Rinconada Peru the highest city in the world. Located in the southeast Peruvian Andes that run into Bolivia. sets at 5,100m (16,732.28 feet) above sea level.
From almost anywhere in La Rinconada, you look up and you see her: La Bella Durmiente, Sleeping Beauty, an enormous glacier beetling above the town. “Look, there are her eyes, her face, her arm, her hip, there,” Josmell Ilasaca said, his hand drawing and caressing the glacier’s snowy features against a deep-blue sky. We were standing at the precipice of a trail, known as the Second Compuerta, that tumbles into a narrow valley north of town. Yes, now I could see the feminine outline, a mile long, possibly two. It was magnificent. And when the snow melts, exposing more rock, I said, the glacier turns into a skinny old hag called Awicha.
Ilasaca gave me a look, slightly surprised, unimpressed. He grunted something that I took to be Quechua, or Aymara, for “Where the hell did you hear that?”
I’d heard it from a sociologist in Puno, down on the Peruvian altiplano. Really, I was just trying to buy time. I was out of breath, and the steep trail below us was full of miners, descending and ascending. I doubted my ability to join the traffic flow and keep up—down slippery rocks, through icy mud, between frozen piles of garbage. But the gold mines I had said I wanted to see were all down this trail, in the valley between town and glacier.
“Vamos,” Ilasaca said. He set off, hands in pockets.
La Rinconada, population roughly fifty thousand, is a ramshackle pueblo clinging to a mountainside at the end of a long, bad road in southeastern Peru. The town is seventeen thousand feet above sea level—the highest-elevation human settlement in the world. (The next highest is in Tibet.) Above it rises the Cordillera Apolobamba, an ice-capped Andean range that runs southeast into Bolivia. The Incas mined gold in these mountains, as did many people before them, and the Spanish after them. Gold-bearing quartz veins—quijo, in Quechua—were first exposed by Pleistocene glaciation, and signs of ancient hard-rock gold mining have been revealed by the retreat of the glaciers.
“When I first came to work here, this was all ice and snow,” Ilasaca said. We had reached the bottom of the Compuerta, I was sucking wind, and he was indicating the south wall of the upper valley, which is now bare rock pierced by mine shafts and pocked by slopes of scree. “In fifty years, all this may be gone, too.” He meant La Bella Durmiente, and the whole network of tropical glaciers above it.
The mines at La Rinconada, a bitter-cold, mercury-contaminated pueblo clinging to the glaciered mountainside, are “artisanal”: small, unregulated, and grossly unsafe. To stave off disaster, the miners propitiate the mountain deities with tiny liquor bottles.
Photographs by Moises Saman / Magnum
Ilasaca, who is thirty, was twelve when he began working in the mines, alongside his father. Like almost everyone in La Rinconada, they came from somewhere else—in their case, Azángaro, an altiplano farm town to the southwest. When the price of gold is high, people flock to La Rinconada from every corner of Peru and beyond. Between 2001 and 2012, the world gold price increased sixfold, and the town’s population boomed with it. Both have dropped slightly in the past two or three years, but the town still fizzes with gold fever and the constant churn of new arrivals determined to try their luck—if not in the mines, then in the gaudy constellation of businesses that service the tens of thousands of miners.
Many mining towns are company towns. La Rinconada is the opposite. Nearly all the mines and miners here are “informal,” a term that critics consider a euphemism for illegal. Ilasaca prefers “artisanal.” The mines, whatever you call them, are small, numerous, unregulated, and, as a rule, grossly unsafe. Most don’t pay salaries, let alone benefits, but run on an ancient labor system called cachorreo. This system is usually described as thirty days of unpaid work followed by a single frantic day in which workers get to keep whatever gold they can haul out for themselves. I found so many variants of the scheme, however—and so many miners passionately attached to their variant—that the traditional description of cachorreo seems to me inadequate. It’s a lottery, but, because of pilfering, it runs every day, not once a month.
“This way.” I followed Ilasaca past many tiny huts of shiny corrugated tin—dirt-floored worker housing in a bare-bones encampment known as Barrio Rit’ipata. The dark mouths of mines now hove into view, in all sizes and states of dilapidation. Some were big enough to drive a truck into, with guard shacks and fat electrical cables and compressed-air hoses. Others were smaller than I am, crumbling, trash-strewn. All looked forbidding. One had a few multicolored balloons strung across it. “Carnaval,” Ilasaca said. He pointed out, above us, the blue mouth of a shaft in the lowest wall of the glacier. “They dug through fifty metres of ice before they hit rock,” he said.
Clouds and mist had swallowed La Bella Durmiente. The sky began to spit little snow pellets. From where we stood, thick black hoses ran like wiring up across a snowfield, snaking in the distance over makeshift supports. The hoses carried water from the glacier down to La Rinconada. Like nearly everything here, they were a private, unregulated business. Some, Ilasaca said, went to wells high enough on the glacier that the water they carried was clean. Others didn’t go high enough, and their water was contaminated with mercury. Mercury is the main element used to process gold in La Rinconada. The ground, air, water, and snow in town, along with pretty much anything immediately downstream,are all said to be contaminated. Mercury poisoning can affect the central nervous system, causing tremors, excitability, insomnia, and a grim range of psychotic reactions. Crime and violence in La Rinconada are often attributed, on no medical basis, to mercury poisoning.