ULTIMATE Guide to Potosí, Bolivia and the World’s Most Dangerous Mine
Planning on visiting Potosí, Bolivia? Well, here you’ll find everything you NEED to know before you go including detailed information about the Potosí mines, other interesting things to do, how to get in, where to stay, and more!
Potosí, Bolivia is the world’s highest city sitting at 4,090m (13,418ft) above sea level. This alone is a good reason to visit Potosí – I mean, if you’ve never experienced this type of altitude then you should – it is a bucket-list experience.
But there’s more to Potosí than that.
In fact, Potosí has its own list of things to do and unique experiences for visitors. Some buildings and areas in the city are actually UNESCO World Heritage Sites! And besides that, the city itself is fairly small with a population of only 120,000 people making it less overwhelming than its neighbors of La Paz or Sucre.
When you arrive in Potosí it will be apparent that this is a real operating mining city. It isn’t a city based on tourism, there are no fancy colorful buildings or luxurious high-rise hotels. Here you’ll see lots of locals living a typical Bolivian life and tourists are truely few and far in between.
The main reason tourists visit Potosí is to visit the somewhat controversial mine tours in what is considered to be the world’s most dangerous mine. Well, we did this mine tour and I must admit, I wouldn’t do it again if given the chance. Once was definitely enough!
In this blog, I’ll tell you all about my experience on the mine tour in Potosí, Bolivia. But, I’ll also tell you the other best things to do there, what to expect from a visit, and other logistical planning info such as how to get there and where to stay!
About Potosi, Bolivia and the Mine
Potosí, Bolivia was a very important city back in the 1500s under Spanish rule. Cerro Rico, a mountain right beside Potosí, was considered one of the world’s biggest silver mines which made Potosí one of the wealthiest cities in all of Latin America.
That is, until the 1800’s when they mined the mountain dry of silver.
Nowadays, mining is still the most important industry in Potosí with most men working in the nearby mine. But this time, they are mining other earth metals such as tin and zinc.
The mine at Cerro Rico is considered to be the most dangerous mine in the world as it claims the lives of hundreds of men yearly.
Although not a tourist destination per se, Potosí is becoming more popular amongst visitors in Bolivia. Its close proximity to both Sucre and Uyuni makes it accessible and curious travelers can’t help checking out Cerro Rico for themselves.
Home to about 120,000 people and at 4,090 m (13,400ft) above sea level, Potosí is an interesting city. The many hills and altitude make wandering the city a challenge in itself, but if you do visit, you’ll be greeted with an authentic city, local food, and some breathtaking landscapes.
Getting In/Out of Potosí, Bolivia
Potosí is located in the southern highlands of Bolivia. It is a relatively small city and for that reason, the only way to get there is by bus or private car transfer. The closest commercial airport is in Sucre.
The closest tourist destinations to Potosí are Sucre and Uyuni (where most people visit the Bolivian Salt Flat.) We went from Sucre to Potosí and then to Uyuni. This route worked well for us and it didn’t involve too many long buses.
From Uyuni, Potosí is about 3.5 hours away by bus.
Tour tip: If you want to go from Sucre to Uyuni, you can book this private tour which includes your transport as well as a stop in Potosi for a mine and city tour!
You can also catch a bus to Potosí from La Paz. It is about an 8-9 hour-long drive but you can book night buses for this route and even pay more for a VIP bus (with large “sleeper” seats.)
Tip: We always book buses in advance on Busbud.com. This way, we know the price, can select our seats in advance, and secure our spots! It is a safe website with great customer service if you ever need help.
Potosí, Bolivia Mine Tours
If you’re going to Potosí, chances are you’ve heard about the infamous mine tours at Cerro Rico. These tours are the biggest reason travelers come to Potosí and although a lot of controversy surrounds them, they continue to be the most popular activity in Potosí.
We went on a mining tour in Potosí and while we didn’t necessarily have a “bad” experience, there are a few things I think you should know before going yourself or choosing a tour.
Controversy around Potosí Mine Tours
There are some serious ethical questions surrounding the mine tours in Potosí. Some people see them as a way to support and encourage a dangerous and unethical industry, while others see it as an important eye-opening experience that actually helps the workers in need.
You’re going to have to form your own opinion on this, but I will tell you what I know based on what I saw and experienced to help you make this call.
First of all, the mines of Potosí have a very dark history. For centuries, the Spanish exploited slaves (both African and indigenous) and forced them to work in the mines sometimes underground for weeks at a time. Millions died.
Today, the mine is not run by the government or companies, instead, miners work independently and sell their products (earth metals such as tin, zinc, or other) for very cheap prices to companies directly. These companies make and supply products to the rest of the world.
Although workers choose their own hours today, the conditions are just as harsh and most workers do not have the money to buy proper safety equipment. Dynamite explosions gone wrong claim plenty of lives on a regular basis and if that isn’t bad enough, the life expectancy of a miner is somewhere only around 50 years old. If an accident doesn’t get them, the dust and silicon in the air will.
But men continue to work in the mine as it brings in on average 3x as much as a normal job in Potosí would (like in a restaurant or shop.) It’s how men support their families in this city and a very common job.
