I am rich Potosí,
The treasure of the world…
And the envy of kings.
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. This quote, 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. Even today, something very lucrative is said to vale un Potosí (be worth a Potosí).
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. Once the silver more or less dried up however, the city went into decline and its citizens slipped into poverty. The ore is still being 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.