Potosi – the highest city in the world!


After our last horrific experience on the Bolivian buses we definitely didn’t want to leave the mountainous region of Tupiza to our next destination; Potosi, by night. Particularly since it is the highest city in the world at 4,090 meters and so would be without doubt a scary ascent along some pretty dangerous mountain roads. Of course given our luck we could only get an overnight bus, although as per usual we were assured that it was a modern bus with a semi cama (lay down) seat with loads of space.

Although we came as prepared as we could have, nothing could have made this 12 hour journey bearable! As usual we were trapped in some of the smallest seats with even less room in the aisles since Bolivians seem to carry their entire life contents with them in boxes, refusing to actually put their cargo in the bottom of the bus like normal people do. We later found out that people actually break into the bottom of the busses with the cargo to get a free ride, usually stealing as much as they can from unlocked cases! We also heard of livestock being transported in bags…one traveller told us that he saw a bag moving along the aisle one night thinking it must have been a figment if his imagination, but of course being in Bolivia, it was in fact live chickens!

I think I could have handled the live chickens, but the one thing I couldn’t was the freezing cold temperature which at night feels sub zero, only getting
colder the higher you go; the breezy widows that might as well be open not helping matters. We arrived in the main new bus terminal of Potosi two hours ahead of schedule which meant it was still dark with nothing open. Since we hadn’t pre booked anywhere we made the executive decision to set up camp on a bench inside and try to finally catch some zee’s until daylight….this is without question the closest I have ever felt to being homeless and not a memory I would ever like to recall ever again

Despite the pain endured to actually get there, Potosi proved to be one of our favourite cities in Bolivia thus far. The city lies beneath the Cerro de Potosi: a mountain popularly thought to be made of silver ore which not only dominates the city but has without question shaped its history and the people of Potosi.

The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosí’s historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. This silver was taken by llama and mule train to the port which is now part of Chile to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets.

Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, “to be worth a potosí” (that is, “a fortune”).

According to the travellers bible; the Lonely Planet, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783, helping to underwrite the Spanish economy for over 200 years. Due to such extensive mining, the mountain itself has diminished in height; before the mining started it was a few hundred metres higher than it is today and is effectively now like a Swiss cheese that experts think only has around 5 years worth of mining left in it.

The main reason for travellers coming to the city is to do the infamous working mine tour which as with most things in Bolivia is supposed to be one of the most dangerous tours to do. I won’t go into on this post since it definitely deserves an entirely separate post of its own.

In 1672, a mint was established to coin silver and water reservoirs were built to fulfill the growing population’s needs. At that time more than eighty-six churches were built which makes the city one of the prettiest architecture in Bolivia, although, it has fallen into decline following the economic slow down after the 1800’s

We spent a lot longer than we expected in Potosi since we had a great time wandering around the various markets, particularly at night since it’s the first time we felt like it was actually the Christmas season. At night the beautiful colonial squares are transformed into a neon jungle that would even give tacky Russians a run for their money.

The city was also the first time we actually were able to speak to some locals since we had found them extremely rude and a little racist up until that point; with most simply seeing you as an ATM machine. Everyone in Potosi was really welcoming and were interested in sharing knowledge about our very different cultures. We got a load of good food tips from young couple we met as well as our new friend, the ‘pastel lady’, who we would go to twice a day for a hot drink and pastry.

Eating in the local markets is by far the cheapest way to eat here, with meals costing as little as a pound. Given the altitude of the city the locals tend to eat their heaviest meal at breakfast and lunch, only eating a snack at night since it’s harder for your body to digest the food. There is a whole host of weird and wonderful creations served up in little stalls with nothing more than a bench and a gas hob.

Given my unsuccessful ordering in Spanglish, one particular morning I decided to simply point at something a local was eating whilst Andre stuck with a trusty soup which ironically ended up being Andres worst nightmare! What I had infact ordered was some form of trotter (as with most meats in Bolivia you’re never too sure what the actual animal is!) and after trying the slimy, rubbery meat I soon realised it wasn’t for me. As usual Andre decided to pick on me for being so rude and offending them for not eating what is clearly a delicacy in their culture given the £1.50 price tag. To prove a point he decided to scoff down my plate too, insisting that he was enjoying it and it was the tastiest thing he had ever eaten. I got the last laugh since he spent the next 4 days pissing from his arse!

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