Located higher than 4000m above sea level, Potosi once was the economic centre of Bolivia. It is known for its silver mines, and while nobody knows how much silver has come out of these mines until today, legend says that you could build a bridge from South America to Spain with it and still have metal left.
Visiting Potosi means you’ll get a history lesson that you won’t forget any time soon.
Soon after the precious metal was found, the Spanish started mining in this area. First, they enslaved the indigenous population and forced them to work in the mines. When most of the natives had died due to horrible working conditions, they brought in slaves from Africa.
Eventually, Bolivia got independence and slavery was abolished, but working conditions have not improved much. Eight million people have died in those mines until today.
Despite its dark history, these days, Potosi is a beautiful city with a colonial centre that is well worth a visit. Some mines are still active and can be visited. But besides mine tours, there are plenty more things to do in Potosi.
The best things to do in Potosi, Bolivia
#1 Visit the silver mines
A visit to the silver mines is fascinating, eye-opening and terrifying at the same time. We went with Big Deal Tours, the only tour operator that employs ex-miners as guides.
A mine tour in Potosi will shock you; it might make you feel uncomfortable, but it is also one of the best things to do in this city. Plus, it will help you to truly understand the history of Potosi and how it has turned into the city that it is today.
Our guide, Wilson, started by taking us to the miner’s market, where you can buy coca leaves or dynamite as gifts for the miners. Yes, dynamite. You just walk up to one of the stalls, say that you want to buy dynamite and pay less than 4$ for it.
The next stop was one of the plants where minerals are separated from the rocks. Then we went to the actual mines.
We didn’t have to go in far to see how horrible the working conditions are. Ten meters along, I had already hit my head multiple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if I left some permanent damage to my helmet. We stopped at the sculpture of a mining good before going on, sometimes on our knees because the tunnels were so tiny.
At an altitude of 4400m above sea level, the air is already thin. Now imagine going into a mine without a proper ventilation system. And then add the dust in the air, and you will understand why we eventually got to the point where every breath was painful. The high iron concentration of the rocks made the air smell and taste like blood, and even a day later, I had not gotten rid of the smell in my nose.
The worst part was that this was an active mine. People were working in there, adults and children, some only ten years old. None of the miners grow old. If they don’t die in accidents, they will die from lung damage. Or, as our guide said, ‘one day you will cough blood, and then you’re dead’.
If you’re not claustrophobic (do not, under any circumstances, sign up for a tour if you are), I can highly recommend those tours. They are eye-opening and the most unique experience in Potosi.
#2 Enjoy the view from the Monastery of San Francisco
The San Francisco monastery can only be visited on Spanish guided tours. Even if you do not speak a single word of Spanish, you should sign up for one. The monastery is a beautiful old building, with paintings on almost every wall.
You will visit the courtyard, the church and the crypt, where you can still see the bones of some of the monks who once lived here. But the biggest surprise comes in the end when your guide walks with you to the top of the roof.
From up there, you have an amazing view of the city, the mountains and even the silver mines in the distance.
It is worth doing this tour for the view alone. You won’t regret it.
#3 Eat Kalaphurka
As we were driving from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, our guide asked us about our travel plans. The moment he heard we were going to Potosi, he explained to us that we absolutely had to try Kalaphurka.
Kalaphurka is a soup that is usually eaten for breakfast. You will have a hard time finding it in restaurants after 11 am. The soup consists of potatoes, corn, meat and lots of chillies and is kept warm by a hot volcanic stone that is dropped into it just before it gets served. When we got it, the soup was boiling. It was delicious!
Finding Kalaphurka in Potosi is surprisingly hard despite it being the city’s most iconic dish. Your best bet is to go towards the cemetery, where you will find restaurants that serve the dish.
We ate it at Doña Eugenia (click here for directions), a place that was filled with locals when we arrived.
#4 Visit the Casa de la Moneda
The Casa de la Moneda, the national mint of Bolivia, is where the silver from the mountains was processed and pressed into silver coins. These days, it serves as a museum, a reminder of a time when Potosi was one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
Not only is Bolivia’s national mint an excellent history museum, but the building is also beautiful. We highly recommend coming here.
The Casa de la Moneda is open every day except for Mondays. My guidebook recommended going for the Spanish tour, even if you barely speak any Spanish, because it is supposed to be longer than the English one.
