"She is our Sleeping Beauty," says Apaza, nodding toward a sinuous curve in the snowfield high above the mine. "Without her blessing we would never find any gold. We might not make it out of here alive."
It isn't El Dorado, exactly. But for more than 500 years the glittering seams trapped beneath the glacial ice here, three miles above sea level, have drawn people to this place in Peru. Among the first were the Inca, who saw the perpetually lustrous metal as the "sweat of the sun"; then the Spanish, whose lust for gold and silver spurred the conquest of the New World. But it is only now, as the price of gold soars—it has risen 235 percent in the past eight years—that 30,000 people have flocked to La Rinconada, turning a lonely prospectors' camp into a squalid shantytown on top of the world. Fueled by luck and desperation, sinking in its own toxic waste and lawlessness, this no-man's-land now teems with dreamers and schemers anxious to strike it rich, even if it means destroying their environment—and themselves—in the process.
The scene may sound almost medieval, but La Rinconada is one of the frontiers of a thoroughly modern phenomenon: a 21st-century gold rush.
No single element has tantalized and tormented the human imagination more than the shimmering metal known by the chemical symbol Au. For thousands of years the desire to possess gold has driven people to extremes, fueling wars and conquests, girding empires and currencies, leveling mountains and forests. Gold is not vital to human existence; it has, in fact, relatively few practical uses. Yet its chief virtues—its unusual density and malleability along with its imperishable shine—have made it one of the world's most coveted commodities, a transcendent symbol of beauty, wealth, and immortality. From pharaohs (who insisted on being buried in what they called the "flesh of the gods") to the forty-niners (whose mad rush for the mother lode built the American West) to the financiers (who, following Sir Isaac Newton's advice, made it the bedrock of the global economy): Nearly every society through the ages has invested gold with an almost mythological power.
Humankind's feverish attachment to gold shouldn't have survived the modern world. Few cultures still believe that gold can give eternal life, and every country in the world—the United States was last, in 1971—has done away with the gold standard, which John Maynard Keynes famously derided as "a barbarous relic." But gold's luster not only endures; fueled by global uncertainty, it grows stronger. The price of gold, which stood at $271 an ounce on September 10, 2001, hit $1,023 in March 2008, and it may surpass that threshold again. Aside from extravagance, gold is also reprising its role as a safe haven in perilous times. Gold's recent surge, sparked in part by the terrorist attack on 9/11, has been amplified by the slide of the U.S. dollar and jitters over a looming global recession. In 2007 demand outstripped mine production by 59 percent. "Gold has always had this kind of magic," says Peter L. Bernstein, author of The Power of Gold. "But it's never been clear if we have gold—or gold has us."