Potosí, once the richest silver-mining province in the Spanish Empire, and Sucre, a pleasant colonial city and one of Bolivia’s two capitals, shouldn’t be left out from any tourist itinerary. These two popular cities rich in history are located in the southern part of the country, 100 miles apart. They are linked by an asphalt road; direct buses take around 3 hours.
There are one-hour flights to reach Sucre from La Paz; the 350-mile distance can also be covered by a 12-hour overnight bus.
Most visitors prefer to visit Sucre and Potosí in combination with exploring the Salt Plains of Uyuni. Direct buses between Potosí and Uyuni take 4 hours; due to a major altitude change, it is better to start the visit in Sucre (the lower altitude) and slowly ascend to Potosí and Uyuni (the higher altitude).
In both places, there is a lot to do. Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world, is famous for its ‘imperial’ silver mines; Sucre, Bolivia’s ‘White City’, for its colonial architecture and the world’s largest collection of dinosaurs’ footprints.
High in the dusty red mountains of the Bolivian Altiplano, in one of the most inaccessible parts of South America, lies Potosí, a colonial mining town that held the world’s largest deposits of silver.
Founded in 1545 at the foot of Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain, Potosí was the main source of wealth for the Spanish Empire that fueled both its political project of a Christian monarchy and the first global economy.
The Spanish had been drawn to America by its gold but what made them rich was silver. When in the 1540’s they hit the silver jackpot at Potosí, within a few years, silver from Spanish America poured across the Atlantic, growing from a modest 300 pounds a year in the 1540’s to nearly 6.5 million pounds a year (3.300 tons) in the 1590’s.
During the second half of the 16th century, Potosí was producing an estimated 60% of all silver mined in the world.
At that time, its population had grown to 160,000 inhabitants which made it a metropolis larger than that of London or Paris, and an unimaginably rich one. In the economic history of the world, nothing on this scale had ever happened before.
Between the 16th century and 1996, Cerro Rico produced up to 60,000 tons of pure silver, enough to build a bridge from Potosí to Madrid, as legends tell.
The American silver made the Spanish kings Europe’s most powerful rulers, paid for their armies and allowed the monarchy to fight the French, Dutch, English and the Turks. The Spanish silver coins were the world’s Visa and MasterCard of the 16th through 19th centuries – without Potosí, the history of medieval Europe would have been very different.
The flow of silver continued until Mexico surpassed it in the 18th century. By that time, the city’s population had fallen from 160,000 to 60,000, with the silver production declining steadily throughout the early 19th century.
The harsh conditions of the mine life on the arid and cold Andean plateau at 13,000 feet led to many indigenous deaths. Pneumonia and mercury poisoning were a constant danger, especially after the discovery of a mercury amalgamation process. Coupled with the imposition of a forced labor system known as mita, from about 1600 up, the death rate among the local Indian communities skyrocketed. To replace them, tens of thousands of African slaves were brought, and although they proved more resilient than the local population, they too died in large numbers. It is estimated that several million workers died in Potosí’s mines in the three centuries before 1825.
Abandonment of the silver standard in many countries after 1891 shifted interest from silver to tin, zinc and lead, the main types of ore that are, apart from silver, mined at Cerro Rico today. Much silver still remains.
Potosí’s riches strongly influenced the city’s architecture and buildings.
Among them are 22 monastic churches, the imposing Compañía de Jesús (Society of Jesus) Tower, the Cathedral, the Casa de la Moneda (Royal Mint), and a number of patrician homes whose luxury contrasted with the bareness of the native quarters.
Grouped around the central plaza, many of these buildings are constructed in the Andean Baroque style, characterized by incorporating Indian influences. Most of them date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, and were built on the grounds of older, collapsed buildings.
Taking up a whole block on the main square is the Casa de la Moneda, the Royal Mint.
For centuries, it was the Spanish colonial silver mint. It was here that the silver bars from Cerro Rico were turned into coins, loaded onto llamas for the two-month trek over the Andes to Lima and the Pacific coast, and then taken by the Spanish treasure fleets from Peru up to Panama, where they were carried by land over the isthmus and across the Atlantic in convoys.
Bearing the mark ‘P’ and known as potosí, the Spanish silver piece of eight was the first truly global currency. Produced in huge quantities, it had spread – within 25 years of its first minting in the 1570’s – across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, and established a global dominance that it maintained well into the 19th century.
