La Rinconada is a small town situated high up in the midst of the Peruvian Andes near Peru’s southeastern border with Bolivia, located on a foothill of the snowy peak known as Ananea Grande (not to be confused with Ariana Grande 😉 ).
How high is this town, exactly?
So high, in fact, that it is the highest permanent settlement in the world!
Let’s take a virtual tour of the world’s highest city, La Rinconada, Peru:
Your Mileage May Vary
Located in the Ananea District of the San Antonio de Putina Province of the Puno region of Peru, measurements vary as to its exact height, with some sources saying 16,732 ft (5,100 meters) while others going even higher to around 17,388 ft (5,300 meters). Either way, at more than 3 miles or 5 km above sea level, La Rinconada is up there.
That’s not the only measurement which has conflicting numbers. Some sources peg the year-round population of La Rinconada (known locally as “La Rinco”) to be around 30,000 people, while others go as high as 50,000 or more. This is why La Rinconada is technically the world’s highest permanent settlement, as “world’s highest city” is a stretch.
An Unhealthy High
There was a time when it was thought that no person could live for extended periods of time above 5,000 meters in altitude. La Rinconada poses a direct challenge to this, having been in existence for more than 40 years.
The toll a life this high has on the human body is significant. At this altitude, the available oxygen is about half that which is available at sea level. A regularly healthy person visiting for the first time will likely become short of breath after a light walk. However, for the residents, the effects on the body get so much worse than mere altitude sickness.
The high altitude can quickly lead to hypoxemia, an abnormally low level of oxygen in the bloodstream, and hypoxia, where entire body parts or regions are deprived of oxygen. There is also the good chance of chronic mountain sickness (CMS), which brings with it a whole host of problems, such as tinnitus, heart palpitations, dizziness, fatigue, appetite loss, prolonged headaches, sleep issues, confusion, and more.
Then there’s the climate. Though situated about the same distance from the equator to the south as Cancun is to the north, La Rinconada is a mountain town, remember. As such, it has an alpine tundra climate, with only October and November ever reaching an average high temperature of barely over 50°F (10°C). The average temperature for the entire year is just 34.3°F (1.3°C), barely over freezing.
It is said that the climate is most similar to the western portion of Greenland, so that should tell you something. In fact, it is so high up, that even trees can’t grow there, as it is located far higher than the tree line.
To add insult to an already injurious high, there’s the general state of the town itself. When you enter La Rinconada by the road coming from Juliaca (where the nearest airport is), you pass through snowy mountains, yes, but also mountainous piles of frozen garbage lining the sides of the street. With no sanitation system in place and a complete lack of plumbing, sewage just flows right down the middle of streets. Sometimes, residents burn the trash. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the problem of mercury contamination due to mining practices, which we’ll talk about now.
It’s quite literally a frozen wasteland, an environmental catastrophe, and an abundance of human rights violations all rolled into one.
Gold Rush to the Top
So, why do thousands of people put up with frigid temperatures, oxygen problems, no sanitation, and other possible mercury poisoning?
La Rinconada was established because of a very productive and profitable goldmine. Decades ago, it started out as a small gold prospecting camp, but with the price of gold skyrocketing since then, particularly in the early 2000s, people came pouring in as a modern-day gold rush took place.
All That Glitters…
The fact that La Rinconada is the highest town in the world might be a proud spot among residents, but there’s not much else to be proud of, unfortunately. And I’m not just talking about the threats of disease, illness, poisoning, and filth.
Mining is tough work, no matter what’s being mined. But it doesn’t get much worse than mining for gold in La Rinconada.
The primary goldmine in La Rinconada is owned by Corporación Minera Ananea (sometimes referred to as just Corporación Ananea). This outfit has what they term an “informal” payment system in place, which is because they probably wouldn’t like to use the term “criminal.”
Using a really old-school indigenous system called cachorreo, miners work long hours mining gold for the company for 30 straight days with no payment. Then, on the 31st day, they are given the opportunity to mine for gold and keep all the gold ore they find for themselves as payment. Only as much as they can carry back home. Aside from their meager earnings—estimated to be around $170 for 31 straight days of labor—there is no insurance or pension plan in place, as they are not really counted as employees.
On top of that, some of these miners have to endanger themselves further. To refine the gold ore down, workers need to use a mercury treatment while grinding up the ore and filter it through a cloth. Then, this mercury and gold alloy is heated to remove the mercury. This mercury waste goes to contaminate the town as we mentioned before, as there is no safety in place (and no sanitation).
And oh, the stench!
The environment and landscape have suffered, as well. As Marie Arana eloquently puts it for the Virginia Quarterly Review:
“What was once a region of crystalline lakes and leaping fish—replete with alpaca, vicuña, chinchilla—has become a Bosch-like world that beggars the imagination. The scrub is gone. The earth is turned. What you see instead, as you approach that distant glacier, is a lunar landscape, pitted with rust-pink lakes that reek of cyanide. The waterfowl that were once abundant in this corridor of the Andes are gone; no birds flap overhead, save an occasional vulture. The odor is overwhelming; it is the rank stench of the end of things: of burning, of rot, of human excrement. Even the glacial cold, the permafrost, the whipping wind, and driving snows cannot mask the smell. As you ascend the mountain, all about you are heaps of garbage, a choking ruin, and sylphlike figures picking idly through it.”
However, it is important to also note that, somehow, most miners don’t want the cachorreo system to change (not to mention the company not wanting it to change). The Peruvian government has made less than half-hearted attempts at effecting change way up there, but, needless to say, to no avail. Miners, most without any significant education, are led to believe that they will be paid even less were the system to change, so everyone is content to leave it as is.
La Rinconada basically means “the corner” (rincón), but it’s way more specific than that. In Spanish, la rinconada refers particularly to an angle formed at the point where two streets, buildings, roads, or mountains meet.
It’s not clear why this town became called La Rinconada, but it does happen to be in the corner of Peru near where it meets Bolivia. Or, it could be because it’s way up in the Andes mountains between where the Vilacota peak and the Ritipata peak meet. It also happens to be located between two small lakes, the Rinconada Lagoon and the Parinani Lagoon. Or perhaps it was founded at the intersection of two avenues or is named for a similar town in Spain,
What to See in La Rinconada
Gold mining is what the entire town is based upon, so all the (lack of) infrastructure available is really all that’s necessary to support the town, albeit barely. For those who can afford to make the journey, Juliaca with its 230,000+ inhabitants offers much more in the way of dining and entertainment options.
Still, there are some things to see and do in and around La Rinconada:
La Bella Durmiente – “Sleeping Beauty” in English, this is the gigantic glacier which can be seen towering over the town.
Nevado de Ananea – Nearby town which offers a great base for skiers and mountain climbers.
Goldmines – You can actually tour some of the the goldmines, but be careful when you do. Not just because it’s dangerous, but there’s every reason not to hand more money over to Corporación Ananea.
Laguna Rinconada – See it while you can. Once a lagoon/lake with high levels of biodiversity, the mines, waste runoff, and contamination have caused it much harm. There are also a few other lagoons nearby, including the Laguna Parinani and the Laguna Lunar.
La Paz, Bolivia – About a 7-hour drive away from La Rinconada is La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and the highest capital city in the world (unless considering Sucre as the capital of Bolivia). Though quite a journey, once you pass the rubbish heaps flanking the roads as you leave the high gold town, you’ll take a winding, scenic route through the Andes and past famous Lake Titicaca as you cross the border!
Well, that’s our guide on La Rinconada, and we hope you found it useful and informative! Got any questions, feedback, or other points to add about La Rinconada, let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!