The History of Potosi, Bolivia

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ESPAÑOL This is a detailed summary of the history of Potosi. You can learn more about Potosi Bolivia by looking up information on points that are of special interest to you.

History of Potosi, Bolivia

In extreme Southwestern Bolivia there is a city that was once the pearl of the Spanish Crown, the center of legendary riches. Its name, in the Spanish lexicon, is synonymous with excessive quantities of wealth, the numbers of which are too high to describe: Potosí.

In pre-Hispanic times this region was inhabited by Charcas and Chullpas natives, along with smaller groups of Quechua and Aymara. They were peaceful peoples, able artisans who worked with pottery and silver, as did other Western Bolivian ethnic groups, and they were colonized by the Inca. Aware that the mountains in this area contained valuable minerals, the Quechua established a system to exploit the silver mines of Porco, for which they created a labor system called the “mita” – they enslaved other peoples to work in the mines. They became very wealthy from the riches found in the mines an over time also contributed to paying for a ransom to rescue Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Tawantisuyo, when he was held hostage by the Spaniards.

The mines were already famous when the Spanish arrived. The latter destroyed the Incan Empire and soon after arrived in Potosí in search of gold and silver. The mines of Porco were the first to fall into their hands as the riches of Sumaj Orco (the well-known “Cerro Rico” so often visited by tourists today) had not yet been extracted. Legend has it that the Incan emperor Huayna Kapac, a descendant of Pachacutec, intended to exploit the mountain’s silver and sent in his miners to do so. However, when they began to dig they heard a supernatural voice that came from within the bowels of the mountain and it ordered them to leave the mountain intact. Those who heard the voice say it told them the silver in the mountain was not destined for them, but for others.

These “others”, who would be hairy and very light-skinned, arrived eight decades later in 1539. By then the region had already been given the name it has today, some say due to the news given them by the voice that sprang from within the mountain and others say it is named after the waters that spring out all along the foothills. Regardless of which version you choose to believe, the word “Ptojsi” or “Ptoj” means to “spring forth”. The Spanish, with their characteristic awful pronunciation of indigenous words, “spanish-ized” the word and it became “Potosí”.

The honor of being the founder of this city would have gone to Gonzalo Pizarro, the ambitious younger brother of Francisco Pizarro (the rotund Spaniard who became a marquis and conquistador of the empire) if his intuition hadn’t failed him. The younger Pizarro, bored of his job as the Corregidor of the Charcas region, set out to explore the Sumaj Orco (the Cerro Rico) in 1541. However, either because he was too impatient, or because he was in too much of a hurry, he decided there was no silver to be found. He didn’t find a single vein of the metal. All he saw were stone altars which had been set up in the area as offerings, and being the Catholic that he was, he promptly declared them pagan and left.

It was a native named Diego Huallpa who found the metal three years later. And this is where the legend splits off into two versions: according to the first version, Huallpa was looking for some llamas that had strayed from his flock near the top of the mountain when, as he pulled out some plants by their roots, he found a vein of silver. The second version affirms that Diego was feeling very cold and lit a fire to warm himself. The fire melted a vein of silver and upon seeing the precious mineral in its liquid form, Huallpa decided to exploit the metal in secret. He told only one other person, his friend Chalco who, it is believed, told one of the conquistadors.

Spaniard Juan de Villarroel was one of the conquistadors who was busy exploiting the mines at Porco. Upon hearing of the discovery at Sumaj Orco he decide to go see for himself, despite the fact that the mountain was very high and extremely windy. Along with some of his companions, Diego de Centeno, Juan de Cotamito and others who were working with him, he arrived in Potosí in April of 1545 and claimed the mountain for himself and on behalf of King Charles the 1st of Spain and 5th of Germany. The wealth they found in the mountain appeared to be unending. They named the first mine they opened La Descubridora. From it they extracted so many bars of silver and sent them to the Spanish crown that by 1553 Charles the 5th had given the city a coat of arms with a slogan praising its wealth and named it the “Villa Imperial”. The name became famous when Miguel de Cervantes, who authored “Don Quijote de la Mancha”, used the phrase “vale un Potosí” (it’s worth a Potosí) to describe anything that is extremely costly.