We took the tour in Spanish but still only saw half of it because they made us join one that was already halfway done. My advice would be to arrive shortly after it opens to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
#5 Visit the Orden Santa Teresa
The monastery of Santa Teresa can only be visited on guided tours. It is well worth visiting, even if you do not speak Spanish (you can find English explanations inside most rooms).
The tour takes you through the beautiful building. Along the way, you will see religious paintings, living quarters of the Carmelite nuns, and clothes adorned with gold and silver threads.
Nuns were admitted at the age of 15. Since the monastery could only hold 21 nuns, they often had to wait for someone to die before becoming part of the Orden.
Back then, being a Carmelite nun was an honour, and the girl’s family had to pay an admittance fee of what would today be equivalent to 100.000$. In exchange, the girl would spend her life behind the walls of the monastery, never getting out – even when they died, the nuns were buried inside the building.
#6 Visit some of Potosi’s many churches
Potosi is home to a huge number of churches, many of which feature stunning decorations. Keep in mind that you are in what was once the wealthiest city in the world, and the churches are one of the remnants of that time.
Some, like San Lorenzo, also function as museums and can be visited every day. Others are only open for mass.
We managed to arrive at the Iglesia de Jerusalem just in time for mass. The building is beautifully decorated from the inside, and they played nice music during the service. Ask locals or the tourist information office about the opening hours of churches.
When walking around the city, it also pays off to look at the temples you pass. Some might be open and ready for you to visit.
#7 Eat street food
Potosi is a great city to have street food. You will find little stalls with vendors selling food and drinks almost everywhere. We had freshly squeezed orange juice, cake, chocolate-coated grapes and jelly. Locals seem to be obsessed with jelly, and you can buy it everywhere.
Besides cakes and sweets, you can also find many savoury snacks in the streets of Potosi. Have fun trying them all!
Here’s a general word of advise when booking your trip to Potosi and any other Bolivian city located in the Andes:
If you get cold quickly (I know I do), pay attention when you book your hotel. Some don’t include heating or even hot water, and it can get freezing at night.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the most important practical information you need for your trip to Potosi:
Best time to visit Potosi
Potosi lies at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres. That means that you need to take warm clothes all year long.
Nevertheless, Potosi experiences different seasons. December, January and February are the rainy months, while April to October is the dry season.
That doesn’t mean that it rains every day during the rainy season. We went in late November and had mixed weather, with some rain and also lots of sunshine.
In general, May to September are considered the best months for travel, but you can visit Potosi all year long.
How to get to Potosi
In order to get to Potosi, you need to catch a bus.
Coming from Sucre, the bus ride takes around four hours. From Uyuni, it’s three hours, and from La Paz, it’s about 10 hours.
Most buses from La Paz go overnight. Be prepared for a long and cold bus ride, and bring a big blanket. Even if the bus company advertises that the bus is heated, the heating might be broken, or your driver might not turn it on.
You can sometimes book bus tickets online on Busbud (especially when coming from La Paz), but in general, it’s easy enough to show up at the bus station and get your ticket there.
Almost all buses (except for a few coming from Uyuni) stop at the new bus terminal north of the city centre. From here, you can either catch a local bus to get to the centre or catch a taxi. For the bus, ask around as multiple lines drive in the same direction, all of which can take you to the historic centre.
Getting around Potosi
The city centre of Potosi is compact enough that you’ll find it easy to walk from one tourist attraction to another.
For longer distances, you can catch a taxi. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can also ask your hotel to call one for you.
Potosi has a network of public transportation which mainly consists of buses. The best way to figure out which buses to take is by asking locals, although this is really only an option if you speak enough Spanish. Most likely, you will only use local buses to get from the bus terminal to the city centre and will then walk or take taxis afterwards.
We hope you now have an overview of the best things to do in Potosi. Don’t let the city’s dark history deter you from visiting. Instead, take it as a chance to reflect on the past (and also on the ongoing exploitation in the mines today).
Plus, you will find lots of great attractions in Potosi that are fun to visit.
If you’re planning a trip to Bolivia, make sure to check out the following resources, which will help you make the most of your vacation:
- The best Bolivian food you need to try
- What to do in Sure, Bolivia’s capital
- How to take the best pictures in the Salar de Uyuni
- Thinking about going to Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama? This is what to expect!
- Don’t miss these markets when visiting La Paz
- Going off the beaten track in South America? These are our favourite hidden gems
Until your next adventure!
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