The Mine That Ate the City

The Raul Rojas mine sits like a huge, open sore right in the centre of the city of Cerro de Pasco. At about 4,400 metres, it’s one of the highest in the world — and I wanted to see what it was like.

The mine that’s swallowing up Cerro de Pasco, from the inside. © Emily Ding.

You bump up against the mining industry fairly often in Peru and Chile, where I’ve been travelling for the past few months. There was the company of men in their orange helmets and overalls at the guesthouse in Arica, Chile, whose successive opening and closing of doors at six every morning (and sometimes, a woman’s uninhibited moaning) would rouse me, like clockwork, from sleep. There was Lombardo, who let me and a Peruvian-German couple hitch a ride in his pick-up truck to Pisagua, Chile, stopping to drop off packed lunches for the workers at the iodine mine he’s employed by on the Pacific coast, where they were building a large pipe to bring in seawater for the mine’s use. There was Claudia, whom I met under atmospheric tungsten lights at a supperclub in Lima, Peru, who incidentally, monitors illegal mining activity in the Amazon for a living. And there was the rough-speaking miner on a three-week bender at a backpackers’ hostel, also in Lima, who would often be seen sprawled out on the couch in the common area. (Considering how much time he spends underground, he didn’t seem to appreciate daylight much.) And of course, when you’re on the road you’ll see mines peppering the landscape, capable of striking awe in their own way — just the thought that humans are somehow capable of these mammoth constructions that often mimic nature’s own grand design: the symmetry of the curves spiralling deep into the earth’s core, the perfectly straight lines cutting across mountains, the dumping lakes of an impossible colour.

There’s gold, silver, copper, zinc and other minerals up for grabs, and many South Americans owe their livelihoods to it. However, it’s a livelihood granted in exchange for a shorter lifespan, marked by polluted and unsustainable living conditions. You’ll often read stories about illicit mines that are annihilating huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest; or mega mines operated by first-world companies encroaching upon the homes and water supplies of nearby towns, precipitating protests that force municipal governments to order a state of emergency; and the social problems the mining industry brings, such as child labour, prostitution, organised crime and political corruption. One story sticks in my mind: in June 2000, a truck contracted by Yanacocha, the top gold-producing mine in the world located north of the Peruvian city of Cajamarca, leaked one hundred and fifty kilogrammes of mercury, a byproduct of gold production, over a forty-five-kilometre stretch of highway. When the people from the nearby village of Choropampa saw the metallic liquid glinting in the sun, they were seized by the thought that it might be valuable, might even be gold. They ran to gather up the liquid with their bare hands, collected it into bottles. Some put it to their mouths, for a taste. Children played with it. Not surprisingly, a lot of people got sick. Some went blind.

In the vein of a certain kind of tourist’s attraction to “dark tourism” or perhaps “dark ecotourism” (the point being to raise awareness rather than offer up cheap gonzo thrills), mines have become a draw in their own right. Tom Zoellner writes about it here in relation to Bolivia’s Potosi mine; and the Chiquicamata mine in Chile, the largest copper mine in the world, also runs free tours. I’d had to skip the latter while I was travelling there recently because I had to be back in Peru for New Year’s Eve, but I’d been reading about this other mine high up in Cerro de Pasco, Peru (New York Times, Vice), which was apparently eating up the city from the inside, and thought it might be interesting to visit. To draw attention to the destruction the mine has wrought upon the city, the local performance artist and activist Elizabeth Lino Cornejo had, tongue firmly in cheek, proclaimed herself the “Last Queen of Cerro de Pasco” and called for the mine to be declared a world wonder and cultural heritage site. However, a Peruvian acquaintance who’d taken to calling me Emily-san (what does it matter that I’m not Japanese) was nonplussed by my intention to visit Cerro de Pasco, and suggested that I head also to the Huayllay Stone Forest — apparently the largest and highest in the world, and which looked delightfully promising from a Google image search — forty kilometres away, for a little beauty after what’s bound to be a depressing view of Mother Earth.

I took a bus that same night to Cerro de Pasco with the ex-boyfriend, J., whom I’d managed to rope in at the last minute. (We’d parted ways on New Year’s Eve, but remained close friends.) It was an eight-hour journey, and when we woke up we’d arrived in the weak, grey light of the morning at the bus station in Cerro de Pasco, which spit us out into a still dormant market — the skeletons of stalls lining criss-crossing alleyways, save for a handful under bright yellow tents already serving sandwiches and burgers to catch the early arrivals. I was hungry, but the food didn’t look particularly appetising, and I was a little paranoid about ingesting any food or drink, though I’d not read any advice against it. Just to err on the safe side, I’d bought more than my usual stockpile of chocolate-coated Morochas biscuits (the best in Peru — I swear by them) and a large bottle of water, thinking I would survive on them exclusively for the day. But at about 4,400 metres on the windswept Bombón Plateau, Cerro de Pasco is the highest city in the world with a population of more than fifty thousand (the real honour of being the highest, without qualification, belongs to the gold-mining town La Rinconada, at 5,100 metres — William Finnegan wrote a piece I love about the gold rush here). It was cold, and I was already feeling a tightness around my head and my eyes due to the altitude. I ended up trying a hot maca drink a man was hawking on the street, but it wasn’t my cup of tea and I waited until I was out of his sight before I threw it away. And then I got a tamal with alpaca jerky.

(Left) A corn-based tamal topped with shredded alpaca jerky and chilli. (Right) And Morochas: the only biscuits you’ll ever need. © Emily Ding.

