Potosi, Bolivia is far from your typical tourist destination.
Befitting the depressing history and decaying buildings, the weather in this dying city is often overcast and gets bitterly cold. Sounds grim doesn’t it? Well it kind of is.
However while in Bolivia it’s an obligatory destination for anyone who wants to learn more about how the modern world we live in came to be.
We are firm believers that travel shouldn’t be comfortable all of the time.
And after being based for a few months in the beautiful, warm city of Sucre just a few hours east we were definitely that when we arrived in Potosi. Uncomfortable.
Like most places in the world, of course everything about Potosi, Bolivia isn’t bad. It’s just not the kind of place you want to stick around in. Or at least for us it wasn’t.
We read before we visited Potosi that it has a bad energy about the place and after spending a few days there totally get that.
Not because it’s an inherently dangerous or unfriendly place to be, but because there’s just no escaping the sheer ugliness and brutality of its history.
History of Potosi City
Founded in the 1500’s as a silver mining town by Spanish colonists, Potosi in Bolivia was once not only one of South America’s most important colonial cities, it was also one of the richest cities in the entire world.
It’s hard to believe looking around at the crumblings buildings nowadays, but if you look close enough you can make out the faded glory of this former pioneer city.
Denoted a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical importance, the city of Potosi or more explicitly the notorious silver mines of Cerro Rico bankrolled the Spanish Empire for centuries.
In fact, it’s estimated that as much as 80% of the world’s silver can from this very mountain. The amount of looted silver so obscene that it pretty much single handedly funded the European Industrial Revolution.
Stories of centuries gone by are full of incredulous wealth. Where streets were paved with actual silver and after parties the rich would just throw out silver crockery as opposed to wash it.
Even horseshoes were made of silver.
During that time silver was so plentiful here that the term “worth a Potosi” was coined to describe anything of high value.
However these days, this continually perishing city is equally as famous for the impoverished working conditions of the miners who still work the mines of Cerro Rico trying to eek out a living from anything that is left.
Often likened to swiss cheese due to the level of exploitation it suffered under Spanish rule, Cerro Rico is like a hell on earth. Also known as the mountain that eats men, as many as 8 million indigenous and African slaves perished inside the bowels of this mountain of silver.
Yet still today it pushes it’s miners to early deaths with conditions having improved very little over the centuries. Compelling residents of Potosi to regular highly charged protests, as they try to pressure the government into providing alternative viable work options.
Cerro Rico Mine Tour
Despite its awfulness, the main reason people visit Potosi is to take a tour into the infamous silver mines of Cerro Rico. To witness for themselves the horror of the history and horrific current day working conditions of Potosi’s miners.
It’s definitely not for the faint hearted and if you are in any way claustrophobic you should really reconsider going in there.
There’s lots of stuff knocking about online questioning the morality of the poverty tourism of Potosi’s mine are.
Personally we think that so long as the tour is done as ethically as possible – which we believe ours was – if you consume silver or precious metals you should know the human sacrifice that came with it.
The tour we took scared the bejesus out of us, but it was also eye-opening and fascinating in equal measure.
We wrote a dedicated blog post about our experience in Potosi’s silver mines, within that you’ll also find information on how to choose an ethically responsible tour company.
Done correctly your tourism dollars also make a significant difference to the residents of Potosi by providing an alternative source of income through the Cerro Rico mine tours.
Where To Stay in Potosi
When it comes to how long to spend in Potosi two full days will be enough, three will be plenty. You should avoid Sundays and Mondays if you can as most places to eat and museums and closed on those days.
Due to the diminishing economy of Potosi, there aren’t too many accommodation options.
Many people believe that without government intervention the place will all but be a ghost town within the next 15 years. So naturally there’s too much appetite for much investment.
Cheap & Cheerful
Calor de hogar con Altura isn’t the most attractive looking accomodation in Potosi but it does the job and gets great reviews. It’s a homestay so there’s private rooms but you’ll be sharing common spaces with the family. It’s in a good location but around 15 minutes from the center.
Los Faroles Hostal is newly refurbished and family run. Though there isn’t a common space, the rooms are comfortable and breakfast is delicious. The WiFi is fine and there are family rooms available. For the quality is definitely one of the best value places to stay in Potosi.
