Travel Alert: Travelers planning a mine tour in Potosí should be aware of the risks. See the Health & Safety section for details.
The conquistadors never found El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, but they did get their hands on Potosí and its Cerro Rico, a ‘Rich Hill’ full of silver. The quote, ‘I am rich Potosí, The treasure of the world…, And the envy of kings', from the city’s first coat of arms, sums it up. The city was founded in 1545 as soon as the ore was discovered, and pretty soon the silver extracted here was bankrolling the Spanish empire.
Potosí’s story is wholly tied to its silver. During the boom years, when the metal must have seemed inexhaustible, it became the largest and wealthiest city of the Americas. Even today, something very lucrative is said to vale un Potosí (be worth a Potosí). Then, once the silver more or less dried up, decline and poverty were the hard facts. The ore has been extracted by miners in some of the most abysmal conditions imaginable – a visit to see today’s miners at work provokes disbelief at just how appalling the job is. But the rest of Potosí – its grand churches, ornate colonial architecture and down-to-earth, friendly inhabitants – is a real delight.
Last updated: Apr 17, 2009
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