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The Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain in English, was the source of the sudden and intense wealth that transformed this modest city into one of the most powerful and richly decorated in the entire world in the 16th and 17th centuries. For some time, Potosí created a Bolivian silver boom all on its own, as silver was extracted from deep within the mountain and exported back to Spain, ever enriching the Spanish crown and largely funding their continued exploration of the continent. Sadly, there is however a tragic side to this tale, as such fortune was to come at a huge cost. 

Millions of African slaves and Indians lost their lives, having been forced to work in the mines in dirty, cramped and downright dangerous conditions, and at over 4,000 metres above sea level to boot. Perhaps surprisingly then, the mine remains active and still perilous even today, with miners working in conditions not dramatically better than those who entered them on a daily basis some 500 years ago. Around 30-40 miners lose their life each year, sadly their age usually falls into that same range. 

Those who continue to enter the mines, in deference to the dangers they face, do so through lack of genuine alternative work and in the hope of striking a rich vein of mineral and claiming a life altering share of the profits. Visitors to the mines are encouraged to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite (which is freely and cheaply available) to hand out to the men they encounter along the way. 

Far from being mere voyeurism, visiting Cerro Rico, is an extremely humbling, moving and, at times, difficult experience. But it will give you a unique and authentic insight into the history and psyche of Latin America, as well as a lifelong empathy for those who continue to bravely venture deep into the dark and dusty depths of what is, despite the tour guides, a live, intense and sometimes fatal working environment.

Learn more about Bolivia's silver boom with our local guides
What to do in Potosi

Casa De La Moneda

Take an insightful tour into the old mint and the epicentre of the Bolivian silver rush in colonial times.

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