Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 23 November 2008

The job from hell and the highest city in the world…

After a few days of relaxing and showing my friends around Sucre, we headed up to Potosi, which just so happens to be the highest city in the world (at least of any real size). It sits at a cool 4070 meters above sea level (13,300 feet, give or take), and is home to the Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain”.

The Spaniards pulled enough silver out of this mountain during colonial times to (so the story goes) build a bridge from Potosi to Spain and back again. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but the bottom line is that this mine (and others in the region) have been exploited for nearly 500 years.

Potosino miners eek out a living still to this day, enduring long hours, grueling conditions and a host of illnesses associated with the trade. After spending just a few hours in the mine, and as a tourist, not having to lift a thing, I can say with the utmost certainty: This has got to be one of the hardest jobs on planet earth.

The city was once the richest city in the world, and now is one of Bolivia’s poorest. However, there is still a very vibrant energy there. It is a charged place, and it is impossible not to be affected by Potosi–by her altitude, but her enduring spirit, but her gorgeous people, or by her haunting past and present…


Demonstrating the effects of altitude on beer. Pour with caution!


Looks like wasabi, right? Nope. DYNAMITE. That’s right. Any old Joe can walk into the Miner’s market and purchase this explosive substance. Thank goodness most people don’t. Miners stock up on dynamite, other explosives, coca, soda and 96% alcohol in order to get themselves through the workday underground.


This is 70% refined silver ore. The final 30% of the process is shipped out to Chile and Peru…


At the entrance to the mine.


The Tio of the mine. This is a figure that is revered by miners and offering of coca and alcohol are made to it each time they enter to work. The Tio character has evolved from a mix of Andean and Catholic traditions.


The Sumaj Orcko, or Cerro Rico viewed at sunset from downtown Potosi.

The following day, Potosi was celebrating it’s anniversary, and people came from all over the campo to see Evo Morales speak and deliver brand new ambulances to each district in the department. We were pretty far away from Evo himself, but it was very cool to see him and be in the crowd. We are pretty sure we were the only gringos there. All of the people who came in from the campo communities were wearing their traditional dress. There was lots of music, dancing and people watching to be done while waiting in the afternoon heat for “El Evo” to arrive.





Bolivia is so unique. There really is no place like it. And Potosi is one of the many, many unique places tucked within her borders.



  1. What a “blast” it would be to eat that Potosi wasabi with some llama sushi! It sure would clear out your nasal passages!

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