Many tourists believe that by going on a mine tour in Potosí you’re supporting an industry that is essentially a death sentence.
I don’t think this is particularly true.
The mining in Potosi would 100% continue on with or without these tours. In fact, the tours actually give miners the chance to quit mining and become a tour operator instead.
Additionally, on the tours you bring gifts to the miners which they truly appreciate. The entrance fee your tour operator pays to get you into the mine also goes directly back to the workers.
Sure, it does seem weird to go into a mine and watch workers as if they are some sort of “tourist attraction”, but when I was there it didn’t feel like that. The workers interacted with us, and to me, it all seemed like an educational experience.
Of course, you’ll have to make your own decision – this is just what I saw and know.
Mining Tour Safety
Safety is another thing you need to 100% consider before going on a mining tour in Potosí, Bolivia. I’m going to be the first to say that I do not think these tours are very safe overall.
I mean, sure, you get safety equipment such as a full suit, dust mask, headlamp, and gloves, but these items won’t protect you from a serious accident. Dynamite explosions are reguraly going on in the mine, and while you’re in there, there are risks.
But who am I to talk – I went on the tour anyway! Sure, it was a little nerve-racking at times, but I survived. I did not feel 100% safe though when I was in the mine and anybody who struggles with small spaces will hate it.
If you do want to go on a mine tour in Potosí then be sure to read my advice below on booking the right tour which will help you stay safe!
Safety Note: In the past, tour guides would actually let off dynamite in the mine for the tour groups to see. Rumor has it that this caused a few serious accidents, and since then it is technically banned. However, I’ve also heard of tourists tipping and convincing their guide to still do this – don’t be those tourists. Stay as far away from dynamite explosions as you can!
Our Mine Tour Experience
Our mine tour in Potosí started in the morning around 8 am. Our guide picked us up and drove us (along with a handful of other tourists) to the mining market.
Here we were instructed to buy gifts for the miners. Our guide suggested buying pop, juice, alcohol, and coca leaves (the miners chew them all day long). We were also shown the dynamite that the miners buy. The market was really cheap and we only spent a couple of dollars each.
After the mining market, we went to get geared up. We put on full suits complete with rubber boots, a safety helmet with light, and gloves. Within a few minutes we were ready to head to Cerro Rico.
After driving to Cerro Rico we took a quick picture and headed into the mine. The mines are completely dark with the only light coming from your headlight and the only source of oxygen is pumped in from a compressor.
Our guide once worked in the mines, so he was very knowledgable and knew his way around. He also knew all of the miners around and said hi to everybody.
As we walked through touching the walls, loose rocks fell to the floor, and with your headlight, you can see the aftermath of other parts that have collapsed.
We walked for 20 minutes before we came to a hole with a small wooden ladder heading down a 15m drop. This was our first entry point to the lower levels and a point where escaping was a long way away. We headed down the ladder and carefully gripped each ladder rung as if our life depended on it while contemplating our reasoning for doing such a tour.
We walked for another 5 minutes before we came to an open shaft used for winching up the minerals to the first level (which had a rail cart that led to the trucks.) The shaft was 70m deep, had no railing or safety signs, and is the reason for a lot of the deaths in the mine.
Our tour guide was looking for miners so we could see them work, meet them, and give them our gifts. Surprisingly, there weren’t many miners around.
Our guide found another ladder heading down a small hole and off we went now 30m from the first level with over 200m of mountain above us. Here, we finally found a miner working and stopped to chat. He was 53 years old and had worked in the mine for 30 years. Our guide explained to us that he had already lived longer than expected based on the average life expectancy.
On our way out we were taken to a statue of the devil called Tio. The miners say god rules above ground but the devil rules underground. We poured alcohol on the statue and lit a cigarette and placed it in his mountain. This is a ritual for the miners to pray for a safe return and a good workday.
The 2 hours I spent in the mine were tough – short on oxygen, dusty, and dark. I hated it. The sad thing is that this is the daily reality for thousands of miners who have to endure these conditions to just put food on the table.
At the end of the tour I felt sad. It was definitely an experience, but not one I would label as “fun.” To me, it was eye-opening and the only reason I was glad I did it was to understand first-hand the hardship of these miners.
Note: In no way am I trying to deter you from doing the mining tour in Potosí for yourself, I just want you to be prepared for it and tell you about my honest experience. This is not your typical tour and to me it was more of an educational experience meant to change your perspective.
Booking a Potosi Mine tour
If you want to learn about the mines in Potosí for yourself and give gifts to the miners, be sure to book the right tour!
It is super important that your tour includes full safety equipment and your guide is an ex-miner. Having a tour guide that was once a miner is best because they know their way around and know all about the lifestyle and the people.
We booked our tour through our hostel, The Koala Den. This way we knew it was with a safe and reputable company. You can also book through this hostel if you want.
Alternatively, you book this tour online in advance. It is with a reputable company and has good reviews.
8 Other Things to do in Potosí, Bolivia
Sure, the Potosí mines are interesting, but they aren’t the only things to do in Potosí. Below you’ll find a ton of other attractions in Potosí that will keep you busy if you decide to spend a night or two.
