Don Francisco Argandoña and his wife Clotilde Urioste Velasco were among the most important members of late 19th Century Bolivian society. He had made a fortune in the mining industry, and owned a private bank. She was the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family, and dedicated her life to helping orphans. On a diplomatic tour Europe in 1898, they called upon Pope Leon XIII, who pronounced them the “Princes of the Glorieta”. They accepted the honor graciously; it hardly mattered that Bolivia didn’t have a monarchy.
Disillusioned by the horrors of Cerro Rico’s mines and the callous greed of their families, a number of Potosí’s young women renounced the world by entering into the Convent of Santa Teresa. They would never again step outside its walls.
We were pressed for time, and told our guide that we wanted just a quick tour. But the convent’s history was simply too fascinating, and we ended up spending about two hours inside. Santa Teresa was established in 1685, providing a home to a sisterhood of Carmelite nuns. It’s still active today, but its numbers have dwindled significantly, and most of the immense complex is now a museum.
Heralded as Bolivia’s best museum, the Casa de la Moneda offers a fascinating look back at a time when Potosí was the center of the Spanish Empire’s wealth. This mammoth building in the center of the city was the Royal Mint, pressing silver extracted from the Cerro Rico into coins and medallions.
By far the most popular tourist activity in Potosí is a visit to the mines of Cerro Rico. They’re still active, so a tour entails walking past soot-covered miners hard at work in conditions that could be straight out of the 18th century.
We weren’t especially excited about taking a tour, since gawking at people working in such a dangerous profession is more than a bit unseemly. Between accidents and the inevitable lung diseases, it’s still rare for a Potosí miner to reach the age of 50. But we couldn’t skip out on the city’s most famous experience.
Set at 4090 meters (13420 ft) above sea level, Potosí is the highest city in the world and once was its most wealthy, thanks to the silver mines of Cerro Rico. Remnants of Potosí’s glorious past are still visible today, as are the vestiges of the exploitation which made Spain rich beyond measure and resulted in the deaths of millions.