After finding a hotel (US$10 for room with an iffy bathroom) and
getting lunch (Bs.10 for a set menu, which included a decent soup and
three options for the second – an excellent suckling pig, and two
mediocre chicken dishes), we proceeded to one of Potosi’s main sites –
the royal mint (Casa de Moneda).
Potosi’s main claim to fame was the silver that was mined in the nearby Cerro Rico. The scale of production was such that Potosi at some point had larger population than any of the European cities and millions of African slaves were brought into Potosi, most of whom died within months. (There are is hardly any African descendants in Bolivia today.) Over the centuries, Cerro Rico has yielded, some say, over 70,000 metric tons of silver – enough, some again say, to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain. With so much silver produced, having a local mint is hardly surprising. Potosi’s Casa de Moneda occupies the whole block and shows a variety of coins minted in Potosi and the equipment to use those coins. At the end of the trip you can mint yourself a coin from lead or silver blanks that you can buy in the museum.
Apart from the coin related exhibits, Casa de Moneda had a collection of art in “mestizo” style that fused together European and Andean elements (a similar style is called “cusceño” in Peru). The highlight was the XVIII century “Virgen del Cerro”, which explicitly unites the Virgin and a mountain in a single image, which I found interesting since most of the other paintings of the Virgin from “mestizo” painters of that century merge the two more implicitly, giving the Virgin’s dress a mountain shape. The mint also serves as storage for a variety of random objects, including complete altars from some of the Potosi’s churches (which, we were told, now house schools).
Potosi is also full of beautiful colonial architecture, constructed in flowery, hyper-baroque “mestizo” style. While we didn’t have an opportunity to go inside many churches, we did visit the inside, the catacombs and the roof of Convento de San Francisco which provided a nice view of the city.
We ended up skipping, however, on what is perhaps Potosi’s single biggest tourist attraction – the still functioning mines. We had a long road ahead of us and needed to move on to Uyuni. Also, going into hot mines full of noxious gases to see people who are desperate enough to work in such inhumane conditions and who, our book said, tend to die of silicosis pneumonia within 10-15 years, just didn’t feel like our kind of fun.