Man on motorcycle visits lawless La Rinconada: the highest permanent settlement in the world

In this town, poverty and violence ruled, and I witnessed unthinkable scenarios. The haunting experience of visiting Rinconada etched a deep scar in my memory.

  • 1 month ago
  • April 15, 2024
7 min read
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Ricardo Damian Lorenz, also known as Yago, is a 35-year-old adventurer from Córdoba, Argentina, who has spent the last 13 years traveling the world on his motorcycle. Known online as @yagoxamerica, Yago has explored over 20 countries, hundreds of cities, and thousands of towns, settlements, and communes. He is renowned for his journeys on a modest 105cc Honda Biz, affectionately nicknamed Bizcacha. As a YouTuber and motorcyclist, Yago shares his experiences and inspires others to embrace the spirit of adventure.
background information
Motorcycle travelers are increasingly exploring the globe in search of adventure, captivating others with their stories that transport readers to unique places and landscapes.

Among the less frequented destinations is La Rinconada, Peru, the world’s highest city at over 5,100 meters above sea level, where inhabitants endure harsh conditions and poverty in the gold mines of this precarious and polluted enclave. For more information, visit La Sexta.

LA RINCONADA, Perú — When I embarked on my tour of the South American continent, social media and smartphones had not yet become part of our regular lives, so I relied on word of mouth and paper maps. I traversed practically all of Latin America, soaking in the diverse cultures, landscapes, and colorful experiences available to me.

Yet, one of the most unforgettable moments was my visit to La Rinconada, a place far removed from tourist trails and the arm of law. Perched at an elevation of 5,100 meters, it felt like stepping into a different world. The village included a collection of makeshift homes nestled amidst the majestic Andes.

In this town, poverty and violence ruled, and I witnessed unthinkable scenarios. The haunting experience of visiting Rinconada etched a deep scar in my memory. It became the dark chapter of my journey throughout South America.

Read more travel & adventure stories at Orato World Media.

How it all started: setting off to travel an entire continent on my motorcycle

As a child, I played at my grandmother’s house after school. On the wall hung a large, delicately framed world map. It looked like a collage with flags perched on the great continents. Often, I climbed onto the chair and stood in front of it, tracing the vibrant colors with my finger.

I paused at certain spots, reading the names of countries aloud, while making the sound of a motorcycle. I imagined myself exploring distant lands. The memory of that map at grandma’s house served as the root of my dream to spend my life traveling.

Fresh out of high school, I dabbled in odd jobs that left me unfulfilled, and the deep yearning for freedom grew. That longing propelled me to embark on my first motorcycle journey. I dipped into my modest savings to gear up and packed my backpack with essentials: clothes, a sleeping bag, a small tent, and some kitchen utensils.

My motorcycle, though originally designed for pizza or letter deliveries, became the vessel of my dreams. Saying farewell to my family set me into an emotional whirlwind, but their hugs and well wishes filled me with an unstoppable surge of energy. With a rev of the engine and a final wave, I set off on my adventure, unaware that this journey would forever alter the course of my life.

In Latin America, I explored a dozen countries, hundreds of cities, and thousands of villages, settlements, and communes. My travels took me across verdant jungles, golden deserts, and the awe-inspiring mountains. Every mile of the way, my motorcycle remained with me like a silent witness. From the lofty heights of the Andes to the sun-kissed shores of the Caribbean, each destination gave me a chance to learn, grow, and share my passion for the nomadic life.

La Rinconada: A destination beyond tourist routes and the law

I decided to go to La Rinconada, Peru because it is the highest permanent settlement in the world. A secluded place, it sits hundreds of kilometers off the beaten path. I stopped at Ananea, where I rested before traveling the final 26 kilometers. Overnight, the temperature plunged below zero and my motorcycle froze solid. In the morning, I waited for the sun to thaw it before continuing on.

