Potosí is a colonial city that, at some point, has been more populated than Paris itself. Do you want to know why?
Cerro Rico, meaning “Rich Hill,” was the reason why Potosí was founded in that exact place: it was the world’s largest silver deposit ever found back in the XVI century.
Potosí doesn't have the most ideal environment: it is cold, very high (more than 4000 above the sea level), and dry. Nevertheless, really soon, this isolated place got filled with Europeans, seeking for the New World’s promise for a wealthy life. Upon coming, they brought with them hundreds of thousands of indigenous and African people to work in the mines. Soon, that same century, 60% of the world’s silver was being extracted from Potosí.
For the mineral to arrive in Europe, it had to be transported to the nearest ports and shipped to Spain, where it would either remain or be sent to other countries.
Since an immense amount of silver was being extracted from the mines of Cerro Rico, a place to mint the coins got erected in Potosí. It was called Casa de la Moneda, literally meaning “House of the Coin.” Nowadays, it is a fascinating museum to visit and learn about the old minting process (coining).
The coins minted in Casa de la Moneda were one of the most influential world currencies back in the Latin American Colonial Period. It was a universal currency for exchange, accepted in all continents, as dollars and euros are in the present day.
When the coin minting started in Casa de la Moneda, the coins' stamps always had a letter “P” to designate its precedence from Potosí. Later on, during the XVIII century, it was replaced by a monogram that, nowadays, can also be found in curious spots in the Casa de la Moneda -for example, in one of its plant pots, like the one in the picture below. Look again, does this monogram seem familiar to you? Congratulations if you realized what it is! Yes, the universal symbol of money "$" is a simplification of it.
Potosí was exactly a synonym of wealth. Back then, in the Spanish language, the term "vale un Potosí," translated as "it is worth a Potosí," used to be referring to something extremely expensive. Even Don Quixote mentions it, in the most famous book of Miguel de Cervantes, as follows:
If I were to pay you, Sancho, - responded don Quixote - according to the worth and quality of this remedy, the treasures of Venice and the mines of Potosí wouldn’t be enough to pay you. Estimate what money of mine you have and put a price on each lash.
San Lorenzo de Carangas Church was one of the first churches built in the city. Its facade, carved by indigenous artists, is an excellent piece of mestizo-baroque art, filled with symbolism. It puts together important symbols for both catholic and ancient indigenous beliefs.
For those interested in colonial art, Santa Teresa Convent and Museum has a vast collection of religious paintings from that period. It was also the place where every second daughter from any respected and wealthy family was sent, at the age of 15 - whether she had the religious vocation or not.
Besides these two important examples, most religious buildings and the main colonial houses also have valuable pieces of art.
Potosí is just a distant memory of what it used to be. Today, it is not the most important, nor the most populated city of Bolivia. However, it is an interesting touristic place where visitors can learn about an essential part of the historical Colonial Period. Now next time you stare at a piece of art made out of silver, probably think that it was metal brought from a distant and high place called Potosí.
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