Golden Slum   4 comments

La Rinconada, Peru – Extreme poverty is a way of life in La Rinconada, a shantytown 17,000 feet above sea-level in the high Andes of Peru. It has been said, Peru is a beggar seated on a throne of gold. In the case of this mining community the throne is one of gold and human waste.

Its citizens endure life in what is probably the dirtiest shanty community at the highest altitude in the world. It has no running water, no sewage system and its grounds are contaminated by mercury used to separate rock from gold. While coca leaves or altitude sickness pills may help one survive the high elevation, there’s nothing to provide relief from the horrible smell; the horrendous sanitary conditions result from the unregulated disposal of garbage and human waste. Unpaved streets provide transit for stench-filled mud and garbage litters its grounds. Life expectancy in La Rinconada is the lowest in Peru. Criminals on the run from the law are attracted to the area because there is no police presence. It’s no small wonder you won’t find any vacationing foreigners in La Rinconada.

Many of the 30,000 residents who call La Rinconada home lack basic educational skills. Most are employed under an ancient lottery system – and verbal contract – called cachorreo, in which they work for 30 days without pay. On the 31st day they receive payment in the form of a sack of ore, which may or may not contain gold; they’re permitted to enter a mine and collect what they hope will amount to a payment. It’s a cruel lottery that can lead to indentured servitude.

Martin Luque Vargas, 40, is a miner who insists he makes money under the system because he always finds gold. “I make enough to live each month but not save,” Vargas says. Nevertheless the system is cruel and unforgiving to others. Vargas is a former traffic controller from the nearby district of Quilcapuncu. He was fired because of the worldwide economic crisis. A widower he moved with his mother and three children to La Rinconada in July 2008 to become a miner. He responds “si mucho” (yes, very much) enthusiastically when asked if he enjoys working as a miner. “I think life in both mining and La Rinconada could improve in the future,” he states. However he acknowledged that the work is very dangerous and has no security. “I want to work as a miner for five more years and move.”

The likelihood of death, for miners, is echoed in a local saying, “off to work I go, I don’t know if I’ll make it back.” The area’s population growth, fueled by the unemployed, indicates there are many willing to tolerate the abuses of La Rinconada ensuring the ancient lottery will continue to be played.

Photos from Golden Slum can be viewed at

4 responses to “Golden Slum

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  1. Does someone own a company that they work for or is it a governmental program or something else?

  2. Pingback: Eating Dirt, Making Mud Pies and Building Sand Castles- hazardous dirt « Getting to Know the World

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