In fact, this part of the world is known for its pharmacological cornucopia. Every shrub or weed is a botanical miracle: flores de Bach for melancholy, muña for chills or bone pain, pampanis for intestinal gas, yahuar chonca for diarrhea. Fields of medicinal possibility rushed past as we raced along the highway. Looking out at the reed catamarans that skimmed the lake’s dazzling surface or the grass islands that floated peacefully in the sun, I couldn’t imagine that snows trickling into that paradise were anything but pristine.
Within a half-hour of leaving Putina, however, the road had become dirt, rock, soon frozen mud, and my crew was being pitched about, as it would be for two more hours of a difficult journey. The Altiplano, a stretch of high mesa only slightly lower than the Tibetan plateau, stretched before us, stippled with rough grass and stone. Trees were scarce, thatched huts more so, and the odd flowers — bright orange cantutas — had brought a herd of startled alpaca onto that frigid January plain. They stood at the limits of faded pasture, raising their delicate heads as we bounced over rut and rock, eyeing us with haughty scorn.
Before long, as broad swaths of arid plain gave way to scarred earth, we could see why La Rinconada is only rarely visited by government poobahs. The air at 18,000 feet is stiflingly thin, the cold excruciating. Now and then, ramshackle trucks and vans rattled past, carrying miners and their families, stopping on the roadside to catch their breath, chew coca leaf and leave offerings to the earth goddess, Pachamama, to whom altars had been erected along the way. All about, for as far as the eye could see, was a crazed landscape. What was once a region of sparkling lakes, leaping fish and grassland is now a barren world that beggars the imagination.
The green is gone. The earth is turned. What you see as Mount Ananea looms into view is a lunar landscape, pitted with orange lakes that reek of cyanide. The birds that once flew over La Rinconada are nowhere to be seen; none flap overhead, save an occasional vulture. The odor is staggering; it is the putrid stench of chemicals, of rot, of human excrement. Even a whipping wind cannot sweep away the stink.