The Casa de la Moneda was founded in 1759 to replace the original 16th century building. It continued to function as a mint until its dissolution in 1933, when the abandoned complex was used as a prison and the headquarters of the Bolivian army. The construction of the Mint with its 160 rooms exceeded 8,000 pesos, the equivalent of around 10 million dollars in today’s currency.
In 1987, the Mint was converted into one of South America’s finest museums. It displays collections of colonial silver-processing machinery, coin presses and dyes, baroque colonial paintings, and samples of coins minted here, all illustrating the history of the exploitation of minerals during colonial times.
Among the museum’s best preserved equipment is the massive wooden lamination machinery, that occupies almost an entire room on two levels and that served to beat the silver to the width required for the coining. The wheels of the machine were rotated by donkeys and later by slaves, who were forced to work as human mules (since mules would die after a couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules in the wheel with twenty African slaves).
In the 19th century, the lamination machinery was replaced by steam-powered machines. The last coins were minted here in 1953 – the Bolivian coins used today are made in Canada and Chile from cheaper materials like zinc and copper.
The entrance fee to the Royal Mint is 40 Bs ($6), plus a photography fee; the guided tour takes 2 hours.
Another interesting building to visit is the Convento de San Francisco, the oldest monastery in Bolivia. It was built in 1547 and it houses a religious art museum. On the altar, there is a statue of Christ made of cactus wood and said to have hair that grows. From the tower, there are great views of the city and the mountain. The entry fee is 20 Bs ($3), the opening hours erratic.
The silver mines tour
The silver mines of the ‘man-eating’ mountain of Cerro Rico are probably the only place in the world where visitors can experience the mines the way local miners do. Taking a silver mine tour in Potosí is often the reason many visitors come.
These days, there are around 10,000 workers extracting minerals from the ‘honey-combed’ Cerro Rico (that is 10% of Potosí’s population). When the Bolivian government abandoned the money-losing state mines in the mid-1980’s, two dozen small-scale mining cooperatives were established. The underground tunnels reach to depths of 3,770 feet, and exploring them is not an activity recommended for people with claustrophobia.
The tour of the mines begins with a short sightseeing ride of the town, and a stop at the Miner’s Market. Here, visitors buy gifts of dynamite, 98% alcohol and coca leaves for the miners before heading deep down the mines. The next stop is made at a small storage room to get equipped with work pants, jacket, boots and a helmet.
The tour goes through different levels of the mines and their interior galleries. Miners at work can be seen here, as well as exposed silver mineral veins and the statues of El Tío, the Uncle. El Tío is a devil-looking effigy that provides the miners with protection in exchange for offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves.
Each miner works on one section of the network of tunnel together with his assistants, and his profit is based on production – the salary comes to around $20/day (a waiter in a tourist restaurant makes about $7/day).
The materials and tools they use haven’t changed much over the time – the miners mostly work with metal bars, hammers, acetylene lamps (that go out whenever the oxygen in the air is used up), dynamite and coca leaves (as a pain- and hunger-killing stimulant).
Many miners smoke strong unfiltered cigarettes, though asthma, silicosis (lung scarring) and other pulmonary diseases are the most common health problems; the miners believe the cigarettes fill up their lungs with tar (the lesser evil) until there is no more room left for the silica-containing dust, the main cause of silicosis.
The cooperatives provide a very basic health insurance, and control funds raised from ‘adventure’ tourists who take the tours. The tourists are appreciated because they bring useful gifts like cigarettes, coca leaves and sticks of dynamite. A growing number of the miners take advantage of the increasing tourist trade and work as guides to the mines themselves.
A typical tour lasts 4 hours (tours usually leave at 8 am and 2 pm), and includes transportation, guide, safety gear and a live dynamite explosion. Prices start at $20.
Set in a fertile valley in the southern part of the country and surrounded by rolling hills, Sucre is considered Bolivia’s most beautiful city.
With an altitude of 9,153 feet, it enjoys a mild subtropical climate with cool temperatures and sunny days throughout the year.
Called the ‘White City,’ Sucre’s architecture is based on the traditional Spanish grid style with a spacious central plaza to provide a place for citizens to relax and socialize, and well-preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with large, whitewashed facades, shaded patios and narrow streets.
