Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi, Bolivia is a fascinating place for those interested either in history or in contemporary Latin America.  A Quechua Indian discovered the silver ore of Potosi in 1545.  Spaniards forced Indians to work the mines, and for centuries, the silver mines of Potosi helped make Spain a world power.

I took these pictures when I visited Potosi in 1995. Es rico como un Potosi.


The red Cerro Rico, (“Rich Hill”) which towers above Potosi, is home to the mines.

The colonial mint at Potosi poured out a fabulous quantity of silver coins, and made Spain wealthy. The 8-real coin became the “piece of eight” of pirate fame, and was the model for the American silver dollar.

Potosi produced more silver than any other place in the world, except possibly Pachuca/Real del Monte in Mexico.


The stream of silver coins  produced by these milling machines were shipped down to the Atlantic Ocean via the Platte River, the rightly named Rio de la Plata (“River of Silver”).

The mines at Potosi are not the bonanzas they used to be, but the neighborhood at the foot of the Cerro Rico still caters to the miners who work the mines on a small scale.


A street stall selling coca leaves.  Many miners chew leaves for stamina at the high altitude.  Other street stalls sell sticks of dynamite.

The Candelaria mine supplements its income by admitting tourists.


Underground in the Candelaria mine.

The Devil is lord of the underworld, so miners have an image of him deep in the mine, and leave gifts.


A few miles outside of Potosi, and away from the Cerro Rico, a pair of miners hoist ore from their small mine with a hand-powered windlass.

The Spaniards used water power to crush the ore.  Here is the housing to an overshot water wheel.


Water to run the water wheels flowed from reservoirs behind stone dams in the valleys east of Potosi.

The old stone dams are in remarkably good repair.


More modern ore mills are located on the southwest side of Potosi.

Flotation cells at the Chaca mill separate ore minerals from the crushed rock.


When I visited, the small Potosi ore mills were still putting the crushed waste rock (the tailings) into the adjacent creek.

More modern mills in Bolivia no longer discharge their  tailings into stream beds.

The hills around Potosi were deforested centuries ago, to supply fuel and timber supports for the mine workings.  Browsing livestock have eaten up attempts to reestablish the forests. 

In an experiment to promote reforestation, local families were allowed to plant their own trees. Each tree  has an individual rock enclosure to protect it from hungry llamas.  Each owner maintains the enclosures around his own trees.


For the first time in centuries, the hills around Potosi may be again covered with forests.


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