“All that glitters is not gold” but, La-Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world, scaling the altitudes of about 16,000ft, that is, 5100m sprouts with gold, but at the cost of some of the most brutalist living conditions known to man. This deserted and outlying settlement, which over the years, expanded to acclaim the title of the city, is the abode where only the sturdiest rock-like skins can survive and, hardly anyone would want to step onto its snow capped rocks, exhausting a person with the survival of the fittest as quoted by Darwin.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet1
The hamlet of La-Rinconada – the highest human habitation in the world.©Walker Dawson
An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet8
The hamlet of La-Rinconada – the highest human habitation in the world. ©Walker Dawson

Introduction:

La-Rinconada thrives in the snowy trails of the Bella Durmiente, popularized as the sleeping beauty, a perennial glacier which couches over the town. The absence of oxygen in thin air causes drowsiness and altitude-sickness. La-Rinconada is reachable only by a dusty mountainside footwalk, vomiting garbage, suffocating under frozen grass, and hard ice. Nestling about 50,000 people, La-Rinconada lies 40 miles to the north of Lake Titicaca and 10 miles off the Bolivian border. There are no appropriate services like running water, sewage, and waste disposal, and the city succumbs to smells of cyanide, mercury, and human excreta.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet9
The mountainside footwalk to the town suffocating underneath the piles of rock and dust. ©Walker Dawson

The Climatic conditions:

La-Rinconada boasts of an alpine tundra climate with pluvious summers and torrid winters. With the average annual temperatures close to 1.3°C. the huge diurnal fluctuations pose discomfort to human civilization and the natural monastery, sneak-peeking once in a blue moon. Personifying the gates of the doom, what has compelled about 50,000 people to embrace slavery and inhuman climatic conditions?

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet2
The settlement of La-Rinconada illustrates its tin houses. © reddit.com

The glacier of gold:

Yes, you read it right. La-Rinconada is a mountain of gold. Drained with unemployment, adjacent villagers visualize this mining operation as a goldrush of money as they have nothing to lose but their own lives. Majorly consisting of miners, the occupants of La-Rinconada work on the Cachorreo system of wages wherein they drain out free sweats monthly but, the last day allows them to take any found rock. They get lucky if the rubble has gold ore, but if not, the rest of the month is a nightmare. Prima facia La-Rinconada was only a gold mining camp. However, as the clock ticked, a wholly expanded city took over its place. Though this city, perceived more as a settlement, climbed vertically for about five kilometers, it has no vital infrastructure that a city should possess.

The town:

Though La-Rinconada’s infrastructure is very flat in comparison to the Peruvian standards, the life of people is like any other town. Men slurping alcohol at squares, women carrying out animal husbandry, and harvesting crops are what lights the otherwise sluggish, unhopeful atmosphere and architecture. This frail, roughly carved-out town was never supposed to be a settlement and was to remain as a far-flung gold mining operation. Thus the provisional make-shift architecture, incapable of thousands of stakeholders, skirmishes to combat the wars against the lack of infrastructure and services, with only the peaks leaving the person breathless. The cold town has no justice, no administration, and no rules. Unlike other mining cities, La-Rinconada remains ungoverned by any company, and hence, nothing contributes to the town’s development. As the settlement sprouts aimlessly on a forever frozen glacier, misery compels miners to rob each other, buy guns all over the chaos and encourage alcoholism and prostitution.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet10
The old-fashioned entertainment hubs created in La-Rinconada ©Walker Dawson

The dwellings:

Architecturally the local dwellings of La-Rinconada have more or less nothing to offer and are quite routined. The huts, structured in the tin metal and witnessing some shaky, unsettled angular forms, rust in silence as women polish metal outside with nothing to protect from the blizzards and reap comfort. As subsistence is trivial thought for these families who live on the economy carrying unregulated gold mines, their crude homes glitter like an atrocious oasis. In the bigger picture, I conclude that the weary state of houses in La-Rinconada needs to bang on the lack of road infrastructure. Corrugated metal sheets are the lightest option that these miners can carry on their shoulders to the glacier, unequipped, devoid of machinery. Architecture in this town can flourish if modularity is introduced herein with proper planning. To date, these homes lack vital insulating facilities and shiver in the cold, even if blessed with mountain sheep who shower a generous amount of wool, an excellent insulator. Somehow, I feel that misery attacks these people who are devoid of facilities and implementation of the existing resources as cavity walls with wool can be an excellent option for the homes. Houses of wealthy miners, structured in sectionally copious rocks, are more stable.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet3
A woman creating the metal parts to be used in a mine just outside her tin sheet home. ©Walker Dawson
An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet4
Corrugated metal sheet houses in La-Rinconada. ©Andre Vltchek

The Infrastructure:

  • Waste Disposal facility:

The town of La-Rinconada strangles insufferable smells with the absence of toilets and impeachment of rubbish in a central open trench on the main route. This trench can, however, swallow only a paltry quantity of the generated waste and the rest remains discharged in the immediate surroundings and homes, inviting diseases and viruses. There is garbage everywhere, even on both sides of the already potholed track to the town. The earth, air, water, snow, pretty any natural element is contaminated and these fortune unstruck people can’t even afford a waste disposal center. La-Rinconada, where man defies his limits, has no leveled roads, only carved steps that remain disrupted because of waste heaps.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet5
The mountains of waste at La-Rinconada. ©Walker Dawson
An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet6
The central sewage drain on the main route at La-Rinconada. ©vis.sciencemag.org
  • Water Supply and Treatment:

How can a glacier account for the lack of water? But no, the majority of the water in La-Rinconada is used to abstract the gold from the rock. Mercury flung in this water owes to drowning the town and water resources in a smog of noxious misery. Mercury evaporates from the gold ores, rests on house roofs and, mixes with melted snow. As a consequence of the lack of taps, used roof water accounts for the impregnation of mercury in the human body. The lower level glaciers, tarnished with cyanide, are wasteful, and hence only the top storey glaciers are the only source of drinking water.

An architectural review of the La Rinconada : The highest human habitation in the world - Sheet7
Image 10 – The existing water being used for gold extraction in La-Rinconada. ©www.departures.com

La-Rinconada is like the homeless locked in a bank of gold with CCTV surveillance. It does have some preliminary electricity lines, but those are for the greedy grinders hungry for gold. Architecture survives as a chain of design and infrastructure for the city. The main characters for living architecture like water treatment and distribution centers, waste disposal, drainage, tarred roads, and e-commerce are absent here. Thus, the chain for good homes is feeble currently and hopes to progress. 

In a nutshell,

” La-Rinconada has the beauty and the snow, La-Rinconada has the gold,

Yet it suffers from misery, waiting to be blessed with the technology that is not old.

La-Rinconada is currently poor but, La-Rinconada has the gold,

La-Rinconada waits for roads and homes, hoping for many curbs to unfold.”

Ruchika Deshpande
Author

An architecture student by profession, a curious empath by choice, Ruchika’s perceptive hearing has always unfolded the esoteric and stupendous tales of folklore and tradition in architecture. With a piercing interest in art, history and architecture, she holds strong to her poetic conclusions whilst analyzing human perception of the same.

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