artifacts, mineral displays, and more. We enjoyed the tour, though the guide seemed a bit rushed and unfriendly. But she spoke English, which was a definite plus.

The guide showed us an example of an iron chest used to transport coins to Spain. The lock mechanism was very complicated and had bolts all the way around the lid of the chest. There was a fake keyhole. Even if you had the key and knew where the true keyhole was, you had to turn the key in a certain pattern to open it.

There was an enormous two-story room for squeezing silver ingots into thin plates suitable for stamping coins. In the lower level, a series of mules would walk in a circle turning a large central axis. This axis powered the machines above into which were manually fed the ingots. Each ingot had to go through 12 different presses which would make it successively thinner.

The coins were minted by hand using two dies and a hammer. Obviously this process was time consuming. But they still made 3,000 coins a day.

We also saw more modern machine introduced over successive eras, powered first by steam and then by electricity. While this machinery was smaller and simplified the process, the machines themselves were still huge.

Well, I could go on all day talking about the Casa de la Moneda, but anyway, we decided to eat lunch at the restaurant/museum San Marcos. The restaurant was built on the site of a 16th/17th century silver refinery. Several of the large machines have been converted into tables you can sit at. We had a different type of llama here, and again it was quite tasty. After eating, we climbed to the top of the refinery and had a nice view of Cerro Rico and the southern part of the city.

After lunch we decided to visit the Merado Artesanal, where you can by artwork and handicrafts. But most of the shops were closed on this day. As we were leaving I heard some music. It sounded like a parade, and I wanted to find it, so I talked Yoli into walking toward the music with me (through the slight rain). After walking quite a way and running into some dead ends, we discovered the music was originating in a military base and we couldn’t see inside. Thus foiled, we decided to head back to the hotel to meet with Yoli’s uncle David, who lives in Potosi.

Tio David was very nice and he took us to the house of one of his sisters. We met her and another sister and spent a good three hours talking and swapping stories.

After that it was time to wind down the evening, so we headed back home. The micros are back on the street, so the air isn’t quite as nice and you have more to dodge when you cross the street. It’s a bit cold here, as well. But I still really like Potosi.

About Josh Renaud

Josh Renaud is married to Yoli and together they have four beautiful niƱitos. Find him on Twitter (@Kirkman) or Google+.
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2 Responses to Potosi, highest city in the world

  1. Erik says:

    Your adventure to Bolivia is an incredible read, I agree with your mom in that every day is a new entry to read, laugh at and enjoy. I did not even have this much fun when I was exploring France/The Chunnel and London on my own, back in 1998! Bowling without the Mercenary in Chief is never the same! Looking forward to seeing you back home :) Erik

  2. Josh says:

    Erik, thanks for the nice note. I hear bowling attendance slipped this past week. Someone will have to take up the mantle of pestering everyone to attend…. :)