Potosí was founded in 1546 after the discovery of the rich silver deposits in the Cerro Rico. It soon became one of the wealthiest and largest cites in the Americas. The mines of the Cerro Rico are the richest mines in all of world history and may have produced 60,000 tons of silver. The name Potosi was adopted by San Luis de Potosi in Mexico to reflect their hopes for equal riches. It is reputed that at one time mules were shoed with silver due to the difficulty of getting supplies of iron to the city. Some of this wealth was used to build magnificent baroque churches (UNESCO listed sites) and monasteries. Millions of indigenous labourers and African slaves perished in mines in the three centuries of colonial rule. Estimates range from 2 million at the low end to 8 million at the upper end. The miners were often below ground for weeks at a time. In 1800 the silver mines were depleted and tin became the major ore mined. Recently they are mining rare earths. All of this lead to a slow economic decline.
The wealthy history of Potosí is still reflected in the narrow streets, colonial mansions and the many churches, which makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are 2 bus terminals in Potosí. The old terminal (Ex Terminal) located on Av. Universitaria, a 30 minutes walk uphill to the city centre. Uyuni bound buses and shared taxi to Sucre leave from there. While the new terminal (Nueva Terminal) is located in the NE of the city and is accessible by a 30 min bus ride (Bs 1.5) or taxi. Most long distance buses leave from there, as buses to Sucre.
- There are several daily buses from Oruro (about 6 hours).
- There are hourly connections with Sucre (3 hours, 17 Bs).
- Morning and evening buses to Tupiza (7-8 hours, Bs 30).
- There are buses running from Uyuni at 10 am and 6 pm (5-7 hours, Bs 35). There is currently (as of July, 2012) the complete highway paved.
- Morning and evening buses to and from Tarija with Expreso Tarija (9-10 hours, Bs 60).
- Buses to La Paz (9 hours, Bs 100 for a cama) leave from the new terminal.
Beware travelling from Uyuni. Companies such as Transporte 11 de Julio cancel services without notice, or even opening their office to explain.
Collective cabs that travel slightly quicker than the buses can also be arranged to Sucre (35 Bs) and Oruru (120 Bs). These leave when full and are a godsend during bus strikes.
From Sucre it is worth hiring a cab for 2 or more people as the trip is faster and more comfortable than one on a collective cab or a bus, and the cab leaves at your schedule.
If arriving at Sucre airport, there are shared taxis that depart from the airport. Upon exiting the airport, look to your right and there is a taxi rank. The cost is Bs. 50 per person (as of Nov. 2014) or if you wish to hire the entire taxi (expreso) the cost is Bs. 200. The taxi will usually drop you off in Potosí's main plaza.
To return, taxis leave from the "ex-terminal". If you wish to return to the airport, you should negotiate with the driver, it will be between Bs. 40-50 pp.
Taxis are generally cheap and plentiful around Potosi. However, always check the price with the driver. Some charge per person which could get you into arguments when it comes time to pay. Bus from Centro area to Main bus Terminal costs 1Bs. Taxis from main bus Terminal between 3-5bs depending on your bartering skills and the time of day.
- Casa Nacional de Moneda (National Mint of Bolivia). Cl. Ayacocha s/n, is de former royal mint, but now houses one of the better museums in South America. A visit is by guided tour (English and French if there is enough demand) which takes about 2~3 hours. The museum has a collection of religious art, contempary art,and artifacts from it's time as mint. Entrance is Bs. 20 for foreigners and Bs. 10 for Bolivians..
- Convento de Santa Teresa, Calle Chichas (Bottom end of Calle Ayacucho). Tours (in Spanish only) give a good explanation of the life and work of the Carmelite nuns and their monastery. Very little flagellation (LP). Bs 21.
- Compañia de Jesus, Calle Ayaucho (Half a block from the square). Nice views of the surroundings from above. A guide will explain. 10 Bs.
A visit to Potosí isn't complete without a visit to one of the cooperative mines. It's a shocking experience as the methods of working haven't changed much since the colonial times. Working conditions are terrible: most miners die of silicosis in their forties. Still, many people don't have another choice and around 10,000 people work in the mines. A tour starts with a visit to the miners' market to buy gifts for the miners like coca leaves, drinks, cigarettes or dynamite. You will then visit an ore refinery plant where the miners sell whatever deposits they manage to collect. Then you head to the mines, where a typical visit will have you walking and crawling through it for about 2~3 hours. You can talk, take photographs and share your gifts with the miners.
