Potosí has a split and tragic personality. Its soaring churches and opulent mansions call to mind a time when this was the wealthiest city in South America. The sagging roofs and crumbling facades make it difficult to put the town’s painful past and difficult present out of your mind.
Silver, tin, and zinc from nearby Cerro Rico made fortunes for the mineral barons who built their grand homes along Potosí’s winding cobblestone streets. Tens of thousands of people flocked here hoping to make a little money. In 1650, with a population topping 160,000, Potosí was the largest and most prosperous city, first on the continent and then in the world, and the Spanish even now describe things of great value as "worth a potosí." But that wealth came from the labor of more than 8 million indigenous people forced to work in the mines, most of whom died there.
There’s another old saying that puts all this wealth into perspective: "Bolivia had the cow, but the other countries got the milk." Potosí is now one of Bolivia’s poorest cities. Depleted mines, outdated machinery, and an inhospitable terrain—Potosí sits on a windy plain at 13,452 feet above sea level—are not leading to prosperity. Although the city’s architectural jewels are being well cared for, the hotel and restaurant offerings are the poorest of all the major Bolivian cities. Tourism is growing, along with all Bolivia, but the extreme altitude, cold temperatures, and generally apathetic reception from the locals make it a one-night stop for most visitors, meaning that genuine development remains unlikely.