Specific eras of the city’s history are reflected in its four different names: before the Spanish came, the city was known as Charcas; during the Spanish Empire, it was called La Plata (a name that refers to the silver-rich hills in nearby Potosí); and in the 18th century, it was renamed Chuquisaca after the region’s indigenous name. The last of the four names – Sucre – honors the national hero, Grand Marshal Juan Antonio de Sucre, who played a key role in the Bolivian Independence Revolution and became the first president of the new Bolivia; he has a statue on the main plaza.
During the colonial era, Spanish royalty and wealthy families involved with the silver mining in Potosí preferred living in Sucre, seeking in its mild climate refuge from Potosí’s high altitudes and cold temperatures.
After the economic decline of Potosí and its silver industry in 1898, an effort to move the capital from Sucre to La Paz resulted in a civil war. The outcome was a compromise – Sucre remained the capital in name and the seat of the Supreme Court, while the seat of the government and its legislative branch were moved to La Paz (since then Bolivia is known as the nation with two capital cities).
The main Plaza 25 de Mayo is a nice, lively garden-like square with many cafés, restaurants and tree-shaded benches. Marked with the Cathedral on one side and the Casa de Libertad on the other, it is the social hub of the city with music and street entertainment.
The construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Bolivia, began in 1559 and took 250 years to complete. It houses the famous, jewel-encrusted statue of Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Sucre, from 1601. The Museo Catedraliceo inside is the country’s most important religious museum with a vast collection of paintings by colonial and republican masters. Decorating the cathedral’s large clock tower is a massive, 18th century clock imported from London. The cathedral is open to public from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.
The Casa de la Libertad, the House of Freedom, was constructed in 1621 as part of the Convent of the Jesuits. It is considered the most important historic building in Bolivia – it was here where the Bolivia’s Declaration of Independence was signed, and the republic founded.
The late 18th century neo-classical Convento de San Felipe Neri (with its white turrets and terracotta-roofed bell towers) is another of the most visited sites in the city. Originally built as a monastery, today, it serves as a religious girls’ school. A large inner courtyard is surrounded by rows of colonnades whose generous space is used for weddings. The bell tower offers sweeping views over the city, and the terrace still has the stone benches used by monks who sat on them appreciating the city views.
Not far from the center (along Calle Dalence up) is La Recoleta, Sucre’s very first plaza and a look-out point for the best panoramic views of the ‘white city’ and the surrounding valleys and mountains. Located at the feet of the Sica Sica and Churuquella hills where the city was founded, La Recoleta is home to the picturesque La Recoleta Monastery, a stunning church founded by the Franciscan Order in 1601.
Today, La Recoleta is converted into a museum, housing some of the city’s most impressive religious artefacts like the church choir, magnificent wooden carvings dating back to the 1870’s, and sculptures and paintings from the 16th to 20th centuries.
Outside are courtyard gardens and the renowned Cedro Milenario, the Ancient Cedar.
Cedro Millenario is a giant, 1000-year old tree, one of the few survivors of the cedars that once grew everywhere around Sucre.
Recently, a new restaurant and a café have been opened in La Recoleta.
Below, there is an open-air theatre with occasional free shows.
Among tourists, La Recoleta is very popular for sunsets (it can get crowded here); among locals, for dates and marriage proposals.
With a welcoming ‘Today Me, Tomorrow You’ above the entrance, the vast Cementerio General, the General Cemetery, is the country’s finest burial ground and an example of a South American vertical cemetery.
Built in 1580, the cemetery is home to the graves of Bolivia’s most important people – opulent tombstones of nobles and aristocrats show the extreme wealth that poured into the city from the nearby mines of Potosí, the world’s richest city during the Spanish period.
In Bolivia, just like in Spain, the dead are usually buried in vertical walls that can be 6 stories high. Organized in rows, the walls have vaults or niches holding photos, flowers and personal objects left by the family to commemorate the life of the deceased. Each niche is rented for 4 years with an extension option of another 3 years at a cost of around $10,000; after that time, the body must be removed.
Filled with charming walkways, shaded sitting areas and manicured gardens with old trees, walking here feels more like a stroll in a park than in a graveyard. The cemetery is open from 8 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday.
In the center of the small Plaza de la Libertad stands a 95-foot tall obelisk, erected with money raised by fining bakers who cheated on the size and weight of their bread. The beautiful Gran Mariscal theatre in the corner, named after Bolivia’s first president, holds regular events, many of them for free.
