Potosí is a city and the capital of the department of Potosí in Bolivia. It is one of the highest cities in the world by elevation at a nominal 4,090 metres (13,420 ft) and it was the location of the Spanish colonial mint. Potosí lies beneath the Cerro de Potosí—sometimes referred to as the Cerro Rico ("rich mountain")—a mountain popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore, which has always dominated the city.
The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosí's historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. The silver was taken by llama and mule train to the Spanish Main whence it was then taken to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets. Cerro de Potosí's peak is 4,824 metres (15,827 ft) above sea level.
History and silver extraction
Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, "to be worth a potosí" (that is, "a fortune"). For Europeans, Peru—Bolivia was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and was known as Alto Perú before becoming independent—was a mythical land of riches.
Potosí appears as an idiom for "extraordinary richness" in Miguel de Cervantes' famous novel, Don Quixote (second part, cap. LXXI). One theory holds that the mint mark of Potosí (the letters "PTSI" superimposed on one another) is the origin of the dollar sign.