1. Casa Nacional de Moneda (National Mint of Bolivia)
The National Mint of Bolivia is probably the best of all of the things to do in Potosí. In fact, some tourists visit Potosí simply to visit this top-rated museum.
Here, you can learn about the history of Bolivia’s currency as well as enjoy this massive building that takes up an entire city block. They once turned the silver mined in Potosí into coins here. However, they have also used the building for many other purposes over the years (including a prison!)
In the museum, you can explore more than 20 different galleries teaching you all about the building itself, as well as showcasing artifacts significant to Bolivia’s history.
You must explore this museum on a tour. Expect to pay 40 BOB ($6 USD) as a foreigner, and English tours are only conducted when they have enough people to do so. The best chance you’ll have at an English tour is to go in the morning and let them know you want to do a tour. Chances are that you’ll be told a time to come back later for the English tour.
You can also book a museum tour of Potosi. This way, your guide will ensure to get to see this museum, understand it, as well as check out a couple of others that most tourists miss!
2. City Walking Tour
Want to know about the history of Potosí beyond the mining? Well, a city tour is a way to do this! In Potosí, for only $25 per person, you can enjoy an in-depth city tour and learn more about this historically rich and interesting city.
3. Cathedral de Potosí
Potosí was once Bolivia’s wealthiest city, and actually one of the wealthiest cities in all of Latin America. Thanks to the money from silver mining, beautiful cathedrals and buildings were built, such as the Cathedral de Potosí.
This cathedral was built in 1707 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You should definitely check it out while you’re in Potosi!
4. Go to Hot Springs
With its high altitude, Potosí is a cold place. So, why not warm up at some natural hot springs?!
Just an hour bus ride from Potosí city center is a place called Tarapaya. Here, you can walk to the hot springs called Ojo del Inca. It is a lake-looking body of water that is naturally warm and you can swim here.
To get to Ojo del Inca, you can take a bus from the Chuquima Market. The bus costs 5 BOB. If you’re unsure which bus to catch, just ask someone for “Ojo del Inca” and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
5. Climb San Francisco Cathedral
This is easily one of the best things to do in Potosí! You can actually climb onto the top of this cathedral’s roof and take in the views of the city as well as Cerro Rico. Between the red tiled roof and the views, this is the perfect place to check out.
The best way to get access to the roof is to pay 20 BOB for a museum and roof tour. Times vary daily, so it’s best to stop in and find out when you can join a tour, and then come back.
6. Explore the Chuquima Market
Bolivian markets are always fun places to explore, and the Chuquima Market in Potosi is no different. Here, you can buy cheap produce or crafts. Just be sure to negotiate on a price, the bartering is half of the fun!
7. Eat all of the food on Junin Street
Where we stayed, The Koala Den, was on Junin Street and all along this narrow street was amazing (and cheap) places to eat! From street food stands serving hot dogs, empanadas, and fresh fruit smoothies, to nice restaurants serving everything from BBQ to Woodfired pizza there was a ton of choice!
It is a vibrant street in the evening that’s worth exploring, snacking on some street food, and hanging out with both locals and tourists.
8. Visit the Mercado Artesanal
On Junin Street, you will also find the Mercado Artesanel. Here, you can buy unique souvenirs and crafts at a bargain price! Potosi is generally cheaper than most other cities in Bolivia so it’s a great place to pick up gifts for your loved ones back home.
This market makes its own hours, but to catch it open your best best is to visit in the late afternoon.
Where to Stay in Potosí, Bolivia
If you’re trying to decide where to stay in Potosí then you have plenty of options. Below, I have narrowed it down to the best three places to stay (one for every budget) so you can easily make your decision.
Low Budget – The Koala Den
This is where we stayed. It is a cozy and social hostel located in an ideal location. They offer both budget dorm rooms and budget private rooms with their own bathrooms. The rooftop is a nice place to hang out as well as the courtyard. You can also book a good mine tour with them.
You can book the Koala Den on either Booking.com.
Mid-range Budget – Eucalyptus
This small hotel is the sister hotel to the Koala Den but is it a little bit more upscale and only offers private rooms. All room shave TV’s and private bathrooms although there are still communal areas such as a rooftop with an incredible view and a kitchen. Breakfast is included in the room rates.
Luxury – Hotel Coloso Potosí
This is about as luxurious as it gets in Potosí. This hotel offers a swimming pool, restaurant, bar, and fitness center. The reviews are good and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. The location is also in the heart of the city within walking distance to most attractions.
You can book Hotel Coloso Potosi on Booking.com.
Browse all hotels in Potosi and their prices and availability online in advance!
Before you go…
I hope you enjoy Potosí, Bolivia and that my blog has helped you do so! Leave us a comment below if you have any questions and we’ll get back to you.
Be sure to read the rest of our Bolivia blogs or some of our personal favorites articles including:
Salt Flats, Bolivia – 15 things you need to know before you go!
Things to do in Santa Cruz – The 9 best things to do in Santa Cruz
Bolivia’s Death Train – What you need to know if you plan on riding the Death Train in Bolivia.
April 27, 2020