More interested in mining than in establishing cities, the pioneers settled haphazardly in the region, occupying native homes and improvising huts in the driest areas of Potosí. They spend years in “urban” chaos until finally Francisco de Toledo, the Viceroy of Peru, decided to organize the colony. He officially declared the founding of the Villa Imperial de Potosí in 1572 because in their excitement at having found so much silver, the first colonists had never taken it upon themselves to carry out the official city foundation ritual. He organized the town as best as he could, not following the customary Spanish design. Instead he drained the swamp that covered much of the area to make the city more inhabitable and instituted the “mita” system, which he copied from the Incas, introducing the use of mercury (a toxic element) to purify the mineral in its raw form. This cost thousands of “mitayos” (enslaved indigenous miners) their lives.

In 1575 Viceroy Toledo also ordered the construction of artificial lagoons to provide water for the city. Potosí needed a lot of water both for consumption by its growing population, and for work in the mines, but water was scarce. Therefore, he decided to take advantage of the springs that ran from the Qari-Qari mountain range that surrounds the city and built enormous dikes that carried the water, and rainwater, toward five artificial lagoons. Over time he built a total of 32 dikes. Some of these still exist and are known collectively as the Qari-Qari Lagoons.

By this time the city was already enormous, in comparison to others of the same era, and was larger than most European capitals. The population was a great mix of all types of peoples: adventurers, soldiers, fugitives, noblemen, friars and priests, artists, academics, gamblers, swordsmen, artisans, miners, traders, and women from all walks of life. Those who didn’t dedicate their time to seeking their fortunes in the mines earned their livings by providing goods and services to those who did.

The Church also received its portion of the bonanza as just two years after the Spanish settled the area, two churches were constructed (La Anunciación and Santa Bárbara) which were followed by several others until finally there was a total of 36 sumptuously adorned temples with altars of pure gold and silver, some in the simple Neoclassic style, and others in the more ornate Mestizo Baroque style. It is interesting to note that the division of social classes could also be seen in the churches which were divided into “churches for indigenous people” and “churches for Spaniards and creoles”. Many of these churches are still standing and their façades remain as testimony of their splendor. Convents and seminaries were also built as were great mansions for noblemen and their families, gaming houses, and dance halls for the entertainment of the Spaniards and creoles (Spaniards born in the Americas). No one else was allowed to enter them.

The most notable building of this period is the Casa de la Moneda (the Spanish Mint) which is one of only three that were built in the Americas during this period. Viceroy Francisco de Toledo ordered it built in 1572 so that the silver found could be processed into coins or bars on site and sent in this manner to Spain where the royal seal would be imprinted upon them if, that is, they were not stolen by English and Dutch pirates who had taken to raiding the Spanish galleons. It was designed by architect Salvador de Vila, who also designed the Spanish Mints of Lima and Mexico.

So much silver was being produced that it soon became too small for its purpose and the King of Spain then ordered another to be built, using the taxes contributed by the miners to do so. The new Casa de la Moneda was begun in 1751 and completed in 1773, under the supervision of two architects named José de Rivero and Tomás Camberos, who designed an enormous complex in the Mestizo Baroque style. It covered over 15,000 square meters and had 200 rooms. This building certainly was “worth a Potosí”. It cost over 10 million dollars (in today’s terms) to build it and it operated as the Spanish Mint for over two hundred years until finally, in 1953, it was converted into a museum.

The city was at its most splendorous during the 16th century and grew to become one of the most populated cities in the world, surpassing even the largest cities in the Old World. It was culturally and architecturally enviable and its inhabitants were known to be extremely ostentatious. Among other eccentricities, for example, during the procession of Corpus Christi in 1658 the city center cobblestones were dug up and replaced with bars of silver all the way to the Recoleto Church. This display of luxury gave rise to legends about the American city whose streets were paved with silver and not cobblestones, and that so much silver was used to pave its streets that it was enough to build a solid silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid. Another curious story tells of a man named Juan Fernández who declared himself the King of Potosí. This cost him his head when the Spanish crown charged him for treason.

Although there was enough silver to keep everyone happy, disputes arose between Spaniards of different origins. Thus, for example, neither the Spaniards nor the creoles got along with the Basques who had acquired too much power in their opinion. This led to a battle known as the Guerra de los Vicuñas y los Vascogados, in 1617. The Vicuñas, as the creoles (American born Spaniards) were disrespectfully called, rebelled against the Vascongado (the Basques) and the restrictions the latter imposed upon them because they were not born on the Spanish peninsula. The Vicuñas won, because they were more numerous.

