Potosi and Sucre – Heather in Bolivia
A Tale of Two Cities. Potosi and Sucre are Bolivia’s two most picturesque cities, both UNESCO World Heritage Listed for their colonial architecture and historic centres. Their histories are inextricably linked but today they seem worlds apart in almost every way.
Potosi, at over 4000m above sea level, claims to be the world’s highest city and was at one time also one of the richest, thanks to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which has been pouring out thousands of tons of silver, lead, zinc and tin since the first vein was discovered around 500 years ago. It is said that a bridge of pure silver could have been built between Potosi and Madrid with the amount that the Spaniards extracted; certainly the architecture of the city hints at far more affluent times.
Although the city has retained glimpses of its former glory, it is clear that Potosi’s wealthy days are over. Miners continue to toil away under conditions that are barely better than they were under the Spaniards, as Cerro Rico coughs up diminishing rewards. The UNESCO funded city centre lies in sharp contrast to the jumbled, higgledy- piggledy mess of houses on the outskirts. A stroll around the ancient streets is a sharp reminder of Bolivia’s immense natural wealth, and sad history.
A tour into the infamous Potosi mines is an eye-opening, sad and interesting experience…though perhaps not for everyone. The already rarefied air outside becomes even thinner as you descend into the mines, climbing through twisting tunnels to meet the miners that work the seams. We explained how important mining was to Australia’s economy, though really there can be little to compare, even back in the Gold Rush days of Australia’s mining boom.
Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital was founded by the Spanish who found the altitude and climate of Potosi a little too taxing for their tastes. At a mere 2700m above sea level, Sucre has a warm and pleasing climate that seems almost tropical after the freezing Potosi nights. The white washed buildings of the city centre sparkle against perpetual blue skies; it is easy to see why Sucre is also known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City).
Bolivia gained independence in 1825 and it was in Sucre’s Casa de la Libertad where the declaration of independence was signed. A tour of the museum offers some insight into the country’s difficult history- one hall displays portraits of Bolivia’s 80 presidents, an average of one every two years over the course of 187 years of independence, with some lasting as little as four days before an assassination attempt or coup forced them from power.
For me the best thing about Sucre was the Mercado Central, where an astonishing array of fruits are piled high each morning, and sold in fruit salads, fresh juices and vitamin-booster shakes. Custard apple, papaya, pineapple, kiwis, melon, passionfruit, grapes, bananas, mandarin and apples and expertly diced by matronly Sucreñas and served up with lashings of yoghurt, cereal and coconut for the perfect breakfast treat. We would head back in the afternoon for fresh orange, carrot or beetroot (better than it sounds!) juice- yum!!
There are many expats in Sucre, and the beauty of the city and mild climate makes it easy to understand why they chose to make this corner of Bolivia their home. Among them we met an Australian guy who has been operating the non-profit adventure company Condor Trekkers there for the last two years. The company offers treks in the stunning ranges north of the city and uses all proceeds to help the villages they visit along the way. We opted for the 3 days/2 nights trek which was just enough challenging enough without causing my unfit legs serious pain!