Altiplano (Bolivia) : Potosí (department) : Potosí
Potosí was founded in 1546 after the discovery of the rich silver deposits in the Cerro Rico. It soon became one of the wealthiest and largest cites in the Americas. The mines of the Cerro Rico are the richest mines in all of world history and may have produced 60,000 tons of silver. The name Potosi was adopted by San Luis de Potosi in Mexico to reflect their hopes for equal riches. It is reputed that at one time mules were shoed with silver due to the difficulty of getting supplies of iron to the city. Some of this wealth was used to build magnificent baroque churches (UNESCO listed sites) and monasteries. Millions of indigenous labourers and African slaves perished in mines in the three centuries of colonial rule. Estimates range from 2 million at the low end to 8 million at the upper end. The miners were often below ground for weeks at a time. In 1800 the silver mines were depleted and tin became the major ore mined. Recently they are mining rare earths. All of this lead to a slow economic decline.
The wealthy history of Potosí is still reflected in the narrow streets, colonial mansions and the many churches, which makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage List
The new bus terminal (Nueva Terminal) is now open. It is located NE end of the city and is 20-30 min micro (minibus) ride from the downtown. The old terminal (Ex-Terminal) is still used for Uyuni bound bus and shared taxi to Sucre.
Beware travelling from Uyuni. Companies such as Transporte 11 de Julio cancel services without notice, or even opening their office to explain.
Collective cabs that travel slightly quicker than the buses can also be arranged to Sucre (35 Bs) and Oruro (120 Bs). These leave when full and are a godsend during bus strikes.
From Sucre it is worth hiring a cab for 2 or more people as the trip is faster and more comfortable than one on a collective cab or a bus, and the cab leaves at your schedule.
Taxis are generally cheap and plentiful around Potosi. However, always check the price with the driver. Some charge per person which could get you into arguements when it comes time to pay. Bus from Centro area to Main bus Terminal costs 1Bs. Taxis from main bus Terminal between 3-5bs depending on your bartering skills and the time of day.
A visit to Potosí isn't complete without a visit to one of the cooperative mines. It's a shocking experience as the methods of working haven't changed much since the colonial times. Working conditions are terrible: most miners die of silicosis in their forties. Still, many people don't have another choice and around 10,000 people work in the mines. A tour starts with a visit to the miners' market to buy gifts for the miners like coca leaves, drinks, cigarettes or dynamite. You will then visit an ore refinery plant where the miners sell whatever deposits they manage to collect. Then you head to the mines, where a typical visit will have you walking and crawling through it for about 2~3 hours. You can talk, take photographs and share your gifts with the miners.
Taking a tour of one of the cooperative mines is still a good way to get a sense of the social price paid for the mineral wealth of the few. The dust is supposed to contain silicon that leads to silicosis (wear a disposable mask!) among the miners. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls. Many of the mine props are snapped and on my tour in 2003 there was a minor ceiling cave-in that forced us to wait a bit before being able to exit the mine. One very interesting aspect of the mine was the little side chamber near the entrance to the mine that contained a statue of "El Tio," a diabolic figure that the miners make offerings to. They say that God may rule aboveground, but that El Tio is in charge down below.
There are many tour agencies in Potosí offering this tour, shop around before buying. The price is around 100bs for koala tours. Koala Tours, one of the oldest tour agencies, offers the tour for this price, for example. Koala Tours allow you to let off your own stick of dynamite on request! Greengo tours is 80bs. The ex-miners offer loads of information about the (history of the) mine. They don't do explosions just for tourists, but for the sake of the mine.
Hostal La Casona Potosi also offers safe visits to Cerro Rico.
People with claustrophobic tendencies, be wary, Silver Mine Tours 28/01/10, takes you deep into the guts of this rabbit warren of a mine. It seems the safety aspect is very low, actually totally missing.
Potosi is relatively safe. But, like most other places in Bolivia it is advised not to walk alone at night outside the main Plaza.
Hot Springs. Tarapaya/Miraflores (Ojo del Inca) and Chaqui Baño are easy half-day trip from Potosi.
Tarapaya is about half hour colectivo/van ride from mercado Chuquima, where close to ex-terminal and train station (Bs. 4). There are three kinds of pools in the area (one is Balneario Tarapaya with pools, restaurant and hotel), but the most popular among tourists is a big warm lagoon (30 degree celcius year around) called Ojo del Inca. The lagoon is supposed to be 25m deep and even at edge it drops 1.5m deep so "it is very important you can swim" as the fee collector says. (Bs. 10) To get there ask the driver to drop you off at Ojo del Inca. You cross the bridge and turn left going up the hill as you see a covered swimming pool and people washing cloths on the right. Walk about 20 minutes along the road and you see round big pond with three huts around.
Chaqui Baño is one hour away from Potosi towards Sucre. Every hour on the hour from 6:00 bus leaves from Mercado Uyuni (Bs. 7). Buses are rather old but the road is good. There are four kinds of pools and saunas. If you worry about your belonging choose "Natural Sauna" as you get your own change room with a pad lock (Bs. 10). It also has a small pool. "Pool 1 and Sauna" has bigger pool and sauna but change room doesn't have a door (Bs. 9). "Pool 4" is Bs. 4. There is also small free pool up the hill. There are basic alojamientos available from Bs. 15. Typical Bolivian food stalls and stores selling drinks and bathing suits if you forget to bring one (Saunas are not German style). As of September 2012 a new hotel with indoor pool, and indoor market are under construction.
You may continue to tranquil white colonial capital city of Sucre (3-4 hours) or Uyuni (3 hours) to visit word's largest salt flat.