We walked through the market alleys to get to the main square, Plaza Daniel Carrión, named after the city’s most famous son: a medical student who martyred himself in the name of Peruvian medicine in the late nineteenth century. His claim to immortality? He’d injected himself, with the help of a few friends, with blood drawn from a wart between the eyes of a fourteen-year-old, who had what was then called verruga peruana. Carrión wanted to find out if the disease could be inoculated, and he got his answer. After more than a month of documenting the destruction the disease was wreaking on his body, he finally succumbed to it on October 5, 1885. For this macabre self-experiment, the disease was named after him, and he’d earned the large statue in his likeness in the middle of the square, holding a syringe to his arm.

A room at Hostal Santa Rosa in the middle of being cleaned. © Emily Ding.

Facing one side of Carrion’s statue is the Hostal Santa Rosa, which I’d picked out from a guidebook. We followed the directions on a sign to a side door and pressed the buzzer. A few minutes later, a lady fully covered entirely in black — long sleeves, tights and a beanie — appeared, sleep still clinging to her eyes. She greeted us mutely and we followed her past a figurine of Santa Rosa — wearing a crown of metal adorned with roses cradling a baby, nestled in a recess in the wall — and a courtyard before going up a wide flight of rickety steps, which stopped short in front of a narrow wood-and-glass cabinet, filled with sundry items such as toilet paper, toothpaste and biscuits for sale, that stood in as a reception desk. The woman took our money without a word, then led us to our room. The place was what I imagined an uninhabited nineteenth-century women’s boarding house to look like, with long, sullen corridors that wound around the courtyard. The ration on electricity contributed to the bleakness, especially in the flat light of the early morning filtering through the windows, at odds with the cheerful Christmas decorations that still adorned the walls in the empty common area. And there was that strange smell in the air — must or a certain metallicness, I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t complain, though; for twenty soles, I never complain. The three layers of wool blankets were thick and heavy, as promised, though I would use my zero-degree sleeping bag in addition to keep warm; and there was WiFi, though you had to hang halfway out the window to receive it.

Stopping in at this bodega for some snacks, we met Señor Victor, who was typing out some business transactions on his vintage typewriter. Check out his Top Gun-esque ensemble. I noticed people in Cerro de Pasco tend to put quite a lot of care into their daily dress. © Emily Ding.

We settled in for a bit, made ourselves some mate de coca, and popped another sorroche pill before heading out in search of the notorious open pit, reportedly 1.8 kilometres wide and as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Of course, it wasn’t hard to find. It’s a gigantic hole right in the centre of Cerro de Pasco, clearly delineated in satellite images, its perimeter surrounded by cracked brick walls or fences covered with torn black plastic sheets you can peek through. Fanning out from the pit are the districts of the city, with low houses backgrounded by what look like sand hills, which are in fact tailings — a mixture of rock, earth and metals produced by open-pit mining — that cast off pollutants into the atmosphere. These tailings have reportedly filled the lakes around the area, too; surrounded by residential homes in the district of Chaupimarca, Lake Patarcocha is a sickly metallic blue, despite efforts by the municipal government to rehabilitate the water.

View of the polluted Lake Patarcocha. © Emily Ding.

Closing down the pit, it seems, was never really an option. Cerro de Pasco has always been a mining city. Underground mines have reportedly existed since the late sixteenth century, when the Spanish found silver in the caverns of the earth here, and they were an important source of colonial revenue through to the nineteenth century. The open mine — currently owned by the Peruvian company Volcán and which was named Raul Rojas after a miner who reportedly died during a strike in 1989 — started operations in 1956, and has made living conditions even more untenable. In 2008, Peru’s Congress passed a law calling for the resettlement of the city’s entire population, but predictably, this has yet to be implemented.

Melinda and her granddaughter Alessandra, sporting fiercely flushed cheeks. © Emily Ding.

At some point, we met Melinda and her granddaughter Alessandra while walking around what looked like abandoned homes. I pointed out several bright green buildings close to the mine’s perimeter, struck fluorescent by the sunlight, and Melinda said that buildings are painted green when Volcán buys them to subsume it into the mine. There’s something apocalyptically biblical about this for me. I am not and have never been religious, but when I was a child I received a bible from a well-meaning aunt, and being a kid who would read anything, I found myself drawn to the stories. That image of lamb’s blood being smeared on the doors of homes to ward off the plague, at Moses’ bidding, comes back to me now — except, in this case, the green is a blight, a nod to destruction. However, Melinda told us that further appropriation of property has been suspended due to concerns about the destabilisation of the land. A couple of other Cerro de Pascans we came across say the same. They also seemed surprisingly accepting of the destructive effects of the mine. “What can you do?” one señor said. “People have to work.”

Buildings painted green, marked out by the Peruvian mining company Volcán to be subsumed into the open pit. © Emily Ding.

In Cerro de Pasco, even when the sky was blue and the sun was shining, there was something all wrong about the colours. It seemed to me like there was a chrome-like tint to everything.

Early the next morning, we flagged down a collectivo near the bus station and headed to the Huayllay Stone Forest. As befits this modern world of travel, I found myself hoping it would live up to its Google images.

Cerro de Pasco earned the title “Opulent City” in the 19th century. Today, it most definitely is not. © Emily Ding.

Getting there

You can take a bus from Lima, which will take about seven to eight hours. There are night buses available. The usual tourist-grade buses such as Cruz del Sur and Oltursa don’t ply this route. I travelled with Ecosem H, which leaves from Avenida Nicolás Arriola 198, La Victoria 15034, Peru (+51 989 071 524).

Where to stay

Hostal Santa Rosa — Jiron Libertad 269/Plaza Daniel Carrión, district of Chaupimarca (+51 63 42 2120). Has WiFi at strategic spots, a self-catering kitchen, and rationed electricity and hot water.