The conquistadores 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. Indeed, 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).
During the boom years, when the metal must have seemed inexhaustible, Potosí became the Americas' largest and wealthiest city. Once the silver dried up, however, the city went into decline and its citizens slipped into poverty. The ore, plus tin, lead and other minerals, is still being extracted by miners in some of the most abysmal conditions imaginable. But the rest of Potosí – its grand churches and ornate colonial architecture – is also worth getting to know.