The Price of Gold

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Like many of his Inca ancestors, Juan Apaza is possessed by gold. Descending into an icy tunnerl 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, the 44-year-old miner stuffs a wad of coca leaves into his mouth to brace himself for the inevitable hunger and fatigue. For 30 days each m0nth Apaza toils, without pay, deep inside this mine dug down under a glacier above the world’s highest town, la Rinconada. For 30 days he faces the dangers that have killed many of his fellow miners–explosives, toxic gases, tunnel collapses–to extract the gold that the world demands. Apaza does all this, without pay, so that he cn make it to today, the 31st day, when he had his fellow miners are given a single shift, four hours or maybe a little more, to haul out and keep as much rock as their weary shoulders can bear. Under the ancient lottery system that still prevails in the high Andes, known as the cachorreo, this is what passes for a paycheck: a sack of rocks that may contain a small fortune in gold or, far more often, very little at all.

Apaza is still waiting for a stroke of luck. “Maybe today will be the big one,” he says, flashing a smile that reveals a single gold tooth. To improve his odds, the miner has already made his “payment to the Earth”: a bottle of pisco, the local liquor, placed near the mouth of the mine; a few coca leaves slipped under a rock; and, several months back, arooster sacrified by a shaman on the sacred mountiaintop. Now, heading into the tunnel, he mumbles a prayer in his native Quechua language to the deity who rules the mountain and all the gold within.

“She is our Sleeping Beauty,” says Apaza, noding toward a sinuous curve in the snowfield high above the mine. “Without her blessing we would never find any gold. We might not make it out of here alive.”

It isn’t El Dorado, exactly. But for more than 500 yaers the glittering seams trapped beneath the glacial ice here, three miles above sea level, have drawn people to this place in Peru. Among the first were the Inca, who saw the perpetually lustrous metas as the “sweat of the sun”; the the Spanish, whose lust for gold and sliver spurred the conquest of the New World. But it is only now, as the price of golden soars–it has risen 235 percent in the past eight years–that 30,000 people have flocked to La Rinconada, turning a lonely prospectors’ camp into a squalid shantytown on top of the world. Fueled by luck and despertation, sinking in its own toxic waste and lawlessness, this mo-man’s-land now teems with dreamers and schemers anxious to strike it rich, even if it means destroying their environment–and themselves–in the process.

Th scene may sound alomst medieval, but La Rinconada is one of the frontiers of a throughly modern phenomenon: a 21st-century gold rush.