Bolivia was the second country in South America that I visited in 2015.
All in all, in 2 months and 1 week in Bolivia, I visited at least 12 towns/cities: Puerto Suarez, Santa Cruz, Sucre, Potosi, Tupiza, Uyuni, La Paz, Copacobana, Isla del Sol, Cochabamba, Tarata, and Toro Toro.
Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the time to write about Bolivia. I was glad, then, when Laia of Dream Travel Girl wrote about what else people can do in the city of Potosi aside from going down to the mines. I wasn’t lucky enough to catch the festivals, so I’m glad I’m able to present to you a different picture of this small highland city in Bolivia.
Potosi definitely surprised me in a positive way.
This is the magic of travel. I can read about the places I want to visit, I can see tons of images beforehand, and still I’m unable to guess how my experience will be.
After traveling alone for several months in Asia, Oceania, and South America, I learned that the experience is not only about the streets, buildings, and monuments. No, the real experience is about feeling the atmosphere of a city, getting lost in random streets, talking to local people, living the festivities.
I let my trip flow by itself. I never knew how long I’d be in each place. I didn’t plan much. And the flow of the trip lead me to the city of Potosi that weekend, that special weekend.
I went there for a single reason: visiting the National Mint, a museum about the history of the silver mines and coins production. And I was lucky, because Potosi exceeded my expectations. Not only did I get to visit the museum, I had the chance to see the city during festive days, too.
I arrived on Saturday morning. When I got off the bus, the first thing I did was to enter the station.
Ticket sellers from all the companies were shouting the destinations at the same time. “Sucre, Sucreee!!!”, “La Paz, bus a La Paaaaaz!”. I wanted to know the schedule of the buses to go to Villazon, at the border with Argentina, the day after.
“There are no buses tomorrow.”
No buses? How come? There were buses every day!
I asked in several places and finally learned that the day after was Pedestrian’s Day. That meant that no motor vehicles would be allowed, buses included. So I had two options: take a night bus that same day, or wait until Monday. I decided to stay for the weekend, and it was the right decision.
The Intriguing History of Potosi
At 4,000 meters above sea level, the city of Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. I had already spent one month in Bolivia so I was used to the altitude, walking its steep streets with my backpack was tiring but not exhausting.
Once I found a guesthouse I left my luggage and I went directly to the National Mint (Casa Nacional de la Moneda).
Potosi is a colonial city, but it’s not just another colonial city. Its history is both important and hard. It is located at the foot of Cerro Rico (rich mountain), whose mines were the major supplier of silver during the colonization period and are still in use today.
Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region knew about the silver but didn’t extract it since the mountain was considered sacred. The mines were created when the colonizers arrived.
Pure silver was extracted from Cerro Rico and was sent to the National Mint, to the same building that houses the museum today. The museum shows the process of elaboration of coins, from the melting of the pure metal, elaboration of ingots to the printing of coins.
It was shocking to imagine the conditions in which people worked there, the hardest and most dangerous jobs being done by indigenous or slaves. I was also surprised to learn that 75% of these coins were sent to Europe and only 25% remained in America.
As time went on the process of coins was automated, first with steam engines and later on with electricity. After the independence of Bolivia in 1825, the National Mint kept producing coins for the country until 1951. After that it closed and Bolivia started buying the coins (and bills) from other countries for economical reasons.
The mines, however, are still in use and are nowadays run by cooperatives.
Children’s Parade for San Bartolome Festivities
When I left the National Mint, the street had been cut for the traffic and it was full of people. What was going on?
First I heard the music. Then I walked between the numerous people who were watching and saw it…a children’s parade!
The kids were very young and were dressed in bright colors. The girls wore a sleeveless dress cut above the knees, long boots, long gloves, a hat with long feathers, earrings, necklaces and make up around their eyes. Each dress was different and had unique colors: green and orange, pink and purple, green and yellow, blue and gold, red and white.
They were walking in a choreography with music. Some of them looked happy and enjoying, while others looked more serious. I thought they might be nervous (all the city was watching!) or maybe they were just cold (everyone was wearing a coat except them).
After the groups of girls I saw a group of boys. They were wearing a white and yellow robe with a lot of decoration and fringes, blue and yellow shoes and a black hat. They had some kind of instrument in their hands and made music while walking. One of them had a lot of rhythm and was moving with a lot of energy!
After them there was a group of adult musicians playing percussion and wind instruments, and then it was over. So I saw the last part of the parade, I was very lucky! If I had left the museum a bit later I might have missed it altogether.
I was told the parade was part of the San Bartolome’s festivities. They were supposed to take place at the end of August but had been postponed to the first weekend of September.
The festivities of San Bartolome or festivities of Ch’utillos have a pre-Columbian origin. Due to the influence of the Jesuits during the colonization period it became a pagan-religious celebration.
The legend says that San Bartolome fought against evil and won. People started worshiping San Bartolome and hence the festivity was born.
Pedestrian’s Day in Defense of Pachamama
On Sunday, the city of Potosi surprised me again. It was the Pedestrian’s Day and motor vehicles were not allowed. If you see how crazy traffic is in Potosi, you’ll understand my amazement.
