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AT ALMOST 4,100 METRES above sea level, Potosí is the highest city in the world and, says the 4th edition of the Rough Guide to Bolivia, “at once the most fascinating and tragic place in Bolivia.”
Potosí owes its existence to its mines—“the richest source of silver the world has ever known.” In the early 17th century they gave Potosí a population of 160,000—the same size as London—and turned it into a treasure trove of colonial art and architecture, including more than two dozen churches. Today, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The guidebook recommends “the unmissable Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint)…one of South America’s most outstanding examples of colonial civil architecture and home to Bolivia’s best museum.” The building takes up an entire block; displays include religious art and minting machinery. Visits are by guided tour only, in Spanish, French or English.
For a closer look at the source of Potosí’s wealth, inspect the (still-working) mines. “This is an unpleasant and highly dangerous environment,” the guidebook warns, “where safety precautions are largely left to supernatural forces…The chances of being hit by a falling rock or a speeding mine trolley are real.”
Mine tours begin at the miners’ market where you can buy coca, dynamite, cigarettes and pure cane alcohol. These are gifts for the miners you’ll be visiting, or for El Tío, “a sinister horned and bearded figure complete with erect phallus and leering smile” whose statue is at the entrance to every mine. Propitiating El Tío is longstanding practice, although of dubious worth: over three centuries as many as nine million may have died bringing silver to the light.
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