Amid the shifting glaciers of the Peruvian Andes, 17,200 feet up are the mines of La Rinconada. The surging price of gold has triggered a massive influx of Peruvians willing to work the deadly mines in search of their fortunes in gold. Here is my experience there:
Sleeping was near impossible. I wandered in and out of a dreamland, not knowing if I was awake or asleep. The relentless booming of bad ’80s hits emanating from the bordellos up the street didn’t help any. I began to question what I was doing in this lawless, polluted boom town 17,200 feet up in the Peruvian Andes.
I first saw images of Rinconada, Peru, many years ago on a German website about traveling in South America. The story described a place where gold miners vanished in tunnels and were consumed by a shifting glacier. I was fascinated by the extremes to which people will go in the hopes of making a chunk of money. No guarantees, just hoping to be lucky. A great place for photographs, I thought.
Peru seduced me long ago. My mother was born and raised in Lima and I have been making pilgrimages to this country since 1988. Visually, the country is a stunner and for me a melancholy place that translates best into black and white.
Peru has come a long way since the ’80s and ’90s when the country was in the grips of a civil war and the currency had the value of confetti. Lima is filled with expensive real estate, pricey cars and some of the world’s best restaurants. The Andes, however, remain a surreal world, shrouded in the spiritual and mired in the miserable. Poverty and lack of services are, sadly, still the norm there.
Arriving in Rinconada is an assault on the senses. The cold, the stench rising from the streets, a mix of sewage, trash and mercury, and most acutely the total lack of oxygen. My heart started pounding, an aspirin-proof headache set in and every footfall became a herculean task. I have made photographs in the slums of Mumbai, Middle Eastern war zones and the jungles of Congo, but none of this seemed as harsh as this high Andean boom town.
After checking into one of the “hotels,” all of which are located in the city’s red-light district, I set out to make photographs. It is not easy. People are very suspicious of cameras and photographers, but I had traveled to Rinconada with Carlos, a young tour guide from Puno who had spent six weeks working in the mines. He had family in Rinconada and that was crucial to being able to make photographs.
They took me deep into the mines. The mines are very dangerous — falling rocks, poisonous gases and a moving glacier — and getting to them proved equally perilous. After the overnight freeze we had to pick our way down the cliffs to access the tunnel entrances. One slip on the trail, covered in sewage and mercury, and it’s all over, a long fall onto piles of rock. The miners nimbly made their way down the cliffs, unlike my groveling on all fours, my cameras covered in the muck.
My body and brain had finally had enough. My weakened and useless carcass boarded the bus bound for Juliaca. I looked back on the city through the fogged up bus window still amazed by the tenacity and strength of the miners and their families that toil every day in Rinconada.