Near the mid 18th Century Potosí underwent a second silver boom and it was during this time that the second Spanish Mint (Casa de la Moneda) was built. However, after this brief period, silver mining entered a period of decadence which was aggravated by the wars for independence during which Potosí was one of the most disputed cities. It changed hands several times as Spain had no intention of letting go of its grip on the hen that laid golden eggs. A fifteen-year war began on 10 November 1810 when the patriots rebelled and expelled governor Francisco de Paula Sanz, who was said to have been an illegitimate son of Spain’s King Charles the 3rd. Encouraged by the victories of patriots in neighboring Argentina, guerrilla warriors from the town of Tupiza also entered into combat against Sanz’ royalist army. The latter found it easy to defeat them and then marched into Charcas where he squelched an uprising there as well. The war was finally won and Bolivia declared its independence from Spain in 1825 when Venezuelans Simón Bolivar and Mariscal Sucre intervened. Sucre decreed the creation of the Department of Potosí on 23 January 1826. Years later Andrés de Santa Cruz added several provinces that belonged to Tarija to the jurisdiction of Potosí, making Potosí one of the largest of Bolivia’s nine departments (states).

The war for independence left Potosí in ruins. Its population dwindled from over 100,000 to under 9000, it was despoiled of its riches which were looted or transported to Spain and other places, and its mining industry was paralyzed. It wasn’t until decades later that it recovered slightly thanks to the international need for tin, which until that time had not been a greatly appreciated metal. In 1850 the mines were reactivated and preference was given to the extraction of tin. With the high prices being paid for this metal worldwide, Potosí became Bolivia’s economic center until the end of the Second World War during which the United States purchased Bolivia’s tin at bargain prices.

Of all the wars Bolivia fought against its various neighbors, the one that most affected Potosí was the War of the Pacific (against Chile) in 1879. A new department was created from part of the coast that belonged to Potosí. It was named Mejillones (or Litoral as it is more commonly known). This department was lost during the war and with it, Bolivia lost its access to the sea. This obviously made exports from Potosí’s mines less competitive as the metals now had to be exported through foreign ports and taxes had to be paid. In addition, the prices of these precious metals fell steeply and the costs of extracting, purifying and exporting them increased. Mining decreased greatly in the years after the World Wars, leaving Potosí impoverished. Due to several successive droughts, the lack of a means for living, and the fall of the tin mines, there was a period of mass migration from Potosí to Argentina and other departments, above all La Paz, where people primarily settled in what is now the city of El Alto. Others headed to Eastern Bolivia.

During the Chaco War (1932-1935 against Paraguay) miners were recruited as soldiers with disastrous results. Bolivia lost more territory and production fell steeply. Beginning with the reforms that took place in the 1950’s, and through to the more recent autonomy movements that have taken place in the country, attempts have been made to solve some of the socioeconomic problems of this region, but with poor results. Potosí, which once paved its streets with silver centuries ago, is now one of the three poorest departments of Bolivia.

Culturally, however, the region is very rich. It possesses relics and intangible wealth of great historic value and attempts are being made to preserve them. UNESCO declared Potosí Cultural Heritage of Humanity on 7 December 1987. The city has preserved a great deal of its colonial architecture, narrow streets, many of its sumptuous temples, museums with unique and priceless objects, the Casa de la Moneda, the machinery from the Spanish Mint (which is in excellent condition) and even the comical mask at its entrance. And, of course, the Cerro Rico, after five centuries of exploitation and the drilling of thousands of tunnels into its bowels, still continues to produce silver. Tourists can visit some of the mining tunnels with a guide.

One of the most outstanding festivals is the Festival of Ch’utillos which rivals the Carnaval of Oruro and the Entrada del Gran Poder of La Paz. Its natural attractions are also important, especially the beautiful Salar de Uyuni (currently one of Bolivia's top tourist attractions, the Lagoons, the Tarapaya hot springs, Laguna Colorada with its red waters, the Llallagua and Porco mining complexes, the colonial town of Tupiza, and several summits that are popular among mountain climbers.

Correspondent Alura Gonzales

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