Bolivia’s Salty South-West

Southern Bolivia is not only one of the most beautiful areas of the country, it’s one of the most interesting parts of South America.  The area south of Potosí is full of sights, from Tupiza (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand), to Tarija (home of the world’s highest-altitude vineyards), to the empty border with Argentina (where the population density is single figures per square mile).  But the most famous part is in the far south-west, near the border with Chile, where the otherworldy landscape includes smoking volcanoes, hissing geysers, bubbling mudpools, multicoloured lakes, and huge salt flats. Continue reading

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The Mountain That Eats Men

“I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of mountains, envy of kings” – First coat of arms of Potosi, 1547

“There are those who, having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of colour, grinding their teeth and unable to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the horrors that are in there.” – Bartolomé Arzans de Orsua, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, 1703

Set among the barren, windswept mountains of southern Bolivia, at over 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, and possibly Bolivia’s most fascinating (and maybe saddest) place.  The architecturally-rich town, with its cathedrals and churches, owes its entire existence to the nearby mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill), once the most profitable silver mine on earth, and the source of most of the Spanish Empire’s fabulous wealth.  Cerro Rico’s immense reserves of silver not only bankrolled Spain for centuries, it turned Potosí into the biggest city in the Americas, and the richest jewel in the Spanish Empire’s crown, with the expression “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) used to describe anything priceless. Continue reading

South America’s Strangest City

Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which, like its fellow Andean capitals Bogotá and Quito, is high up in the mountains, at a lung-challenging 3,600m above sea level (making it the highest capital in the world).  The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes on all sides, including the permanently-snowcapped Huayna Potosí and Illimani mountains, with the colonial buildings, church spires, and office blocks of the flat centre slowly morphing into the gravity-defying houses of the ramshackle poorer suburbs, stuck precariously to the steep sides of the valley.  And down at street level, there’s the usual assortment of squatting beggars, wandering salesmen, street markets, traffic jams, smoke-belching buses, and honking horns.  So, not very different from many big cities in this part of the world, then. Continue reading