Did your curiosity ever make you wonder which is the highest town in the world? If you did, your research will take you high in the Peruvian Andes in the town of La Rinconada. This small mountain mining town lies at 5,100 (16,000 feet) meters above sea level and has a quickly growing population driven by the local golden mind and the rapid rise of gold prices in the early 2000s. Today, despite the harsh living conditions, La Rinconada is the highest inhabited human community on Earth.
One of the most isolated communities in the world
In La Rinconada, you can see enormous glaciers lurking over the town and high mountains surrounding the community from all sides, making La Rinconada one of the most isolated cities in the world. Other Peruvians often refer to the community as the town above the clouds. The only thing that connects the highest town in the world to the rest of the country are tiny, narrow mountain roads that are closed for a large part of the year.
Before the town was inhabited, there was a general belief that human life is not possible at an elevation higher than 5,000 meters because of the big adaptations a human organism should make in order to survive in such an environment. However, La Rinconada shows that exceptions are always possible.
If you ever tried to climb a mountain higher than 5,000 meters, you know how hard that was on your body and how difficult it is to merely stay at such altitudet and not yet live your whole life there.
But what was it that made people stay in such conditions?
History of La Rinconada
The Andes of South America have always been home to towns and inhabited communities located around 3,500 and 4,000 meters. But these can’t compare to the elevation of Rinconada (5,100 meters). The town was actually inhabited following a Peruvian version of the Gold Rush in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Around this time, a gold mine was discovered high in the Peruvian mountains and a lot of people sold everything they have to go live in the mountain and get rich by mining gold.
The highest town in the world experienced its biggest growth between 2001 and 2009 when the population rose from a small gold prospect camp to 30,000 people. The main reason for this was the fact that during this decade, the price of gold increased by 235%. Today, the town’s gold rush reputation slowly fades away but La Rinconada still has close to 17,000 residents.
This brings us to the next point…
Today, the town is quite poor with most of the economy relying entirely on local unregulated gold mines. Most people staying here don’t work for a fixed salary but they get to keep all the gold they find on one particular day of each month. Women miners are not allowed so the only choice they have is to do the outdoor work, such as creating metal tools for the miners, cooking, cleaning, etc.
No one expected that the highest town in the world will grow so much which is why La Rinconada has no urban planning or any infrastructure. There’s no running water or a sewage system (good luck building one at this elevation and outdoor conditions), and no waste disposal mechanisms. Most people burn the garbage or bury it outside of the town.
All this combined with the unregulated mining activities contributes to the grounds around the town to be severely contaminated with mercury. Mercury poisoning is one of the most common reasons for death in La Rinconada.
How To Get To La Rinconada?
The quickest direct bus line to La Rinconada starts from the city of Puno. It’s roughly 200 kilometers away but the journey lasts around six hours because of the bad mountains road. La Rinconada doesn’t have a railway and the nearest international airport is in Juliaca, a thriving city located at an elevation of 3,800 meters above sea level. However, because of the elevation and difficult conditions, the airport is only regional and all flights are operated from Corporación Peruana de Aeropuertos y Aviación Comercial S.A. (CORPAC).
Getting Around The World’s Highest Town
As you might be guessing, the town has no organized public transportation. It’s also not big enough for one to need a form of organized public transportation but the thin air makes it quite difficult to walk around as you normally might. In addition to this, the town has no hospitals, hotels, or other tourist facilities.
As for tourist attractions, you can visit The Sleeping Beauty, a glacier that overlooks the town, climb nearby mountaintops, such as Vilacota (5,350 meters), and Riti Urmasca (5,215 meters), get to the Chawpi Urqu Range (4,440 meters) at the border with Bolivia or explore some of the nearby mountain lakes surrounding the town (as I could see, none of them were named).
The Local Economy
The local economy mainly consists of gold production from nearby gold mines. The biggest mine is owned by Corporacion Ananea; a corporation whose employees work for 30 days without payment but as a reward, they get to keep the gold they find on the 31st day. However, most of the time, the miners are sent to spots where finding large quantities of gold is not common. This is known as the cachorreo system.
The corporation presents the cachorreo system as an informal system that prevailed for centuries in the Peruvian Andes but looking at the conditions, one can’t help but wonder how such arrangements could be legal. However, despite the shady compensation scheme, the population has remained steady in the last few years. The government doesn’t seem very interested in the town’s infrastructural, legal, and especially environmental issues.
This brings us to the next point…
Does The Town Really Benefit From The Gold?
Corporacion Ananea is the only company with a government license to exploit the mines near La Rinconada. None of their employees have ever given an interview regarding the inhuman cachorreo system that exploits most of the town’s resources without really bringing any benefits to La Rinconada. A lot of people living here are losing trust in the central government as time passes by, environmental organizations keep warning as the highest town in the world turns into a lawless place.
Today, La Rinconada is one of the most dangerous places in Peru. Stealing among the miners is not uncommon and anyone can easily buy a gun in several different shops. The last bastion of authority in La Rinconada is the tiny, unheated police station.
Most people come to the world’s highest town with high expectations and expect to stay until they earn enough to have a good life but most of them leave disappointed. The only businesses except for mining that are thriving in La Rinconada are bars and prostitution.
So, when NGOs call this modern slavery and warn about the exploitation of people and natural resources, they’re not exaggerating.
Climate And Environmental Issues
La Rinconada has an alpine tundra climate with temperatures ranging between -12 and 6 degrees Celcius (12°F to 43°F). Due to the high altitude, the climate slightly resembles Greenland. Summers are rainy while winters are harsh and drive. The average temperature throughout the year is 1.3 °C (34.3 °F). Needless to say, life under these conditions isn’t easy, especially without running water and sanitation.
In addition to this, there’s also mercury pollution because local miners refine the ore by grinding it with mercury. Many of them don’t even wear gloves when they do this. Having all this in mind, along with the fact that the mines produce less gold every year, it’s only a matter of time when the highest town of the world will fade away…
Did you know about La Rinconada? Would you visit the highest town in the world? What do you think about it? Let us know in the comments!
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