Ok, truth be told, we were actually in Potosí for a fraction less than 24 hours, so getting a taste of it was more like sampling a Potosí canapé than a well-garnished entrée.
Had we spent more time in Potosí – one of the world’s highest cities (4090 metres – 13,420 ft) – we would have learned more about it once being South America’s wealthiest city. The mineral du jour back in the 16th century was none other than silver, extracted from Cerro Rico, which overlooks the city from the south.
Just as the Indian silver miners were exploited in the 16th century, today’s miners have to endure unsafe conditions, the lack of safety gear, inhale toxic dust and get paid an average of 2500 bolivianos ($450) a month – which actually happens to be almost double the national average income.
You can even take a tour down into the mines, donned in safety gear that the miners don’t even have themselves.
A lot of the city’s riches can be seen in many buildings found in its historic downtown precinct. So much so that UNESCO designated Potosí as a World Heritage site in 1987 for its setting, rich colonial architecture, design and authenticity.
It doesn’t take long before you realise how thin the air really is at this altitude. Walking at a normal pace quickly becomes an exercise of panting and gulping for air and it doesn’t really help when the narrow streets are filled with buses spewing black smoke quite literally into your face.
There’s always something to point your camera at in Potosí. Stunning windows and doors, intricate church façades, character-filled laneways and people dressed as tigers, waiting to help you cross the road safely.
Head to Plaza 10 de Noviembre during the day and try to take sneaky shots of very photogenic locals sitting about or selling things. At night the plaza really comes alive with folk just enjoying the evening. Keep an eye for the stands selling slices from enormous cakes, all frosted to the nines.
If the energy levels need a bit of a boost, you could always drop into Cherry’s for an espresso. Leave your high coffee standards at the door and pair it with one of the small cakes or pastries in the sparsely filled cabinet. Breakfast is offered along with some other snacky-type things, as well.
Cherry’s Salón de Té, Padilla 8-10
Walking around the old town will inevitably bring you to Mercado Central, where you get a taste of it before you even enter the building. Many of the peripheral streets are dotted with a variety of vendors selling tamales, discs of goat cheese in cabinets or bags filled with dry grass and small crusty bread rolls.
I can vouch for the cheese and bread, bags of which I picked up for snacks on buses. Bread like this is a rarity in South America, so if you’ve had enough of the ubiquitous flat bread or that sweetened sliced white stuff in packets, a crusty roll will surely make your day.
The yellow market building itself isn’t as sprawling as you may think. It’s a tight warren of narrow passages lined with tiny booths selling everything you’d expect to find. Pantry items and drygoods, sacks of grains, dried fruits, nuts and spices.
You’ll come across fresh baked goods, eggs, cheese, ladies sitting on the floor with baskets of fruit and herbs from their farm and pre-chopped veg ready to be thrown into the soup pot.
And then you hit the butchers and see things that can be confronting, to some.
There’s a rear terrace one floor up from the butcher stands where you can take your pick from a bunch of people selling local food. Each kitchen specialises in a few dishes, so it’s as simple as heading straight to the place you want, or looking over people’s shoulders to see what they’re eating.
I was in the mood for something soupy, so a big bowl of caldo de res (10) did just fine. It’s basically beef and vegetable soup.
Mercado Central, bordered by Bolivia, Oruro, Bustillos & Héroes del Chaco
It doesn’t take long before you realise the prominent street food in Potosí is the salteña. They’re kind of everywhere you look. Inside restaurants, sold from baskets, buckets and cabinets on the street. Anyone that likes their empanadas is bound to gravitate to these, but they can be a bit hit or miss.
And then you spot something like this. A hole in the wall, a consistent line of locals, and a business that doesn’t even have a name.
These guys sell just one thing – freshly baked salteñas which are absolutely packed with flavour. Meat, potato and spiced, juicy gravy.
We had grand plans of keeping them for our bus ride out of town, but somehow the bag was empty before we even got back to the hotel.
Salteñas, Calle Linares 49
How we got from Uyuni to Potosi.
Buses leave from Terminal de Buses on Calle Cabrera. We chose Trans Turismo American, and the office is on the corner of Calle Cabrera and Calle Arce. Check the map below for location. The bus leaves from the same location, takes 4 hours to get to Antigua Terminal de Buses in Potosí, and costs 30 bolivianos per person.