As you ascend toward the great white cap of Sleeping Beauty, all you see is garbage, a choking ruin, and ghostly shadows picking through it. Gigantic trucks shove at the earth. Whole families wade out into the toxic pools, fishing for gold. Along the perilously winding road that climbs to the summit, flocks of women in wide skirts scramble up cliffs, carrying heavy bags of ore, hoping to pound a fleck of gold from the waste that has spilled from the mine shafts; children stagger beside them, shouldering burdens of their own.
With so much poverty about, it is hard to believe that Sleeping Beauty harbors riches, that gold ripped from her entrails will glitter on Cartier and Tiffany counters around the world. But history books tell us that Mount Ananea has been offering up gold since the days of the Inca. According to travelers’ journals, a block the size of a horse’s head and weighing more than 100 pounds was pulled free in the 1500s and sent to the Spanish king. The region’s rivers were said to be strewn with glittering nuggets.
El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a half-Indian, half-Spanish chronicler who lived in the 16th century, wrote that this tract of Peru contained gold beyond imagining. Chunks of shiny rock as large as a human head — and 24-karat pure — had rolled from the damp black stone.
Although the king’s mines collapsed in the 1700s under the weight of the glacier and were abandoned for 200 years, interest in Ananea was rekindled in the 1960s, when teams of European and Japanese mountaineers scaled the stretch known as the Cordillera Real. Hordes of village boys followed, building huts, bringing families. With little more than small picks and big dreams, some defied the odds and struck gold. Today, there are just enough stories of random fortune to keep their children here.
A bench of gold
Peru is booming these days. Its restaurants are full; its cuisine has become all the rage. Cusco and Machu Picchu are world-class destinations. Peru’s economy boasts one of the highest growth rates in the world. In the past six years, its annual growth has hovered between 6 and 9 percent, rivaling the colossal engines of China and India.
Peru is one of the world’s leading producers of silver and one of Latin America’s most exuberant founts of precious metals. It is an energetic producer of natural gas. It is one of the top five harvesters of fish on the planet. Its premier fashion photographer is the darling of Vogue. Walk Lima’s streets and you can’t fail to see the evidence of progress: Here is a country alive with investment and tourism, a hive of construction, home to a rising and robust middle class.
But it is gold that has brought multinational companies to the highlands of Puno, many of them installing sturdy, viable operations that promise to lift rural communities out of poverty. Peru is hoping that Atahualpa’s curse is dead; that gold will be its salvation; that the country will no longer be — as the old saying has it — a beggar sitting on a bench of gold.
All the same, the wheels of progress that have sped Peru toward economic success and a burgeoning middle class have yet to climb the pestilential road to La Rinconada. There, in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty, every miner is on his own, and every woman and child who accompanies him a hostage to fickle fortune.