Potosi

(continuer en français) – Published: December 12, 2020

In the Bolivian Andes, Potosi exists because there is the Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain. It dominates the city from its desolate cone, hiding the wealth it contains. The mines of silver, but also tin and zinc explain the existence of a city at more than 13.400 feet, 4.000 meters, of altitude.

The Spaniards did not take long to reach Potosi after the discovery of America in 1492, as early as 1545 the city was founded. Enormous quantities of silver were produced for decades, mainly conveyed to Spain. The city grew to around 200,000 people, more than Madrid, Paris or London at the time. From the 19th century onwards, silver became rarer, tin and zinc took over to some extent and then declined towards the end of the 20th century. The city struggled to adapt to this change in fortune.

The Casa Real de la Moneda was in charge of transforming the silver extracted from the mines into coins. Potosi, Lima and Mexico City were the three main minting locations in America during the Spanish Empire.

In the centre of the old colonial city, the Plaza 10 de Noviembre, the date of a revolt against the Spanish, is surrounded by the headquarters of the civil and religious authorities, it is where everything happens. The inhabitants come here to walk around, spending time on the benches, sunbathing or chatting.

The slightest pretext can mobilise the troupe of traditional dancers. To the sound of repetitive music, women and men form two groups that gradually move closer together as they waddle, but the parade ends before they reach each other.

Beyond the Plaza 10 de Noviembre, the streets are narrow and rarely for pedestrians. Streets are often sloping, the traffic is dusty and congested with old vehicles.

The old colonial houses seem to have difficulty weathering the passage of time; their appearance often looks to be deteriorated. They have suffered from many years of neglect by the authorities, who unfortunately were not very concerned about valorising their colonial past for political reasons.

The wooden balcony is often the main decorative element of the facade. Of a more fragile material, they are the first to show signs of decay.

The Casa de las Recogidas, built by the Franciscans in the 18th century, is one of the most beautiful houses in Potosi. It has a baroque façade with three heavily decorated portals, the profusion of motifs is also enhanced by the contrast between white and blue.

The churches are numerous, each religious order having sought to collect a share of the wealth generated by the Potosi mines. Sponsored by wealthy donors, the churches reproduce the styles fashionable in Spain.

In the heart of the historic old town, the Church of San Francisco with its high square bell tower was the first church built in Potosi, begun as early as 1547.

The Santo Domingo church dates from the 17th century, it was used as a prison in the 19th century and until 2000. The church and its former convent have recently been restored.

The Santa Teresa convent dates from the end of the 17th century, and was intended to receive nuns from the upper class. Richly endowed by their families, they contributed to the financial wealth of the convent, allowing for an abundant and beautiful decoration. The convent has now been transformed into a museum specialising in sacred art.

The most remarkable religious façade is certainly the church of San Lorenzo de Carangas, whose baroque portal was exuberantly carved by indigenous artists in the 18th century. They mixed Catholic motifs with what survived from the ancient religions, such as the recurring representations of mermaids.

San Benito is another church designed to receive the indigenous faithful. It was built between 1711 and 1758 outside the walls of the Spanish city. The present historic centre was indeed walled and reserved for the Spanish.

Dominated by the Cerro Rico, the working-class district of San Benito is located outside the historic centre, many houses still have only rudimentary comfort.

Social inequalities continue to leave a strong mark on Bolivian society. They begin in childhood, separating those going to school in their clean uniforms from other children hanging out in the streets and doing odd jobs.

Across Bolivia, Zebras are positioned at zebra crossings to help schoolchildren cross safely, they also assist other passers-by. The signs are sometimes open to interpretation.

Part of the city market is held in the open air. This seems to be a distraction for some of the inhabitants; they watch the trading while sitting on the benches talking to their fellow people.

In addition to the official shops and markets, street vendors can be found all over the city offering their modest wares, often related to food.

Potosi is now trying to find a new vocation with tourism. Located between Sucre and Uyuni, it is an interesting stopover on a trip to the south of Bolivia, based on its old colonial quarter and the curiosity sparked by the mines.

The guides do their best to ‘speak’ English.

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21 comments

    • Bolivia is a country that I found very authentic, despite the number of visitors. Several regions deserve attention, La Paz, Sucre, Potosi and Uyuni but also the Jesuit missions in Chiquitania.

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  1. I’ve always regretted not visiting Peru when I was younger and could cope with rough travel and now I may have left it too late. Two years gone from one’s life with the dreaded Covid (I’m presuming next year to be a write-off as well) leaves me wanting to return to familiar and loved places in Europe – especially Italy. I just want to get back there and be enveloped in the warmth of that country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand your choice. Although travel to South America has become easier, the distances and connections between countries are not equivalent to those in Europe. Whatever the personal conditions, we have to accept the idea that we can’ t see everything, nor go everywhere. What is important, however, is to keep feeding our curiosity with interesting places, and Europe offers many possibilities.

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    • Bolivia has a lot to offer. Even though the country is less developed than its neighbours, the tourist sector works well, with competent professionals and efficient infrastructures. It is therefore both exotic and interesting given the historical background of the country.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You raise an important point. The altitude is sometimes difficult for visitors to bear. The inhabitants are of course accustomed to it, but certain pathologies are unfortunately more frequent, notably those related to the heart.

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    • Thanks Andy. I know that it is difficult to do everything when you have little time. The mines are certainly the most distinctive feature of Potosi, so it’s not a bad choice to put them first.

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    • Bolivia has a lot to offer to visitors, from Jesuit missions to historic Andean cities and the landscapes around them. I am glad that my photos give you a good impression of that insteresting country.

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