Gold. The Aztecs killed for it. The Inca enslaved whole populations for it. Spain sent legions of marauding conquistadors up and down the Americas in a hallucinatory hunt, believing that gold was so abundant that chieftains rolled in it, washing away the glittering residue in their daily morning swims.
Down the centuries, the quest for El Dorado has held the South American continent in thrall, luring generations of fortune hunters to its far reaches, from 1st-century warlords to 21st-century adventurers. The earth beneath them has not disappointed. The geologic exuberance known as the Cordillera of the Andes has yielded a fount of treasure: the emeralds of Boyaca, the silver of Potosi, the gold of Cajamarca.
Indeed, when Pizarro conquered Cajamarca in 1532, he demanded a roomful of gold from the emperor Atahualpa; when it was produced, he chopped off the Inca’s head and established a new kind of Golden Rule. So it was that a mineral became king and a craze began.
Nowhere has Peru’s frenzy for gold been so fevered as in the mountains that surround Lake Titicaca. And nowhere has that fever been so intemperate as in a town tucked into a glacial aerie: La Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world.
It is a destination for only the most valiant. Clinging to the peak of Mount Ananea, with a cowl of glacier overhead, La Rinconada boasts few tourists, no hotel, no sights to speak of, apart from the endless snow, a dome of blue sky and a swarm of hard-bitten inhabitants. For the 50,000 souls who brave the subzero cold to pick rock on those hoary heights, there is no sewage system, no water, no paved roads, no sanitation whatsoever. It is a wilderness of ice, rock and gold, perched more than 18,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes.
Beside the gawping mine shafts that scar the mountain’s face are huts of tin, built at capricious and precarious angles, with nothing to keep out the glacial wind but improvised sheets of metal; nothing to generate warmth but fetid heaps of garbage. The only convenience here is the electricity, brought in by overlords so that the machinery can grind and shuttle-cars can rumble through the mountain’s black veins. At night, La Rinconada glitters like a cruel oasis.
Make no mistake: This is a trip for the armchair only. As Dante might say, let me guide you through a fascinating circle of hell.
To a barren world
I would not have gone up to the peak the locals call “la Bella Durmiente”— Sleeping Beauty — had I not been accompanied by a team of professionals from CARE. I traveled there to write a script for “Girl Rising,” a film directed by Richard Robbins, produced by the Documentary Group and poised for release next week.
It is a film about girls who live in desperately hard places, about how educating them could change their families, their communities and very possibly the world. In the course of my journey up to La Rinconada, I had every expectation that I would find hunger and hardship. What I had not expected was to find beauty in ugliness — to see, as a mountain shaman might put it, the sacred in the profane.
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