Sucre and Potosi aren’t all that far from each other (comparatively) in Bolivia, yet few backpackers seem to pay homage to both towns in their itineraries.
It’s a shame really, because Potosi is often the most overlooked of the two, yet offers a wealth of experiences and unique memories Sucre can’t compete with. This is a tale of two cities: the bold and the beautiful.
Sucre: The Beautiful
Meet Sucre. Its cityscape shows off predominantly white-rendered houses with earthy-red terracotta tiled roofs amid a hilly setting.
The place has a clean, almost clinical look to it – I could barely breathe for the petrol fumes that filled the air, yet the buildings remain immaculately white.
It’s navigable – almost too easy. Everything is set out in a grid form, with the main plaza in the centre.
When Sucre was established in 1538 as the Spanish capital of the Charcas region of contemporary Bolivia, it was originally called ‘La Plata’ (The Silver).
La plata in Latin American Spanish means cash, dosh, mullah. Which explains a bit about the town itself.
Sucre had a symbiotic relationship with Potosi, which at that time was (in)famous for its silver mines.
Potosi was the city of labour. Sucre was the city of abundance. With its temperate climate, wealthy families involved in the silver mining industry settled here, away from the dust and dirt of the mines they operated.
Today, Sucre is a haven for the gringo (the rather desultory name given to clueless Western travellers who keep to their own).
It’s well-known for its cheap Spanish classes, and its easy lifestyle tempts many travellers to sojourn here much longer than originally intended.
Its cafes and bars cater to a foreign crowd. But it’s ironic really: so many travellers fill the streets that you hear English far more often than the language they’ve all come here to study.
Potosi: The Bold
So now we meet Potosi. Red bricks and tin roofs. In the centre, the houses have character, painted blue and pink and orange and each one original in design.
The streets are higgledy-piggledy. They are a bit of a squeeze for automobiles and buses, so even when they’re not pedestrianized, there are few cars on the road.
Welcome to the highest city in the world, with an altitude of 4,090 metres. But this city is most famous for its mines.
Potosi has a wealth of history, both literally and metaphorically.
Once silver was discovered at Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in 1544, the population swelled to almost 200,000 residents, making it the largest city in the Western hemisphere. To put that into perspective, the population of London around this time was between 80,000 to 120,000. Kind of hard to imagine, huh?
Potosi provided wealth not just for the region, but for the whole Spanish economy for at least two centuries. But where there’s industry, there’s exploitation. Local indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work in the mines, a career which guaranteed an early death from fatigue, injury, or pulmonary diseases.
The population of Potosi has since dropped (to about 164,400), along with the abundance of its silver.
But as a Potosino I met kept reiterating: ‘la plata no es la historia: es la realidad‘.
“Silver isn’t our history: it’s our reality.”
Men continue to work the mines, conditions are still atrocious. Trust me, I know. I took a trip down the mine myself – and it was a hairy experience. Even today many miners die before they reach 40 years old.
Potosi is, for most gringos, a mere stop-over on route to Uyuni and the Salt Lakes. Foreigners appear not to venture out much, except to gawk at the miners before continuing on their way. I’ve barely spoken a word of English since arriving, and for this very reason, I like it here. Perhaps I’ll stay longer.
Looking for more inspiration?
Find out why Bolivia is one of my most favourite countries in the world with some of my other travel tales:
- Discover the beauty of the Bolivian salt plains
- Descend into the Potosi mines with me
- Find out what’s so beautiful about La Paz
- Enjoy the thrills of cycling Death Road
- Come with me to the Amazon Basin
- Soak up the sun (and oxygen!) at Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca