At an altitude of over 4,000 meters (13,000+ feet), Potosí is said to be the highest city in the world.
Founded in the mid-1500s as a mining town to extract the massive deposit of silver ore in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), Potosí quickly became Latin America's largest and wealthiest city. After the general depletion of the silver mines around 1800, lead and zinc eventually became the predominant materials extracted. The population of the city has since shrunk to nearly by half—just over 110,000.
The mountain still continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis pneumonia and dying at around 40 years of age (often after only 10–15 years of mining).
A very large tourist attraction for the city is to take a tour up to the mines, visit with the miners, adorn a helmet, and crawl through the filthy, claustrophobic tunnels. Underground temperatures vary from below freezing up to a boiling 113°F (45°C). Tours are usually about US$10.
Even though I was hearing rave reviews about the mine experience, I wasn't particularly excited about the thought of crawling through tunnels filled with noxious chemicals. I was, however, very much interested in visiting the Miners Market (one of the components of the guided tour).
At the Miners Market, which is really just a street filled with small stores of mining gear, tourists (on tour) can pick up inexpensive gifts for the miners—coca leaves, candles, alcohol, cigarettes, or even dynamite and fuses. Yes, buying sticks of dynamite off the street—this I had to see.
Potosí has a fantastic and plentiful collection of minibuses that zoom around the city. Fares for the collectivos are wonderfully cheap—just one bolivanio (US$0.12) for a ride. It was easy to find a ride to drop me near the Mercado Minero (Miners Market) on my own.
Near the small market full of meat, fruit, and pirated DVDs, I found the street containing the suppliers for the miners. Amidst the hoards of clothing, helmets, lanterns, axe picks, rum, and ridiculously inexpensive hand rolled cigarettes (small packs for less than US$0.01 a cigarette), I saw it—the boom sticks.
For about US$1, you can buy a stick of dynamite from one of a dozen shops—as many as you want, no questions asked. Need a fuse? No problem—what length do you need? Truly awesome.
I really like Potosí. It's been a while since I actually felt this way about a city—I guess it took traveling to the highest city in the world to find that feeling.
It's just overwhelmingly pleasant here. The people are friendly and helpful, the Bolivian style of speech is refreshingly slow and lethargic (compared to Chile), the temperature is fine, the street food is filling and cheap miner food (meat, carb, and veggie), and the Internet cafe prices are the cheapest I've found in all of the Caribbean, Central and South America—US$0.25 per hour (although somewhat sluggish).
I would say that Bolivia is easily the Guatemala of South America—as cheap as cheap gets.
I'm sort of here in Potosí on business, though. Andy (currently in Africa) has asked me to find a supplier for large quantities of immersion heaters (calentador electrico para agua, in Spanish). These are little electric heating devices that you put in a cup or bowl of water to bring to bring it to a boil—very useful if you have a coffee addiction, or wish to cook without a kitchen.
I'm really pushing my Spanish vocab, and learning some new words that I've never had the need to know before (such as "supplier"). I've run all over the city, found both the plastic variety that is needed (only US$1), as well as the metal type (that I purchased back in the U.S. for US$14), but none with the ability to procure the amount I need to ship (at least 300 units). I get some pretty crazy looks when I tell the shop owners how many I need.
What's interesting is that all of these little heaters that I've found (individually) say that they're made in Argentina, although no city is indicated. I will continue my search in Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, but have a feeling that my efforts might be more productive to the south.