The Iglesia de San Miguel is a 17th century church that has beautiful Moorish-style carved ceilings. From this church, the Jesuit missionaries went to convert to Christianity the indigenous tribes of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The roof-top café offers panoramic views of the city.
Dinosaur footprints of Cal Orko
Located on the outskirts of Sucre is Cal Orko, a paleontological site that has the largest concentration of dinosaur tracks in the world.
Exposed in a 300-foot high wall, there are over 5,000 dinosaur footprints in 462 individual trails, left by 9 different dinosaur species during the second half of the Cretaceous period 68 million years ago.
The footprints left in the near-vertical limestone wall range from Tyrannosaurus Rex to Sauropod and Titanosaurus; the most impressive is the 1,200-foot trail left by a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex known as ‘Johnny Walker.’
In prehistoric times, Cal Orko was part of a huge lake that had a diverse population of dinosaurs living on its shores. The marks they left in the mud were solidified by later periods of drought, and when wet weather returned again, the prints were sealed below mud and sediment. This wet-dry pattern was repeated seven times, preserving multiple layers of prints. When the Andes mountain range was thrust up during tectonic activities and the lake pushed back, the limestone surface, which once laid horizontally, was pushed up into a vertical rock face. (So, no, dinosaurs don’t walk on walls.)
In 2010, a section of the wall broke off, destroying some of the tracks, but revealing another layer underneath – it is believed now that there are multiple layers of tracks. The site is currently in the process of becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in order to raise $8 million towards conservation of the prints damaged by ongoing query work and erosion.
The first discoveries came in 1985 when miners of a local cement company (still in use) accidentally spotted the footprints while clearing the grounds. The tracks were hidden under a layer of bad sediment which the employees decided was not worthy to be mined.
For the preservation of the site, the Cretaceous Park and Museum were opened in 2006 featuring 24 life-size replicas of the different species of dinosaurs that left their mark on the place. The Museum offers informational videos and documentaries; part of it is a viewing platform 500 feet from the rock face.
The entrance fee is 30 Bs ($4) for foreigners, plus the additional 5 Bs of a photography fee. The entrance fee includes a guided tour that explains in English/Spanish the discovery of the tracks and the different types of dinosaurs identified. The best time to visit is between noon and 2 pm, when the position of the sun allows for the best viewing of the footprints. Guided tours run daily at 10 am, 12:00 am and 1 pm, and take about 45 minutes.
The park can be reached by bus, shuttle or taxi from Sucre. The best option is to take the red double-decker ‘shuttle bus’ from Sucre’s main square, generally parked in front of the cathedral. This ‘Dino’ bus gets to the park just on time for the quarry tours, and costs 15 Bs return. Alternatively, public bus #4 or H runs every 5 minutes from the bus station (the park is the last stop). A taxi should cost around $10 round-trip.
The Tarabuco Market
Sucre is the gateway to a number of small, indigenous villages that date back from the colonial era.
The most well-known of them is Tarabuco, the home of the Yampara people and the place of a traditional regional market famous for locally crafted tapestries, ponchos and woven products.
The market takes place every Sunday on the main square; part of it is a vegetable market a couple streets down where families from the surrounding communities come to sell their farming products, household items, coca leaves, clothes, etc.
A traditional harvest festival called pujllay is held in Tarabuco each third Sunday of March. March is the month that not only marks the end of the rainy season and the harvesting time, but it also comes a few weeks after the Christian Carnival, an event very popular in Bolivia.
The festival is one of Bolivia’s largest, featuring a parade with music and dancing performances. People dressed in traditional costumes come from more than 60 neighboring communities. Some dancers wear Spanish helmets and spurs to celebrate the battle of 1816 in which locals won over the Spaniards. One of the highlights of the festival is the pukara ceremony. Pukara is a large wooden tower filled with fruits, vegetables and chunks of meat that is carried around by the procession. At the end it is taken down, and the food is shared with the people.
Getting to Tarabuco from Sucre is possible by taking a local bus (colectivo) for 10 Bs ($2) from the Avenida de la Americas. Private tour vans cost about 50 Bs ($9) per person, taxis cost 80 Bs per person. It takes about 1.5 hour to reach Tarabuco.