The Rinconada Goldmine lies in the city of La Rinconada, Peru. At 16,732 ft above sea level, it claims the title of the highest permanent settlement in the world.
The economy of La Rinconada revolves around the mine, as gold is the main (pretty much only) resource the city has. In fact, the mine is the only reason anyone is even there—and they all seemed to come at the same time.
Three miles of climbing, treacherous roads that can only be navigated by truck, what was meant to serve as a temporary mining settlement has burst into a ramshackle city in record time. When word got out that gold (and plenty of it) was found, tens of thousands of prospectors poured into the remote location, emigrating in droves to find fortune working for the mining company Corporación Ananea. Between 2001 and 2009, the population of the highest city on earth snowballed by over 230 percent.
Corporación Ananea operates under what they call an “informal” (read “illegal”) structure called the cachorreo system. Miners work through the month and receive no pay, however after their 30-day shift they are welcome to leave the mine hauling as much ore as they can possibly carry on their person. The catch of course is that there’s no way to tell how much gold (if any) is present in the ore they lug home, so lady luck decides how much their hard work will pay off.
The city planners were completely unprepared for the alarming flood of hopeful fortune-seekers in such a short amount of time, and the infrastructure is as questionable as the wage system. The “major city” of 50,000 has no plumbing or sanitation, as no permanent city services were ever anticipated. The ground is contaminated with mercury, and with no trash service, the more responsible residents either bury it outside of town or burn it in the streets, while those less ambitious just leave it wherever it drops.
Despite the abysmal conditions and shady pay compensation, the population holds steady. The Peruvian government has little interest in scaling the icy ascent to take on tens of thousands of hungry, hopeful miners to take control of the situation, and the mining company has no intention of giving up its practically free labor. The once pristine environment has been destroyed in a way only humans know how, but the gold keeps coming and as long as it does, the highest city in the world will remain.