Part 4: La Rinconada, The World’s Most Remote Mines
Located nearly 17,000 feet above sea level, the town of La Rinconada is the highest “city” in the world. The temperature here is always below zero and the town is located on a permanently frozen glacier, and can only be reached by truck via treacherous mountain roads.
Making things worse is that at this height, oxygen is scarce; breathing for non-locals is a difficult feat.
Just to reach the city takes days, and even then altitude sickness, combined with the shantytown’s miserable conditions means that few people can handle living here for long.
Still, the town is said to have as many as 30,000 inhabitants, and despite the harsh living conditions, the population has grown by 235% since 2001.
Most of the local inhabitants who can work, are involved in the business of gold mining, which is extracted from beneath the ice inside nearby caverns.
Many miners work at the gold mine owned by Corporación Ananea. Under the cachorreo system, they work for 30 days without payment. On the 31st day they are allowed to take with them as much ore as they can carry with them. Whether the ore contains any gold or not is simply a matter of luck.
According to a National Geographic article:
La Rinconada’s frenzied expansion has been fueled by the convergence of rising gold prices and, in 2002, the arrival of electricity. Miners use pneumatic drills now with their hammers and chisels. Traditional leg-driven rock grinders have given way to small electric mills. Electricity hasn’t made mining any cleaner; if anything, mercury and other toxic materials are being released into the environment more rapidly than ever before. But nearly everyone agrees that La Rinconada has never produced so much gold.
The author notes that estimates on production are nebulous, ranging from two to ten tons annually, worth about between $94 million and $466 million each year.
In spite of the relatively huge revenues and low overhead—workers make about $3,000 per year—La Rinconada has no plumbing, no sanitation, no postal service and no police station.