Potosi – the highest city in the world

Although Sucre is officially at altitude, at over 4000m above sea level, Potosi is our first real test. Luckily, we don’t seem to suffer TOO badly, with only a mild headache to speak of, although every morning when we wake up our lips are dry and cracked and Rich has a little trouble sleeping, waking up gasping every now and then. Still, it’s nothing like the migraine-like pain or vomiting we’ve heard stories of. Thank God.

Potosi

Apart from it being the highest city in the world, the reason most people come to Potosi is to pay a visit to the mines. As the Lonely Planet will tell you, this is a unique experience but not for everybody and certainly to be approached with caution. Millions of workers have died in the mines. There are all manner of harmful chemicals, including asbestos, down there (although limited exposure won’t do you any harm) and some of the tunnels can get very hot and are a pretty tight squeeze. Most of the people we speak to who have been on the tour say that whilst they are really glad they did it, they didn’t altogether enjoy it at the time and certainly wouldn’t ever want to do it again. Some girls we speak to were so overwhelmed by the horrendous conditions the miners have to work in that they found themselves in tears at the end of the tour.

Potosi - Cerro Rico mountain

After much umming and ahhing over whether to go on the tour, we finally decide against it. As an asthmatic (Leah) it’s probably not the best idea , despite the tour operator’s assurances that ‘Yeah yeah, it’s fine. Your asthma’s not that bad is it?’ Some might say we missed out but we’re happy to spend a couple of days exploring town instead.

Downtown Potosi

Potosi is small but there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a day or two. Having opted out of the mine tour, we decide to investigate the other tourist attractions. First stop is a climb up the cathedral bell tower. It’s at this point that we really notice the altitude – walking around town is no bother but climbing stairs? – wow!!! Somebody give me some oxygen! Still, despite feeling like a couple of pensioners, it’s worth the climb with a great view over the city and some rather impressive bells (how the hell they got them up there I don’t know). The cathedral itself is undergoing renovation at the moment, but you can still wander through the building site and witness some rather precarious looking scaffolding.

National mint of Bolivia

Next stop and we hit the Mint Museum but when we find out the tour is mandatory and lasts two hours we decide to give it a miss. I’m all for a bit of education but I’m not sure I can stomach THAT long talking about making money. Sorry. So instead we head to the San Francisco monastery a few blocks across town. Here, again, you can climb up to the roof, and I have to say it is a far superior view to the bell tower. The tour around the monastery is also pretty interesting, even for non-believers like us, and thankfully it doesn’t last anything near two hours.

Outside San Francisco monastery

That evening and we decide to have dinner at a restaurant called Meson, just on the corner of the main square. It looks quite formal, with waiters in waistcoats and bowties and white table linen but the menu is by no means pricey. For 40 bolivianos each (about £4) we have a chateaubriand steak, wrapped in bacon, served with chips and vegetables. And I have to say it was absolutely delicious. If you really want to push the boat out and go for the full three courses, you can get a starter for around £1.50 and a dessert for the same. So that’s £7 in total. Not bad I’d say. The only downfall is the wine – the Bolivian stuff is certainly not a patch on anything we tasted in Argentina but if you want some of the good stuff you’ll have to shell out around £15. Still, you can’t have it all and I’m certainly not complaining – it’s beers all round for us.

Leah on the roof of San Francisco monastery