the high place

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Potosí: The Lost City of Silver

If you walk around Potosí today, it’s hard to believe that it was once the center of the New World: the largest and richest city in the Americas. There are plenty of signs of faded grandeur; the city is filled with beautiful, but crumbling, colonial buildings.

Most travelers to Bolivia bypass the city. After touring the Salt Plains to the south, most head on to the lights of La Paz, planning to tour Lake Titicaca, cycle the world’s most dangerous road, or move on to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Others take a less-traveled path into Chile and the Atacama Desert then travel up to Ica, the condors of the Colca Canyon, and the mysterious Nazca Lines. Those coming from the north tend to skip Potosí altogether. This, however, is a mistake.

Its primary tourist attraction is the old silver mine. While it’s not much to look at – from the outside at least –  this mine once provided a huge portion of the Spanish Crown’s revenue.

In the 1540s, the first Spanish explorers described a “thumb of silver” sticking out from the Altiplano. Mount Potosí was soon renamed El Cerro Rico, in honor of a huge outcropping of silver ore which ran down one side of the mountain, hinting at the vast riches which lay beneath. Continue reading

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