Hostel Casa Blanca Potosi is vibrant with a friendly atmosphere and plenty of different spaces to chillout in. Bathrooms are plentiful and spacious with lots of hot water. There’s a shared kitchen to use and a decent breakfast included.
Eucalyptus guest house has a covered roof terrace with views for days over the whole town. Reviews consistently comment on how comfy the beds are and there is always plenty of hot water. This Potosi hostel also has a common area with TV and a large kitchen for use.
Hotel Santa Mónica is a beautifully restored colonial mansion with wooden beams and a stunning courtyard. Guests rave about how friendly the staff are and how good the breakfast is. Spacious rooms include a private bathroom with a hairdryer, a wardrobe and cable TV.
Hotel Santa Teresa is also situated in a big colonial style house with a charming inner patio. The comfortable rooms are carpeted and have heating which you can regulate yourself. Plus private bathrooms with baths and/or showers. Secure parking is also available.
Things To Do In Potosi Bolivia
As mentioned above there are a few other things to do in Potosi, Bolivia. Many of which compliment the Cerro Rico tours in providing a deeper understanding of just how much history was written in this most unforgiving of places.
Casa Nacional de Moneda Potosi
Number one on the list has to be the Casa Nacional de Moneda Potosi or Potosi Mint. One of two mints in Potosi, the first Spanish colonial coins were printed here.
A grande process that continued for centuries with huge machinery being brought over from Europe and working conditions that rivalled those of the mines.
Sadly despite Bolivia giving money to the world, the country no longer even makes its own money. Instead these days bolivianos are made in Canada, Chile and France because it’s cheaper.
There are morning and afternoon tours in both English and Spanish. Opening hours are 9-10:30am and 2:30-4:30pm Tuesday to Saturday. It is also open Sunday morning too.
The tours last around 90 minutes, and unusually for Bolivia, start at 9am and 2:30pm on the dot so don’t be late. And you have to do one – you can’t just wander around on your tod.
The cost is $40 B’s ($6 USD/£4.50 GBP) each plus $20 B’s ($3 USD/£2.25 GBP) for camera use or $40 B’s to video.
With the abundance of wealth under Spanish rule it should come as no surprise that Potosi has an embarrassment of colonial churches. To the point that you literally can’t turn a corner without seeing one. We were told that there used to be as many as 36.
There are few that stand out in particular, mainly due to impressive views from their rooftops.
Torre de la Compañía de Jesús is what remains of a Jesuit church and also the home of Potosi’s tourism office.
You can climb the ornate bell tower for just $10 B’s ($1.50 USD/£1.10 GBP) and if you keep your ticket go back as many times as you want.
Iglesia La Merced was probably our favourite, simply because of the unobstructed views you get across the whole of Potosi with the raw power of Cerro Rico looming in the background.
Visiting hours are 9am-12pm and 2:30-6pm and it costs just $10 B’s ($1.50 USD/£1.10 GBP). There’s also a small cafe inside that does great milkshakes.
San Lorenzo de Carangas is Potosi rooftop worth popping in on too. The baroque architecture is a mixture of Aymará and Spanish Catholic beliefs and equally as stunning as the views.
Again the cost is $10 B’s ($1.50 USD/£1.10 GBP).
The city centre of Potosi is awash with colonial architecture, some in better shape than others. Some buildings are quite literally being propped up by wooden stilts. But there’s also a handful that have been restored which are well worth swinging by.
Convento de San Francisco
Supposedly has four guided tours per day; 8:30am or 10am in the morning and 2:30pm or 4pm in the afternoon. However if there aren’t enough people, they often won’t run so you may need to pop back. We did.
It’s super interesting and you’ll learn about how the tiles were formed by the thighs of slaves and how sought after the work was as opposed to the mine.
The tours are only in Spanish. But still worth it even if you’re Spanish isn’t up to scratch because it’s a beautiful building with lots of religious art. You’ll also get to see the catacombs with human bones and go to the viewpoint on the roof.
Alternatively at 11:30am and 5:30pm Monday – Friday you can just visit the viewpoint. Or at 8:30am, 9:30am,10:30am and 11:30am on Saturdays also.
The cost for the full tour which lasts around 90 minutes is $20 B’s ($3 USD/£2.25 GBP). Just to head up onto the roof it’s $10 B’s ($1.50 USD/£1.10 GBP).
