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The city of Potosi, located in the south of the Republic of Bolivia, and the capital of the Department of the same name, is in the Andes Cordillera, near Sucre, at a height of 3,960m. It is a mining center producing tin, silver, copper and lead, and its industrial production is among the largest in the country, with factories of processed foods, furniture and beer. Its architectural heritage can be seen in a number of colonial buildings: the Gothic-style cathedral; the "Casa de la Moneda" (Mint House), built between 1757 and 1773, which preserved important colonial archives and is one of the most noteworthy colonial buildings in Latin America; as well as Tomas Frias University.
Potosi was founded in 1546, one year after silver deposits mined by the natives were found in the Mt Rico, at the foot of which the city was constructed. By 1611 it was the greatest silver producer in the world and had 150,000 inhabitants; however, by 1825 the silver had been practically worked out and its population dropped to 8,000 inhabitants. At the start of the 20th century, tin exploitation increased in step with world demand and, as a result, the city once again experienced significant growth.
Potosi has been declared a "World Cultural and Natural Heritage" by UNESCO. At one point in the history of Potosi, splendor and opulence abounded, with parties in refined houses, the telling of stories, myths and legends, and the unending silver extracted from one of the hills. These were the reasons for the birth of a city that today looks forward to the visitors from all over the world who want to explore it.
The city of Potosi, also known since 1547 as "Villa Imperial" after the king of Spain, who was an emperor at the time, is one the most fascinating places in Bolivia, not only for its wealth of history, hiding in every corner, but also for harboring one of the most important sources of natural wealth in the world.
The city has managed to maintain its roots up to the present day, as seen in the intact appearance of its colonial architecture, the customs of its people and the presence of indigenous cultures with their authentic forms of expression, passed on from generation to generation, and still existing today.
Potosi, capital of the department of the same name, is situated in the south of Bolivia, surrounded by the Cordillera of the Andes and at the foot of Mt Rico, the large mining center that caused its birth, its location making it the third highest city in the world, at a height of 3,960 meters.
During the period prior to industrialization, Mt Rico (Potosi's mine), was the principal supplier of silver in the world, and for this reason Potosi became the most populated city in America. With nearly 160,000 inhabitants, its population outnumbered that of London or Paris.
In those years, wealth sprung up in every corner of Potosi, as reflected in the opulent constructions, elegant houses, majestic churches and principally, in the "Casa de la Moneda", the place where the metal was minted and converted into the currency for the whole empire. It acted as a powerful magnet, where great artists of the period, such as painters, jewelers, sculptors, musicians and writers flourished; it was a fine source of inspiration for all of them, and they dedicated a large part of their lives to it.
The exclamation "It's worth a Potosi", signifying great opulence was coined as part of the language, referring to the famous hill from which countless tons of silver were extracted for Spain. This gave rise to the legend that with so much metal, a bridge of silver could have been built between Potosi and Madrid.
Silent, lonely streets, ancient houses, narrow sidewalks. In the background, the image of Mt Rico dominates the altiplano (high Andean plateau); even today, dozens of miners lose themselves in its shafts and galleries, but it is nothing like it used to be. There is no more silver fever in this old Villa Imperial, where different mining crises in later years and confrontations with the Spanish regime during the fight for independence affected the city's progress.
Despite being run-down and with its mines worked out, Potosi is an amazing tourist destination for those who like the adventure and the wisdom that only such a city can provide.
The colonial style pervades the whole city, with its cobbled streets at different levels, worn, wavy tiles on the roofs, mixed baroque facades and dozens of churches, each element contributing to creating a typical film "set".
Peaceful inhabitants, calm and timid in the presence of visitors, are found everywhere. Their inquisitiveness is nothing unusual, just the curiosity awoken by the sight of strangers.
Even though preparatory education is free for the youngest and there are some public and private universities, the culture still has firm aboriginal roots, not only in its language and architecture, but also in its clothing and lifestyle. This influence is what makes this city such a unique place.
The nearly 4,000 meters of altitude at which Potosi is located can be felt at every step you take around the city. From the first glance, we are aware of the style still maintained in perfect condition. Various examples of its architecture bear witness to how rich and powerful it was in past ages.
An example is the famous "Casa de la Moneda" (Mint House), one of the most important buildings in South America, dating from the year 1750. It was built by Salvador de Vila, who was also responsible for buildings in Mexico and Peru.
This was the place where the silver was minted into currency for all the empire. The house occupies a whole block, and contains a treasure of valuable paintings and sculptures, as well as furniture and other items of historical interest. Today, practically converted into a museum, it is one of the most important tourist attractions in Potosi where the traveler can wonder at each of the elements that make up the authentic context of the period, giving the sensation of being immersed in that opulent era.
Another symbol of the city is the "Torre de la Compaņia", a 17th century religious building reflecting the greatest splendor of Potosi. Its construction was conceived as a triumphal arch with five openings, thirty-two "Solomonic" columns and three half-moon cupolas. It is a visible expression of the spirituality of the age, based on the Catholic religion.
Within the churches of San Francisco and San Lorenzo, a great artistic exhibition can be seen, including indigenous gods and Christian symbols. These are only a couple of the many churches that can be found in Potosi, appearing practically every other block.
Mt Rico forms the real wealth of the city, eternally vigilant, and pierced by many galleries and shafts, many of which are interconnected, forming intricate labyrinths.
Its name in the quechua tongue, "Sumaj Orko", means "magnificent hill", alluding to the abundance of silver this mountain mine contains. The first vein of this metal was discovered by Diego Huallpa. The Spanish conquistador, Gonzalo Pizarro, took over the mining settlement that had grown up around the hill, and this gave rise to the foundation of the city of Potosi a year later.
Inside, the Pailaviri mine is divided into 17 levels that can be reached by an elevator that goes down 240 meters. The temperature varies at around 45ē Celsius. Some 70 meters above the entrance level, you can find the "Tio", or "Uncle", a representation of the devil or god, owner of the mines, to whom an offering is made in order to take the metal from its insides. Pailaviri has been worked unceasingly since the year 1545 and is considered the oldest mine near the city.
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