Taking a tour of one of the cooperative mines is still a good way to get a sense of the social price paid for the mineral wealth of the few. The dust is supposed to contain silicon that leads to silicosis (wear a disposable mask!) among the miners. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls. Many of the mine props are snapped and on my tour in 2003 there was a minor ceiling cave-in that forced us to wait a bit before being able to exit the mine. One very interesting aspect of the mine was the little side chamber near the entrance to the mine that contained a statue of "El Tio," a diabolic figure that the miners make offerings to. They say that God may rule aboveground, but that El Tio is in charge down below.
There are many tour agencies in Potosí offering this tour, shop around before buying. The price is around 100bs for koala tours. Koala Tours, one of the oldest tour agencies, offers the tour for this price, for example. Koala Tours allow you to let off your own stick of dynamite on request! Greengo tours is 80bs. The ex-miners offer loads of information about the (history of the) mine. They don't do explosions just for tourists, but for the sake of the mine.
Hostal La Casona Potosi also offers safe visits to Cerro Rico.
People with claustrophobic tendencies, be wary, Silver Mine Tours 28/01/10, takes you deep into the guts of this rabbit warren of a mine. It seems the safety aspect is very low, actually totally missing.
- Big Deal Tours, Calle Bustillos 1092, ☎ +591 71-835516. This guide company is owned and operated by ex-miners that have an abundance of both experience and heart. They offer tours in both English and Spanish. The also often invite tourists along to local events such as weddings and soccer games. Bs 100.
- The cheapest meals can be found in the Mercado Central.
- Sky Room (Mirador), Calle Bolivar 701, 3rd floor, ☎ +591 622 0138. Nice view of Cerro Rico 4 course lunch Bs 15.
- Doña Eugenia, Corner of Ortega and Santa Cruz (near the cemetery), to try the famous Kalapurka soup (spicy soup served hot with a volcanic rock). It is a Potosí institution. Take a cab.
- Sumaj Orcko, Cl. Cobija 34, serves big plates (30-35 Bs), also a good place for lunch (15 Bs).
- Chifa Rosa, Cl. Cobija 38, cheap but not special chinese food.
- Pasteleria Cherrys, Padillo 8, for pastels and breakfast.
- El Meson, Cnr Tarija & Linares. Upmarket restaurant with great food at reasonable prices, start with the great house salad for 12B
- Cine de Universidad, Bolivar 893, for Hollywood movies.
- La Casona Hostal Potosi (La Casona Hostal Potosi, Bolivia), calle Chuquisaca 460 (100m from main plaza), ☎ +591 2 6230523, fax: (02)6230523, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 11:00, check-out: 10:30. Big and clean rooms, Book exchange, ADSL internet (wiFi in Lobby - only available until 10:30), laundry service (8 Bs / kilo), Kitchen, excellent gas powered hot showers, safe tours to Potosi Silver Mines. From September 2008 all rooms with central heating. Staff are particularly unfriendly. Dorms and Private rooms with breakfast 35 Bs pp - 61 Bs pp..
- Koala Den, e-mail: email@example.com. Junín 56, 4 blocks from the square, (02)6226467. Has heating in the rooms! Book exchange, fast Internet with Wi-Fi. Dorm bed with excellent breakfast including eggs and fruit! 35-45 Bs. Also doubles and triples. Has highly recommended tours of the silver mines even though they are a bit more expensive than other tour companies. Has a great view of the mountain from the rooftop.
- Residencial Felcar, Av Serrudo esq. Bustillos 345, (02)6224966. Another favorite spot by travellers. It has a nice, sunny patio and hot showers from 8am to 10pm. Some of the singles are tiny. Single Bs25.
- Hotel Jerusalem with beautiful views over Potosi from breakfast room and from roof top.
- Carlos Hostal V, Calle Linares No 42, ☎ +591 2 6231010. Here is a great new hostel in the heart of Centro Potosi. Great beds, fast wifi, warm showers, and a great lounging area. from 80b.
- Sky Hacienda Hotel, Mosoj Llajta (In between Potosi and Sucre), ☎ +591 72888044. Check-in: 13.00, check-out: 12.00. An architecturally unique hotel situated above the Yotala valley, surrounded by 360 degree panoramic views of the mountains. from $95.
Potosi is relatively safe. But, like most other places in Bolivia it is advised not to walk alone at night outside the main Plaza.