Catedral de la Ciudad de Potosí
Or Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace as it’s otherwise known is another impressive colonial building to visit in Potosi, Bolivia. Located on 10 de Noviembre Square, it’s opulent stone facade is hard to miss.
The tours are more flexible here. As in during opening hours, you just rock up and someone will show you around. The tours last around 30-45 minutes and again even though only in Spanish worth it even if you don’t speak the language.
The cost is $20 B’s ($3 USD/£2.25 GBP) and opening hours 9am-12pm and 2:30pm-6pm Monday to Saturday.
The guide will point out all the different most interesting points of the church including the huge organ that was brought over from Europe. You’ll also go in the crypt to see the coffins of some of the most influential people in Potosi’s history.
And climb up into one of the bell towers for some more impressive views of the city and Cerro Rico.
Convento Museo Santa Teresa
Still a working convent, tours lasts around 2 hours and provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the Carmelite nuns here. Most guides are multilingual in Spanish, English and French.
You’ll learn how back in the day wealthy families paid sizable dowries to place their daughters into the convert aged 15, with very little to no contact with the outside world after that.
And also the contrast between the luxury that nuns received here in return for their devotion in comparison to the brutal conditions many were living in outside the convent walls.
It’s a huge place and doors will be unlocked and locked as you move through the complex. Take warm clothes because it gets really chilly in here.
We’d recommend going on a morning too, when you’re more alert. We went in the afternoon and were flagging abit by the end, there’s a lot of information to take in.
Tour times are Monday and Wednesday to Saturday; 9am, 11am, 12:30pm and 5pm. Plus 9am and 11am on Tuesdays and Sundays. You can’t visit without taking a tour.
The cost is 15B’s per person ($2.20 USD/£1.70 GBP) plus the same again for permission to take photographs.
A few others points of interests in Potosi worth looking out for while you’re wandering around are:
- The quaint streets of Calle Quijarro and Pasaje de Siete Vueltas.
- The Arcos de Cobija which used to be the old entrance to the city, separating slaves from the wealthy.
- The city hall, which is called El Cabildo, on the west side of Plaza 10 de Noviembre.
- The elaborate doorways of Portón Mestizo, Esquina de las Cuatro Portadas and Casa de las Tres Portadas.
Plaza 10 de Noviembre & Obelisco Potosí
Plaza 10 de Noviembre is named so after the first uprising against the Spanish crown in Potosi on the 10th of November 1819.
The adjacent square named Plaza 6 de Agosto is also named after an important date, the date that Bolivia was declared an independent state on the 6th of August 1825.
The squares contain lots of important monuments commemorating different points in Potosi’s most tragic history. In the middle of Plaza 6 de Agosto you’ll find the Obelisco Potosí surrounded by fancy white arches and to the east the pretty pedestrian street of Padilla.
This area is a good spot to come and sit for a while to take in the life of the Potosi. It has a different feel to the cramped narrow streets running through the rest of the town.
Especially if you are cooking for yourself while staying in Potosi, Bolivia, visiting Mercado Central or the central market should be on your list of what to do in Potosi.
While it couldn’t really be described as cheerful, it’s definitely one of the places in Potosi that feels more alive.
Oja del Inca
There are a couple of things to do just outside of Potosi too, if you’re up for an adventure that is. Meaning Inca Eye, Oja del Inca is an exactly spherically round thermal spring around half an hour from the town centre of Potosi in a place called Tarapaya.
The landscape is stunningly beautiful and it’s dead easy to get there on public transport. Just read our blog on our visit there first and be prepared for things to get weird.
There are also several balnearios with thermal pools using the same supposedly medicinal thermal waters along the route to and in Tarapaya. The cost to enter for the ones we saw is $10 B’s ($1.50 USD/£1.10 GBP).
But they don’t look great, more like grimy public swimming pools. Much better to just head to the natural Ojo del Inca pool instead.
Lagunas de Kari Kari
To the South East of Potosi are lots of artificial lakes. They were created in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by 20,000 slaves to provide water for the city’s 82 silver smelters.
Now abandoned, except for some sparse wildlife, you can visit easily enough on your own accord or take a tour. We were quoted $180 B’s each ($26 USD/£20 GBP) by a travel company in town to give you an idea of Lagunas de Kari Kari tour cost.
To get there on your own, get a taxi to take you out to Laguna San Idelfonso. It’s only a 15 minute ride from the centre of town. From there you can walk alongside that lake and up to the Kari Kari viewpoint.
