Potosí is a well worn daytrip for those on the South American backpacking trails as explorers hear from fellow travellers, ‘oh you must absolutely go on a mine tour.’
While I chose not to go down the mines (as explained in a past post) I still wanted to learn about the history and life of Potosí miners. It was fascinating to learn about but it left me thinking surely there is more to do in this city than just this well touted tour?
Honest answer: Not much to wow you, sadly.
But heck I was there and I like a challenge and was gonna try my hardest to find alternatives! So here is what I got up to whilst in the city:
1. Took a night time walk around Plaza 10 de Noviembre
I don’t know if, because I was tired and stressed after travelling (particularly after finding out my hotel had not honoured my booking and I had to go hunting for somewhere else) walking around this square at night, I found incredibly relaxing and peaceful. Its a great square to take in colonial architecture bordering it and I always enjoy night time wanders when the architecture can be admired. As most Spanish influenced places are there is always a plaza and this one was aptly named after Potosí’s public holiday. Each of the nine regions of Bolivia have their own regional holiday that usually commemorates the day the city was founded or a important past event of that region.
2. City Tour with Kaola Tours
This tour was priced at 100 Bolivanos (approx £12) and sadly not worth it. I had an English guide and she seemed in a bit of a rush for the tour to end. She took me to visit Arco de Cobija which marked the entrance to the neighbourhood that the indigenous poor lived and separated them from the Spanish rich.
Potosí has a lot of churches, for a population of only 120,000. There were many I passed with striking architecture. Sadly the tour did not include entry into any of them, with most being closed and not much info was provided by my tour guide about the ones we saw.
We started with the main church just off Plaza de Noviembre – the cathedral of Potosi. It is possible to climb the towers to get great views over the square.
I got to gaze upon the stunning intricate carvings on the front façade of Iglesia de San Lorenzo de Carangas – its a shame I was not able to view the interior.
Iglesia de San Bernando also had a beautiful front façade. It was here that babies were found buried behind the altar. The mummified babies are now kept in the Casa Nacional de la Moneda which I saw later on my visit to there.
I also passed the Museo & Convento de Santa Teresa. Tours inside are guided and 3 hours so again, it was not in my remit to see inside.
Another reason for my disappointment with this city tour was that the majority of the ‘tour’ was a visit to the Casa Nacional de la Moneda, which I could have just organised myself.
3. Casa Nacional de la Moneda
Entry to the National Mint museum is by guided tour only costing 40 Bolivanos and 20 Bolivanos extra if you want to take photos. Upon entry all bags must be placed with security to walk around. The tour starts looking at various minerals and precious metals and then onto learning about the melting of the minerals to make the currency.
Coins were initially made by chisel and minted by hammer until the Spanish brought over metal rolling mills which were pushed by mules to flatten the metal. Once flattened the metal sheets were sent to the drawplate room to be put into circles.
I’m a museum nerd and I found it really interesting especially since this was where at one point the whole of the Spanish’s empire currency was produced in Potosí and to sent all over to Central and South America and Spain. I got to see how the currency evolved over time to the point now where Bolivia no longer has a mint house and imports its coins. Production stopped in 1951 as it costs 80 Bolivanos (approximately £9.40) to make just one coin, so it is more cost effective to manufacture abroad.
Also in the the mint house was the opportunity to see art particularly work by the 17/18th century Baroque style painter Melchor Perez de Holguin who lived in Potosí. One room featured paintings of the Virgin Mary by different artists which incorporated elements of Pachamama and Pachatata into the paintings.
Even though I enjoyed learning the history behind the first global currency, the tour was rather lengthy and tiring and you can’t skip through by yourself if bored in a particular section of the museum, you must stay with the group. If museums are not your thing I think this is unlikely to keep you highly riveted unless you are a coin collector.
4. Torre de la Compania de Jesús
The Jesuits seem to have left beautiful buildings everywhere they went. This is what remains of a former Jesuit church – an ornate bell tower which you can climb to the top and have great views of Cerro Rico and over the city in general. The carvings are in mestizo baroque style. Entry costs 10 Bolivanos.
5. Visit La Salteña
This unmarked eaterie is something I so could have easily missed if I had not read about how good the salteñas are here. When it comes to new food I always wanna try it. A salteña is a baked empanada filled with meat mixed with a sweet yet spicy sauce with vegetables and potatoes. I had tried to sample on my first night in Potosí, only to find it closed. It is open late in the morning during the day and simply sells salteñas nothing more nothing less. I bought one, apprehensive that I would not like it, only to order another as it was indeed super tasty and I washed it all down with a Potosini malt. I can see exactly why it is raved about and as I type I wish I could eat some now! Its definitely not over rated and actually made my day (as food can do!)
Potosí’s active mine tourism has not allowed for much else in this city to be exploited but in the same vein its not a heaving backpacker stop. Though some may stop as I said before for a daytrip, others often give it a skip heading north for the beautiful UNESCO capital of Sucre or south for the visually captivating landscape of Salar de Uyuni salt flats. I can’t help thinking that living in the shadows of being once ‘the richest city in the world’, that essentially bankrolled the Spanish empire is preventing the city’s narrative to take a new direction in the world of tourism.
Anyway I hope one day this city will be ‘worth a Potosí’ (i.e. be of great value) to Bolivia again and it will get the economic investment it deserves.
The Five to Nine Traveller