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.