On a desolate, windswept plain amid barren mountains at almost 4100m above sea level, POTOSÍ is the highest city in the world, and at once the most fascinating and tragic place in Bolivia. It owes its existence to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which rises imperiously above the city to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver the world had ever seen: its mines turned Potosí into the richest jewel in the Spanish emperors’ crown, and one of the world’s wealthiest and largest cities. In the early seventeenth century its population was 160,000, far bigger than contemporary Madrid, and equal in size to London. The expression “eso vale un Potosí” (“this is worth a Potosí”) was used in colloquial Spanish to describe anything priceless. However, this wealth was achieved at the expense of the lives of millions of indigenous forced labourers and African slaves.

Today, Potosí, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a treasure-trove of colonial art and architecture; it has more than two thousand colonial buildings, many of which have been restored. Hundreds of town houses and mansions remain, complete with red-tiled roofs and decorative balconies. Even more striking are the 25 or so churches: the most exuberant of these is San Lorenzo de Carangas. The city’s most outstanding monument, however, is the Casa Real de la Moneda, the colonial royal mint, which has some stunning pieces of colonial religious art. Potosí’s tragic history weighs heavily though, and is evident in the sense of sadness that seems to haunt its narrow streets and the appalling conditions still endured by miners at Cerro Rico.

A brief history of silver in Potosí

Legend has it the Incas were on the point of mining Cerro Rico in 1462 when a supernatural voice warned them that the gods were saving the silver for others who would come from afar. Inca Huayna Capac subsequently declared the mountain sacrosanct, naming it Ppotojsi (Quechua for “thunder” or “burst”). The silver was apparently rediscovered in 1545 by llama herder Diego Huallpa. Caught out after dark on Cerro Rico, he started a fire to keep warm, only to see a trickle of molten silver run out from the blaze. News of this reached the Spaniards, and a silver rush was soon under way. Over the next twenty years Potosí became the richest single source of silver in the world.

This growth was based on the extraction of surface deposits with high ore contents, which were easily processed. As these ran out and shaft mining developed, the purity of the ore declined and production costs rose. Labour also became increasingly scarce, thanks to the appalling conditions in the mines. This crisis was overcome by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who arrived in Potosí in 1572 and orchestrated the construction of a massive system of dams, artificial lakes and aqueducts to power the water wheels that crushed the ore for processing. Toledo also introduced the newly discovered amalgam process for refining silver using mercury, established the first royal mint and regulated property rights. Most importantly, he tackled the labour shortage by adapting the Inca system of mandatory labour service, the mita. This provided an annual workforce of about 13,500 mitayos at almost no cost to the mine owners.

These reforms greatly boosted silver production, and Potosí boomed for almost a century. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Potosí’s population was 160,000 and the city boasted dozens of magnificent churches, as well as theatres, gambling-houses, brothels and dancehalls. The silver also had a global impact, funding Spain’s wars and fuelling economic growth throughout Europe.

The human cost

For the indigenous workers and imported African slaves who produced this wealth, however, the consequences were catastrophic. Staying deep underground for up to a week at a time and forced to meet ever more outrageous quotas, they died at a terrible rate; outside, the highly toxic mercury used in processing the silver posed an equal threat to workers in the large foundries. One sixteenth-century writer described the mines as a ravening beast that swallowed men alive. Estimates of the total number who died over three centuries of colonial mining in Potosí run as high as nine million, making the mines a central factor in the demographic collapse that swept the Andes under Spanish rule.

The end of the boom

From about 1650, silver production – and Potosí – entered a century-long decline, though the city remained rich enough to be hotly disputed during the Independence War. However, by the time independence was won in 1825, Potosí’s population was just nine thousand. From the end of the nineteenth century the city came to increasingly rely on tin mining – another metal found in abundance in Cerro Rico, but previously ignored. However, when the price of tin collapsed in 1985, the state-owned mines closed down or were privatized. Though cooperative miners continue to scrape a living by working Cerro Rico’s tired old veins for tin and other metals, Potosí never recovered from the decline of silver production, much less the tin crash.

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