Once the second largest city in the Americas, Potosí is still well known for its silver mine. Since the 17th century, the precious metal has been carried across the continent for use as the Spanish Colonial Mint. Today is it known as the world’s largest silver deposit, and by the 1990s over 50,000 tonnes had been extracted from the mountain known as Cerro Rico.
Despite its prosperous past, it seemed to me that Potosí had eventually suffered the fate of most boomtowns and looked downtrodden to the weary traveller. It still relied heavily on the old mine, which was also open to tourists. Visitors could still experience the dangerous dynamite blasts endured by the mineworkers, and the tourist dollar supported what appeared to be a floundering economy elsewhere in the city.
My arrival in Potosí was marred by the theft of my small rucksack that held my camera, infamous Puno antibiotics and, most importantly, my travel documents. It disappeared from behind my heels in an instant. So instead of a tale of Potosí’s silver, this is the story of my mission to retrieve a very personal treasure: My passport.
The thieves who stole my belongings were known by the police and apparently worked a few hostels in the area during check-in times. Unfortunately, the sympathy I felt for their self-professed financial hardship didn’t alleviate my panic. With only 24 hours before I was due to cross the border into Argentina, I was fighting time and the expansive plains of Bolivia to retrieve some form of identification.
The beauty of travelling with friends became abundantly clear that day. It’s overwhelming to find yourself in a foreign country without proof of your name or any cash whatsoever. Luckily I was able to speak Spanish, but after hitting a dead end with the local police, I moved onto the bus station to find a ride back to the capital. After a fruitless few hours of being offered a place with the suitcases in an airtight compartment, I made the decision to fly from Sucre.
A dawn taxi ride took me to the pretty city. Disappointed that I couldn’t explore, I reminded myself to focus on the positives. The unexpected low flight across the stunning Andes meant I momentarily forgot my situation. As I looked out of the window at the landscape of ancient rigid folds, it was easy to appreciate how the giant mountain range was formed.
My positive thinking paid off, and on arrival at the embassy in La Paz my luck turned. A phone call from Potosí confirmed that my possession were lined up neatly on a market stall, being sold only a few streets from my original check-in. Friends had struck a deal with the entrepreneurial thief (and it seemed, the local police) and bought my precious passport for 100 US dollars. The day’s journey was redundant, but my relief at being able to continue my trip overpowered my sense of injustice towards Potosí’s authorities.
I was still against the clock though. The central bus station was chaotic but organised and I secured a seat on a nine-hour overnight bus. The seats were comfortable, a steward sold snacks and most importantly, I wasn’t in the luggage hold with the baggage, unable to breathe. As I pulled out of the world’s highest capital city, darkness had fallen. The night was a blur of sleep and the occasional cold chill from Bolivia’s high plateaus.
In spite of my first impressions of Potosí, as a returned to its streets at daybreak on my final day in Bolivia, I was ecstatic. My friends were already sitting on our familiar yellow truck, eager to explore our fourth South American country.
I never saw that rucksack again, but with my passport clutched tightly in my hand, I had never been so happy to have almost nothing.