You should allow a minimum of 3 hours for the cab to come back to collect you. I don’t have exact prices for this because we didn’t have time to head out here on this trip, but taxis in Potosi, as with the rest of Bolivia are inexpensive. You’re only looking at a few quid.
Alternatively you can either take a 5 minute taxi ride or jump on a bus heading to Villa Collo and take a walking trail out to a few of the lakes from there.
You’ll find both of the walking routes on Maps.Me.
Along the banks of the nearby Río Huana Mayu, in the upper Potosí barrios of Cantumarca and San Antonio runs a 15km stretch of smelter ruins.
Ruins because Potosi no longer smelts its own metals, the raw materials are instead sent out to other countries to be processed.
Some of the mine tours stop by here before heading into Cerro Rico. And whilst they are an interesting part of the history of Potosi, probably not worth an individual trip otherwise.
What To Eat in Potosi
First up for things to eat in Potosi, make sure you try the salteñas. The best ones are from a small nondescript shop called Salteñeria El Hornito on Calle Linares 49. You’ll see people queuing up outside mid-morning so go early, they sell out quickly.
And don’t miss the visual spectacle of a local soup called K’alapurka. This delicious corn based broth comes out bubbling thanks to a boiling hot volcanic rock originating from Cerro Rico itself being dropped into it just before serving.
The vegetarian restaurant La Manzana Verde is a good inexpensive shout for a lunch time menu and Café de la Plata is a lovely looking cafe for warming up with a hot drink (even if the food isn’t much cop).
La Casona is a great little pub to hang out in for an evening. It’s got a nice atmosphere, the service is good and the food isn’t bad either. Another good bar is 4.060.
One place we wouldn’t recommend is El Fogón. We went there to try llama steaks which incidentally they didn’t have. It’s overpriced and the service was crap.
A Note on Potosi Altitude
If you’ve read any of our other guides on Bolivia or North Argentina you’ll be sick of hearing about this but the city of Potosi is high. Like 4,067m high. It really is no joke and if you haven’t been at altitude for long, you’ll be huffing and puffing.
Our advice? Drink coca tea, chew coca leaves, drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol, take it steady and try to get enough sleep. Although that last one will be hard after you’ve been inside Cerro Rico.
Because the altitude is so high it makes it bitterly cold here at night, so you’ll need to wrap up warm. Central heating is limited to the most upmarket accommodation in Potosi, Bolivia
But during the day, if there’s even the slightest bit of sun, suncream is a must because if if it may not feel that warm with the winds, you are so much closer to the sun here.
How To Get To Potosi
Most buses leave from the new terminal at the northern end of town. So you’ll need to get a taxi or local bus from there into the centre.
Most tourists stop by on their way between Uyuni and Sucre. From Uyuni, it will take around 3 hours to get to Potosi. Sucre to Potosi will take around 4 hours. Both roads are tarmacked so the journeys are comfortable enough.
Trans Emperador goes the Sucre to Potosi route numerous times throughout the day for around $20 B’s ($3USD / £2.50GBP). And Expreso 11 de Julio the Uyuni to Potosi route a few times a day too for $60BOB ($9USD / £7 GBP).
Safety in Potosi Bolivia
Bolivia in general is a safe country to travel in and Potosi is no exception. The biggest thing you need to worry about really is traffic accidents as the roads and transport quality is usually quite below par.
But crime wise, despite Potosi Bolivia being one of the poorest countries, you’d have to be very unlikely to have anything stolen from you if you’re being responsible with your shit.
However, we never go anywhere without good quality travel insurance and neither should you. Our go to for good quality cover and a no bullshit approach for adventurous travellers like us is world nomads. And they’ll even cover you if you’re already on the road.
You can get a quick no obligation quote here:
Where To Go After Potosi
If you’re heading east, do stop off in Sucre for at least a few days. Then Samaipata and Amboro National Park are close by. And if you fancy seeing a completely different more westernised side to Bolivia, head onto Santa Cruz.
In the other directions you can easily get to Cochabamba or Tupiza. Or if you’re on your way west, you simply have to head to Uyuni and the salt flats.
You can find more of our Bolivia guides here to help you plan:
- Best Restaurants in Sucre Bolivia
- Potosi Bolivia: What To Do & Where To Stay
- Visiting the Mythical Ojo del Inca Potosi