Over 60,000 people are working in toxic, informal gold mines in the Peruvian city of La Rinconada. We braved the extreme elevation and the subzero temperatures to investigate what life is like in the highest inhabited place on earth.
They warned us about going to La Rinconada, “it’s so dangerous, you will get robbed in broad daylight,” said one man at the bus station near Lake Titicaca. Another man chimed in, “so many people are taking gold out of La Rinconada, that young men are beginning to rob people on the road from here to there.” I asked if any of them had visited the city, they said no.
La Rinconada, Peru represents the most extreme lengths people are willing to go in pursuit of money and a better life. At 18,000 ft above sea level, it is the highest inhabited place on earth. Living at these altitudes seems nearly impossible, yet 60,000 people call it home. Most work long hours in hazardous conditions deep within the gold mines. It’s entrepreneurial in the most brutal sense of the word—it’s unregulated and unsafe. Many peoples lives are cut short from contamination, tough working conditions and alcoholism. Mercury, cyanide and human waste flow openly down its unpaved streets and alleys.
The process of gold mining in La Rinconada is conducted by small companies and individuals—rather than large multinational corporations. Miners hike every day over 30 minutes at 18,000 feet to the entrance of the mines, which are carved into a think glacier. They walk 1,500 ft into the dark tunnels of the mountain where oxygen is even more scarce and toxic fumes are overwhelming.
Once the ore has been extracted from the mountain, individuals break it down using stones and a crusher driven by donkeys in their homes and back alleys. Water from the glacier mixed with mercury helps extract the gold. The gold is sold to middle men working in pawn shops, who bring it down the mountain to be sold again into the global market. Most of it ends up in India and Asia. Many times, armed men with ski masks rob merchants traveling along the one road leading out of town.
Instability in global markets has caused the price of gold to triple in the last 15 years, pushing many lower-class Peruvians to seek their fortunes in the mines of La Rinconada. Most miners come from the surrounding Puno region, a poverty stricken provence of the Peruvian Andes.
The story of La Rinconada is similar to that of Williston, North Dakota, where oil workers have been drawn to the harsh plains by the allure of high wages. Williston’s boom has affected the local environment and created a demographic shift and a strain on public services.
Similar to Williston, La Rinconada’s population has exploded—an increase of 230% over the last 10 years. Like a lawless frontier, the residents of La Rinconada have pushed back against the efforts made by the Peruvian government to bring regulation and some sense of law and order to the region. Many fear taxation and regulation that come with government oversight, thus the degradation of the environment, pollution, crime and corruption still reign.
We spent over a month in Southern Peru, starting in Cusco, the ancient heart of the Incan Empire. From Cusco we visited Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world where indigenous tribes live on floating islands and ancient communal living structures are still in use today.
After Lake Titicaca we endured the grueling trip up to the gold mining town of La Rinconada. Everyone had warmed us that road was the most dangerous in all of Peru because of frequent roadside robberies, in fact two people were shot for their gold on the night that we left, but this did not deter us. At 18,000 ft. above sea level La Rinconada is the highest inhabited place on earth. We spent two days recording a short documentary about life there, talking with locals, exploring the glacier and getting far off the beaten path.
Next stop was Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, and the perfect place to begin an adventure to Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to the Andean Condor, the largest bird in the world, as well as many distinct ethnic groups.
We ended our journey through the South of Peru at the magnificent Machu Picchu.