It looked like another city. Okay, it had the same steep streets, old colonial buildings and dry mountains around, but the atmosphere was different. Instead of heavy traffic and noise it was quiet and silent. Instead of cars, buses and scooters the streets were filled with families and bicycles.
I walked the streets randomly. Without the heavy traffic, I could stop easily to admire the colonial buildings, a reminiscence of the past.
I noticed that there were a lot of lawyer signs. Really, in some streets the signs were one next to each other. I wondered if there was work enough for all of them. I finally ask someone who told me that there is a justice court in the city of Potosi, which is why there are so many lawyers there!
I was also amazed by the love messages on the walls. That’s not specific of Potosi, I had seen them in other Bolivian cities as well. Many love messages. “Te amo Yarita” (I love you Yarita), “Michel te amo,” “Maria te amo,” hearts here and there. Bolivians are very expressive.
The walls of Potosi were like a book, and not only because of the love messages. I also found inspiring sentences as “sin poesía no hay ciudad” (without poetry there’s no city) or “que te cuesta sonreir” (how hard it is to smile). I liked the idea of filling the city with positive messages.
I kept walking and I arrived to the Plaza de Armas, the main square where the cathedral is. There were games for children so there was a lot of people. A person talking through a loudspeaker reminded that the Pedestrian’s Day was organized in defense of Pachamama (“Mother Earth” in Aymara and Quechua, two indigenous languages).
A few streets further there were more games for kids, street food stalls for lunch, families walking, and groups of friends chatting in the middle of the street. The atmosphere was festive and relaxed.
While I walked the streets, I thought that Pedestrian’s Day was more than a day without cars. It was a day to slow down, to spend with family and friends,to forget about the rush of daily life, a day to enjoy.
I slowed down as well. I sit down and observed the city around me, and thanked the city of Potosi for showing me a different side of the city. The festive side.
About the Author
Laia is the dreamer and traveler behind DreamTravelGirl. She traveled alone around the world for 11 months and she’s already planning her next adventure. She travels slow and light, and enjoys going off the beaten path, walking without direction, talking to locals and trying new food. She loves solo travel and wants to help people lose their fears to travel alone. Follow her adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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Guapa, it’s beautiful to discover every place and culture through your camera lens and your words. The car-free day has also been celebrated in Bogota for years. When I lived there it was once a year, now I think it’s done twice a year and it’s great. A good time to help the environment, especially in such polluted cities, it is a welcome respite.
Beautiful experience, thanks for sharing it with us and make us travel with you.
Twice a year in Bogotá! I know a lot of cities are celebrating a Pedestrian’s Day to help the environment, but I thought it was always done once a year. It’s a good idea 🙂
Congratulations laia !!!
She details her more Impressions of trip, catches the idiosyncrasy of every culture and allows yourself to live through this trip across his statements and his photos.
It is brilliant !!!
Thank you 😉
Thanks a lot Carolina! I’m very happy you enjoyed it 🙂
Beautiful! Great trip and experience.
I love traditional festivals and beautiful landscapes in Latin America.
I know about the Pedestrian’s Day. It is an excellent measure to reduce cars and contamination.
Also, this project exists in Bogotá and it is a good day to enjoy the city with family and friends.
Thanks for sharing!
Thank you! Yes, Pedestrian’s Day is international and more and more cities are joining.
As you say it’s an excellent way to reduce pollution, and an opportunity to see the city differently and enjoy it with family and friends 🙂
This is Awesome! I plan to visit Bolivia for 9 days on a short backpacking trip. How much do you think I can do?! and what do you suggest?!
Thanks for sharing!
Festival and pedestrian day, you’re a lucky person!
Did Bolivian people tell you if they like or dislike Spain (we now share a common language and culture, but the Spanish colonization was brutal)?
Interesting question! Before going there I wondered the same thing.
One person, while talking about the colonization, mentioned that “the colonizers killed us”. But she was aware that the colonization happened long back and has nothing to do with today’s Spain.
Most people I talked with didn’t show any special like or dislike, but everybody had a friend or relative who lives or had lived in Spain (some of them went back to Bolivia due to the economical crisis in Spain).
Even the guide in the National Mint museum, who was talking about the colonization, did it in a very objective way, without expressing any opinion, and was happy to know that I’m from Barcelona. She said they get a lot of tourists from there.
Oups, it’s hard to arrive on a place when everything is closed… it’s good that you found an open supermarket!
And yes, the parade was so cool 🙂
What a cool parade to see. We arrived on a holiday Monday and hardly anything was open but on a plus we found the supermarket super cheap! We tried to find the swimming pool but failed.
Wow, the title caught my attention. Just last night, I saw a post I started 2 years ago after visiting Potosi in Jamaica. I couldn’t remember why I had stopped.
The Potosi in Jamaica is quite different from the one here, and less colorful. I love festivals, especially children’s festivals. I also like the idea of Pedestrian’s Day – wonder if that would work in NYC?
Thanks for the tour!
I agree the Pedestrian’s Day is a nice idea, and I wonder too if Pedestrian’s Day would work in NYC 🙂
I know in Europe several cities do it, it’s called car-free day. Some cities keep some public transport running though, and in others only the city center is car-free. It depends on the size of the city. In any case it’s a good idea 🙂