When I reached the village of La Rinconada, I encountered towering walls of garbage stretching six meters high, obscuring my view and blocking the horizon. The landfill sprawled out on either side of the road as birds, dogs, and llamas scavenged for scraps. The closer I got, the more nauseating the stench became.

The palpable misery felt haunting and reminded me to remain vigilant. The streets lay covered in ice, but as the sun’s rays touched the ground, everything transformed into mud. The pursuit of gold mining dominated everything, resulting in poverty, crime, alcoholism, and prostitution. In the absence of basic amenities, I saw people living without electricity, potable water, and sewage services. The constant accumulation of garbage created a landscape of chaos. As night fell, I watched as the streets became the domain of prostitution as gunshots rang out frequently.

In La Rinconada, I saw rivers and lagoons contaminated with mercury. Throughout the streets, pipes ran down from the glacier to the main roads. Yet, the glacier that once supplied clean water seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. As I passed makeshift hotels, I heard the voices of people groaning. Surprisingly, when local business owners spotted me – a tourist – they quickly shut their doors. In the bars, I found a grimy atmosphere as the stench of vomit permeated the air.

In that grimy atmosphere, motorcyclist barely made it out alive

The most unsettling aspect was seeing women’s and girl’s undergarments strewn across alters, intertwined with religious figurines. I heard of chilling “offerings” of human blood to acquire more gold and wealth. The entire time, I felt like an outsider as the atmosphere grew thick with tension.

I only spoke with a few miners during my visit who ran a mechanical workshop. In that chance encounter, I gave them my book. The men reacted like they had not experienced kindness in a long time. One of them told me he couldn’t read, but he treasured the gift. “When my children learn,” he said, “they will tell what this is about,” and he placed the book in a special corner.

The rudimentary homes made of grey concrete and corrugated metal roofs lay outlined in white snow and brown earth. As I looked around, I realized I could not spend the night; it wasn’t safe. Just as I readied to leave, a man confronted me on the only road out. He drunkenly slurred his words as I hurried through my final preparations. Then, he raised his voice and threateningly said, “I like your motorcycle.”

His tone grew more menacing. “If you don’t give me your motorcycle,” he asserted, “I’ll shove dynamite down your throat, and it will all end right here.” Taken off guard by the violent confrontation, I quickly scanned my surroundings. Some minivans on the edge of town became my unlikely saviors. One of the drivers saw us and started gesturing to me and honking his horn. Momentarily distracting my perpetrator, it gave me just enough time to escape. I took off on my bike without looking back and left that isolated, hellish place behind forever.

Motorcycle enthusiast publishes book and attracts sponsors

Most places are not like La Rinconada. When asked to choose a favorite, I visualize the enchanting city of Huaraz in the northern central Andes of Peru. It boasts dozens of snow-capped peaks, hundreds of breathtaking lagoons, and myriad natural wonders. The captivating beauty of nature calls you to explore and breathe in deeply.

In Colombia, I found myself in Bucaramanga, in a picturesque square, selling handmade crafts to sustain my travels. People began to approach me, drawn by the local buzz about the traveler with a modest bike traversing Latin America. They bombarded me with questions about my travels, urging me to share stories. Before I knew it, a crowd gathered, and I found myself delivering what turned out to be my first public talk, which made me some money.

Falling in love with my travels, one day I suddenly thought, “I want to make a living out of this.” As I spoke and eventually published a book, my story gained visibility and I attracted sponsors. From there, I began carrying a 90-liter backpack, a few changes of underwear, and 110 books to sell. Day by day and place by place, I shared stories of vitality, freedom, and happiness.

I watched the astonished faces in my audiences as I traversed 20 countries. Today, I am journeying through Southeast Asia on my trusty motorcycle, marking the first time I ventured beyond my home continent. As for future plans, Africa holds a certain allure, but nothing is set in stone. I prefer not to plan too far ahead. I’m here today, and that’s all that matters. The beauty of this lifestyle is the freedom to shape my reality at every turn. I live on a wing, embracing the flow of life with open arms.

All photos courtesy of Ricardo Damian Lorenz.

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