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Into the clouds of Potosi, Bolivia, one of the highest cities on earth & home to 'El Tío', Lord of the Underworld

The city of Potosi, in landlocked Bolivia takes your breath away, and when I say that, I mean it literally. At 4,067 meters, it’s one of the highest cities on earth, in Potosi the air is thinner, there’s less oxygen, it actually becomes harder to breath. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit, the key to adjusting to Bolivia’s altitude is to travel into the country by land, and to travel slowly. During my four months in South America I spent just over three weeks travelling through Bolivia’s stunning landscapes and arrived in Potosi about midway through. 

I travelled to Potosi by public bus, leaving Uyuni at 10am in the morning and arriving in Potosi around 2pm after our bus broke down for about 40 minutes (this happens a lot in Bolivia, but the bus will almost always be fixed pretty quickly). When I was there the roads were some of the worst I’ve travelled on with unpaved sections, insane bends and many pot-holes. The mountainside drops from the road edge provide a crazy ride, but I’ve heard the roads are much better on this stretch now. 

winding river and road leading to potosi bolivia
Views travelling up to Potosi

Potosi is known for the silver mines surrounding the city, but the history of the mines is overwhelmingly sad, over eight million people have died mining these dark, dusty, airless tunnels, including many children and the average lifespan of a miner is just 35-40. Today you can visit the mines with a cooperative group to see conditions and learn about the history for yourself. 

Most mines have a statue of the God of the Underworld El Tío inside and miners believe the god will help protect them as they work, offering alcohol, cocoa leaves and cigarettes to the statue daily. Sometimes a llama is sacrificed at the entrance of the mines for good luck, with some of the blood being offered as a gift to El Tío. If you want to learn more about the mining of Potosi and the God of the Underworld, I’d recommend watching The Devil’s Miner, a fascinating film that follows a 14-year old boy working in the mines since the age of 10. I didn’t go into the mines myself but know people who did, it's a fascinating but eye-opening experience.

sacks of potatoes at market in potosi bolivia
One of Potosi's colourful markets

Aside from the mines, Potosi is a pretty city to spend a few days, I wandered through fruit and vegetable markets, where you can pick up cocoa leaves to chew on (they help with altitude sickness), explored beautiful colonial buildings and admired the traditional Bolivian outfits. The way the women of Bolivia dress is outstandingly impressive, most wearing their long dark hair braided into two even plaits, a bowler or sunhat perched perfectly on their head. Many wear huge, elaborately patterned full skirts over pretty petticoats and hand knitted cardigans, almost everyone in Bolivia looks so smart. 

plants for sale on pavement in potosi bolivia
Street-side plant stalls

I stayed for three nights in a very basic guesthouse called Novembre 6th, but there are lots of other options depending on your budget. It's easy to continue your travels from Potosi, I'd recommend heading over to the pretty town of Sucre, just under three hours away.

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