18,000 feet. No, I’m not referencing the altitude of one of the world’s seven summits. I’m writing about a mining town in the southern highlands of Peru. I can’t think of a harder place in the world to live in than the town of La Rinconada. Viewing the village from afar, La Rinconada has an Alps feel, with houses a stone’s throw away from beautiful white glaciers that descend from dreamy high mountains. But Zermatt this is not, and although it would make for an outdoor recreation paradise, I have little hope that tourists will be making their way here anytime soon.
As you approach La Rinconada, you will soon become short of breath and will be enveloped by an unforgettable stench that the inhabitants live with each day. With no sanitation, running water, or waste disposal, and a consolidated population of 25,000 Peruvians, La Rinconada is an urban slum in an extreme environment. Combining its proximity to the equator with its extreme altitude, inhabitants are faced with a dangerous amount of radiation, which is made evident by the stained red cheeks on the children. In winter, the temperatures stay well below zero, a condition made much more difficult by the fact that few homes have heat and electricity.
La Rinconada would not exist if it were not for the discovery of gold deposits beneath its nearby glaciers. The entire economy depends on gold mines, and for the last half century, workers have been coming here only because they can’t find work elsewhere. Many have left their families in the lower plains in the pursuit of gold that rarely amounts to eighty dollars a month. A mining company leases the land from the state, and according to a system called “cachorreo” the miners work for twenty days for free, after which they have just four days to mine gold for their own profits. The work arrangement is risky, and few have actually profited from the mines so far.
I wonder if I was the first tourist to ever visit La Rinconada. It’s a rough six hour bus ride from attractive Lake Titicaca, and it’s a different world from the developed cities of Peru. But as the world’s highest town I had to give it a look. Warned by Peruvians that it’s not a safe place for a foreigner to travel to, I recruited a body guard, a burly French surfer by the name of Gaeten, to accompany me in my journey. Gaeten is a go-with-the-flow type traveler, and despite my warnings that La Rinconada is a cold, polluted, and potentially unwelcoming place, he was still excited about an adventurous detour from the gringo trail. So we shelled out six dollars each to take a bus ride to the top of the civilian world.
Descending from the bus, we were met with wide-eyed stares, children halted in the street, and locals who got a kick of us being in their miserable home. “Gringo! Cusco is the other way!” I could hear them yelling. Knowing that the people of this community were quite economically desperate, I was relieved to find several hostels on the main strip of town, eliminating the need to improvise a homestay with the locals. We found the only hostel with reliable locks on the doors and paid the standard five dollars a night for a simple bed and a mountain of blankets.
My first objective was to locate the infamous glacier mines and see if I could negotiate a tour. A 20 minute walk took me through more slums, and as I meandered around muddy waste deposits, I could not help but notice the many gold merchant stores. La Rinconada is not just populated by miners, but also by those who work in health clinics, restaurants, small grocers, schools for the miners children, and gold processing merchants. Inside these merchant stores, miners bring their gold which is extracted from the rock powder using mercury. The merchants then burn away the mercury, and buy the pure gold for about eight dollars a gram. When the gaseous mercury encounters the cold air outside, it immediately condenses onto the rooftops of houses. Since many use snowmelt from their roofs for drinking water, residents are faced with high concentration of mercury contamination. Excessive contact with, breathing, or ingestion of mercury can lead to a breakdown of the nervous system, birth defects, brain damage, and eventually death.
As I approached the glaciers, I realized that a formal tour would be unnecessary, as the mines were unguarded. In fact, only a few miners were there that day because most had descended to their hometowns for the Day of the Dead. I entered the first ice cave I saw, polluted and littered on the outside, but a beautiful icy green on the inside. I foolishly forgot to bring my headlamp and after a 50 meter stroll I was enveloped with darkness. Such a tunnel could have been naturally carved by sub-glacier streams, but the ones in La Rinconada were manually cut by the locals, hoping that they would lead to rich deposits of gold. Sadly, the only gold that is found is in small seams in the rock, and extraction takes a great deal of work. I walked outside to meet a group of women who were doing just that.
I was invited over by a worker who was quite curious about what I was doing there. Since she had so many questions about my life, I didn’t mine imposing mine upon her. She, like many other mine workers, had come here because there was no work in the towns and cities of “normal” Peru, and she had a family to support. The five hour bus ride from her town meant that she could only visit her family once every few months. I was surprised to hear that she was my age; the harsh environment of La Rinconada had apparently accelerated the aging of her face and posture. She showed me the machine that she worked with, a “mollina,” a device that physically breaks down the surrounding rock powder then chemically extracts the gold through the binding of mercury.
I asked her where the mercury goes after the extraction. “Right here, on the ground beside me,” she casually replied. My face turned white. My mind turned back fifteen years ago to my eighth grade science class when mercury thermometers were the norm. A student broke one and mercury spilled toward the floor. My science teacher went into a panic, sent everyone out of the classroom, and called for a professional cleanup. I cringed at the contrast with this women’s scenario; she was in contact with this poison practically every day.
Without sounding too condescending, I had to say something. “Be careful! Contact with mercury is really dangerous for your heath. It’s very serious!”
“Really,” she replied with a panicked face. “These are the things I don’t know.”
The next morning the cold woke me at 6 am and I had an odd inspiration to go for a morning run. I knew that exercising at such an altitude would be quite painful on the lungs, but the novelty of lacing up the running shoes at 18,000 feet was too enticing. The initial few hundred meters were quite challenging, but more for the stench that I was breathing in than the lack of oxygen. I ran out of town to the plains below, a desolate landscape, void of any noticeable features other than trash and the occasional alpaca that was feeding on rubbish. Amid labored breathing, I stared back at La Rinconada, and from afar the village looked peculiarly attached to the glaciers above. I then gazed down to valley below, where polluted streams carried unknown amounts of mercury to the reservoir below. La Rinconada, practically upstream of all of Southern Peru is an environmental nightmare for an entire region. Suit-clad environmentalists argue that the mines should be shut down, but in a country where jobs are scarce, who is going to tell that to a miner from La Rinconada, a person that has sacrificed everything from health, livelihood, and family, all for the pursuit of a small bit of gold.