#3. La Rinconada, Peru
Where is it?
Oh what an enviable joy it must be to toil in the merry gold mines of La Rinconada, high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Actually, since you asked, it's a hellish nightmare life the likes of which you are powerless to imagine.
La Rinconada is, for starters, the highest-altitude permanent settlement on Earth. It's about 5400 meters above sea level, which means it can also be described as the lowest permanent settlement in space. The air is mighty thin up there, but at least the perpetual state of near-suffocation will take your mind off the sub-zero temperatures and the smell of human excrement. Did we mention there is no sewage system in La Rinconada? No running water, either. And no law enforcement of any kind. No wonder the population is dwindling at... oh shit, 30,000 people and growing.
In La Rinconada, you have two choices of occupation. (1) You can work the gold mines, or (2) Heh, just kidding. There is no second choice.
See, Peru is kind of a hell of unemployment, so a town with one employer is better than the average. The gold mine is what draws tens of thousands of men and their families out of the comparatively more comfortable cities and into one of the most pathetic makeshift shanty settlements this side of District 9.
Also, this is old school mining. There's no machinery and no safety precautions. You just turn up and they hand you one of those cartoony flashlight-hard-hats and a chisel.
The last possession you will ever own.
As Internet writers, we know less about mining than basically anyone else on the planet. But they tell us that there are different kinds of gold mines, and the mine in La Rinconada is, well, the undesirable kind. All the gold is locked up in tiny seams, so most of what you're actually mining is just ordinary rocks, which are probably still worth more than Peruvian currency, but not by much. Trying to mine gold here is like hitting the haystack with a hammer until the needle just flies out of it.
Better still are the employment contracts. In Peru, they don't have particularly sophisticated legislation in that area, so the miners work according to the traditional oral contract of cachorreo, probably Spanish for "bend over." Under cachorreo, everything you mine for 30 days is the property of the company. Then comes payday. The only catch is that you have to dig your paycheck out of the mine with your bare hands. That's right, on day 31, whatever you dig up is yours. Sometimes you actually find some gold, but more often than not you go home to the wife--and that hole you dug that is your toilet--empty handed. And then you still have to go out with your chisel and attack wildlife for your dinner. But shit, you earned that barrow full of rocks.
#2. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Where is it?
Quick, you've got three million people who need a home and some kind of gainful employment, where is the best place to set them up? If you said "on an active volcano" then you're either an idiot, or you're from Yogyakarta.
"Honey, I'm home!"
Java is an island and 120 million Javanese people live on, or within instant obliteration distance from active volcanoes. Perhaps the most brazen are the citizens of Yogyakarta, the province around Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, and maybe the most fucking terrifying thing that God permits to exist on Earth. The Javanese call it the Fire Mountain. We call it Sir.
Yogyakarta is an unusual place because, while it's part of the Indonesian Republic, it's still its own little kingdom with its very own Sultan. For complicated political reasons, the Indonesian government agreed to let Yogyakarta keep its traditional Hindu monarchy. We like to think they just took one look at that goddamn volcano on which the people willingly lived and bid them good day. The people of Yogyakarta are mostly hard-working villagers who deal with the day to day stresses of family, farm life, and a giant volcano that regularly explodes and kills everyone.
Business as usual.
Mount Merapi can, at any moment, dump out a shitload of ash, fart out a cloud of searing hot poison gas, or it can fall back on that faithful but reliable trope, lava. All three have impressive body counts to their names, and all three hate you, personally. Oh, and the eruptions are usually followed by devastating earthquakes, like the one that demolished much of Yogyakarta in 2006. Oh, and tsunamis. Man, fuck you, Merapi.
Ironically, the mountain is the reason the Javanese stay. The traditional Hindu villagers worship Mt Merapi as a god, and what it taketh away with one hand, it giveth with the other. It turns out that the bullshit that the volcanoes spew over Java is also the best fertiliser in the world. The farming on Java is out of this world, and it's thanks to the incredible bounty of the people of Yogyakarta and other regions that Indonesia flourishes. The Javans actually look down on the neighboring island of Borneo, where farming is poor thanks to their one pitiful volcano that hasn't even killed anyone lately.
#1. San Pedro De Atacama, Chile
Where is it?
Here in our comfortable Western niche, we tend to take certain luxury items for granted. Water, for instance. It's something that organisms need for biological function. It seems not everybody got that memo, which is why some adventurous people decided to set up a town in the middle of the Atacama desert in Chile, the one place in the world where it never rains, ever. And that's not an exaggeration. An unusual combination of pressure systems and geological features makes cloud formation over the Atacama desert literally impossible. Some eggheads have done the math to confirm it. It's just not going to happen, ever.
The Atacama desert is actually where NASA conducts its test-runs for sending machines to Mars. The locations are virtually identical. There's no moisture and no life. If you die in the Atacama, you don't even rot. Scientists have found bodies, thousands of years old, that look as fresh as the day they keeled over. This is it. This is literally the most inhospitable place on the surface of the Earth. There are microbes in the calderas of volcanos, but there isn't a single one here.
There is, however, San Pedro de Atacama, tourist mecca of Northern Chile!
So happy! But so thirsty!
Life isn't very breezy in San Pedro. They do get their water somewhere, obviously, but the thing about Atacama water is, well, it's basically arsenic. Just another one of nature's cruel jokes, what little water there is to be found is naturally laced with up to 60 times the fatal dose of this poison. The locals just shrug their shoulders, though. It's okay - they're fucking immune. After centuries of living in the Atacama wasteland, the residents of this dustbowl nightmare have actually built up a tolerance to arsenic that makes them a medical oddity. In recent years, they've built filtration plants so that visitors can actually survive their vacation.
Oh, you didn't think people would vacation here? Well, as it turns out, the majority of San Pedro's real money comes from tourism. For some fucking reason.
If you look to your left, folks, you'll see... well...
Around 40,000 people venture into this town every year just to see the closest thing to the surface of the moon that can be found on Earth. There is so much tourism that the conservative residents have had to crack down on revellers - they have ordinances banning both binge drinking and "nocturnal dancing." Okay.
It's not Cancun. But you have to give some credit to a people who can take miles of literally nothing and turn that into a tourist empire.
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For more places to avoid visiting, check out Fun Size Countries: The Insane Histories of the World's 6 Tiniest Nations. Or find out about some some cultures you should be glad you didn't grow up in, in The 5 Most Terrifying Rites of Manhood from Around the World.
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