Just about everyone we met in Madre de Dios told us to stay away from the mining camps.
Even at the lunch café where we stopped after arriving in Peru's southeastern Amazon region, the family at the next table over looked deeply worried when we asked for directions. “Very dangerous,” they said. “A lot of bad people there.”
Madre de Dios is the center of illegal gold mining in the western Amazon. The miners' dredging equipment and the mercury they use to tease gold out of alluvial sediments has led to some of the most appalling environmental destruction anywhere in South America, turning lush forests into lunar wastelands.
Photographer Dominic Bracco and I wanted to see it up close. But the jungle camps where the miners work are notoriously lawless and miles from any help. Foreigners — especially foreigners with cameras — are not welcome.
Our timing wasn’t good, either. The Peruvian government had been cracking down on the miners, raiding their camps and dynamiting their machinery to try to drive them out of the forest. But the only way we'd be able to talk to the miners and see their operations up close would be to go without soldiers or police.
Braulio, a young cabdriver we met in Puerto Maldonado, the boom-town capital of Madre de Dios, seemed to be our guy. He told us his padrino (godfather), Don Vicente, was running a crew in a gold pit a couples of miles into the forest, and he could take us out there to meet him.
Two days later, we crammed into Braulio's battered Suzuki hatchback and headed for the camps. We also brought along a former park ranger and taxi-driver colleague of Braulio's for added security.
Soon after we turned off the paved highway into the forest, it was clear the Suzuki wouldn't make it. The mud was too deep, and the main access road had been wrecked by a government raid.
Dirt bikes were the only way in. We hired two motorcycle taxis outside a grimy cantina and rode three to a bike, zipping down jungle trails and across rickety bridges of rattling planks that looked as if they were salvaged from an Indiana Jones set, and about as old.
Everywhere we went, we drew hostile stares.
Miners heading to and from the camps shouted at us from passing motorcycles, cursing the bike cabbies for bringing us in.
It was a jarring ride through ruined landscapes of man-made deserts and sickly craters. I'd never seen humans do anything so hideous to the planet. In just a few years, vast stands of forest had been totally annihilated, as if hit by a massive napalm strike.
Then we saw the pits. Dominic jumped off the bike and started taking pictures as casually as possible, but it was as if our arrival had triggered a silent alarm.
Almost immediately we were surrounded by angry men demanding to know why we were there. Are you environmentalists? they asked.
More and more miners appeared out of the gold pits, shouting in Quechua, the Incan language, and swarming around us. We'd kicked over a hornet's nest.
They were not in a cheerful mood. The government had been raiding the area several times a month, scattering everyone into the forest and torching the camps.
An older man in rubber boots pushed through the crowd to confront us. His teeth were black from chewing coca and his broken nose was so askew it practically pointed at his ear.
"They're journalists!" he declared. The crowd tightened around us.
Braulio tried to quiet them. "No, it's okay!" he shouted, holding up his hands. "They're tourists!"
Now, I should say: I have been to journalism school. I have even read the part of The Washington Post ethics guidelines where it says to always tell the truth if someone asks if you are a reporter.
But I'm pretty sure this one wasn’t in the handbook. By then, 40 to 50 men and boys had encircled us.
I swallowed the speech I'd been preparing about how we were there to tell the miners’ side of the story, and kept my mouth shut.
Braulio’s “tourist” lie wasn’t much help anyway. "We don't allow tourists here," growled the man with the sideways nose.
I nudged Braulio. What about his godfather?
"We're here to see Don Vicente, my godfather," Braulio announced, apparently remembering our cover story.
"Ah, Don Vicente," said the black-toothed man. He knew him. He existed after all. The noose around us seemed to slacken.
Don Vicente was several miles deeper into the forest, the miners said. We'd come back to visit another time, we told them, thank you very much.
More men were arriving. But the crowd had loosened up enough for us to wiggle back onto the bikes and ease away without looking like we were running.
On the way back, we stopped at another mining camp, but once again drew an uneasy crowd after we introduced ourselves as journalists. I jotted down a few quick interviews with some of the friendlier miners, and with several miners' wives who ran little cantinas fashioned from tarps and tree branches. Dominic stood back and shot pictures as fast as he could.
The miners were boiling with rage at the government.
“What are we supposed to do — go home and chew our nails?” said Marina Tapia, a 50-year-old café proprietor with gold-capped teeth and a floral apron. She said she and her husband had put their two sons through engineering school with the money they socked away working in the camps.
“The government treats us like thieves,” she said, standing next to the edge of a massive pit, where several dredgers were running. Others around her nodded.
It was interesting to hear the miners say they knew they were destroying the forest, and seem disturbed, even embarrassed, by it. But ultimately they said the damage was justified if it meant pulling their families out of poverty.
The longer we stayed to talk, the more we also seemed to be attracting people who really didn't want us there. It was time to split.
On the ride back to the highway, Braulio told us a Peruvian TV crew had been badly beaten when they showed up at the camps a few months earlier.
Maybe we got the tourist treatment after all.