La Rinconada: The World’s Highest City
- 4 months ago
High in the Peruvian Andes, far above the tree line, lies an old gold-mining camp that has, over the years, grown to the status of a city. Over 30,000 people live in this mountainous city five vertical kilometers up in the air—the highest-elevation human settlement in the world.
La Rinconada (altitude: 5,100 meters) is so high that its weather condition resembles that of the west coast of Greenland, despite being situated only 14 degrees from the equator. The summers are wet and winters dry; the days are cold and nights freezing. The average annual temperature in La Rinconada is only 1.2 °C.
In reality, La Rinconada is more of a settlement than a city. There are no roads, no plumbing and no sewage disposal system. Houses are made of corrugated tin sheets with no insulation. All men work in the mines, while women sell goods, scavenge for gold in discarded mine rocks or make money from prostitution. The miners extract by hand gold using mercury—the second most abundant substance to be found here, after gold. The ground, air, water, and snow in La Rinconada, along with pretty much anything immediately downstream, are all contaminated. If La Rinconada is a city, it has to be the poorest and the saddest city in the world.
Unlike other mining towns, La Rinconada is not company-owned. On the contrary, nearly all mines operating here are informal, or in other words, illegal. There is no administration and no laws. Nothing ever goes into the town’s development. The economy is unregulated; most of the gold that comes out of the mountain goes straight onto the black market.
Stranger still, the mining company, Corporación Ananea, doesn’t pay salaries to its workers. Instead, they operate under an archaic labor system called cachorreo. Under this system, employees work for thirty days without pay, and on the thirty-first they are allowed to take as much ore as they can carry on their weary shoulders. There is no way to tell how much gold the rock may contain, and often, it contains very little. Yet, thousands of people toil through the month in the hope of making it up on that one single day of pilfering.
Despite the company utilizing such a non-traditional system of payment, miners continue to flock to the region. Between 2001 and 2009, the population of La Rinconada more than doubled.
Hundreds of pallaqueras, female gold scavengers, scour a fresh load of waste rock from a nearby gold mine.
Women scavenge for gold in wind and rain.
La Rinconada’s main street where mercury, cyanide, and human waste flow in open trenches.