The ugliest city in Peru

Called the Opulent City in the 19th century, Cerro’s historic district is now dilapidated.
Photos: Cerro de Pasco.

The curse of a mining city

“Welcome to the highest city in the world,” boasts an entrance sign at Cerro de Pasco, just Cerro for locals. Well, it’s almost the highest. Another Peruvian mining town, La Rinconada, is considered number one at 5,100 meters (16,732 feet), but Cerro is way up there at 4,338 meters (14,232 feet). And Cerro de Pasco is a developed city — if haphazardly so — with a population of 70,000 people, founded in the 16th century by Spaniards.

Silver, copper, lead and zinc are what attracts that many people to such an unforgiving climate. By the mid-1800s the city produced one-third of Peru’s silver, had a dozen vice-consuls from Europe and the Americas, and was dubbed “The Opulent City of Pasco.”

My following two days in Cerro could be highlighted for the lack of opulence, a cruel reality for a city sitting on rich minerals.

Off the bus I pulled the act of clueless traveler pretending to belong: Walk brusquely past taxi drivers and unsavory-looking bus station characters as if running late for your 7 a.m. Saturday appointment in Cerro. I had forgotten the Lonely Planet guide and had only the name of a hotel, so walked up to a hot drink seller. He scraped the white from an Aloe cactus and beat it into a glass of steaming liquid while bantering amicably about the drink’s good properties for altitude sickness, or memory (I was light-headed and don’t remember). His smiling daughter looked on with red, chapped cheeks. I struggled to force down half of the bitter, snot-like drink, and the man pointed me along to the hotel.

Cerro’s gaping hole

In the early 1900s gringo geologists saw potential for copper in Cerro, and the subsequently formed Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation acquired most area mines and began the open-air pit that’s now encroaching on the city. The current owners of the mine, Volcan, plan to dig out minerals under the Cerro’s old district, and the government and Volcan has an ambitious project to relocate the entire city. In 2009, the $322 million project was put on hold, in part because a disagreement on how to foot the bill.

The Raul Rojas pit, about one-quarter of a mile deep, has become Cerro de Pasco’s signature.

I hired a taxi to find a good vantage point for the pit, called El Tajo Raul Rojas, named after a miner killed during a strike. In 2008 the mine was measured at 380 meters deep, 1.9 km long and 1.6 km wide (almost a quarter mile deep, 1.2 miles long and a mile wide). A wall littered with political graffiti hides the pit from pedestrians. Dilapidated historic houses with once-noble balconies stand nearby.

Mission accomplished, and it was only 9 a.m. I saw the famous pit, the anti-tourist attraction, and a 360-view of the ugly city of Cerro, which looked ruggedly pleasant in the oblique morning sun.

Fortunately, one hour from Cerro, there’s a real tourist attraction, the Rock Forest of Huayllay.

Peru’s Rock Forest

The cobra formation at Huayllay.
Photos: Rock Forest of Huayllay.

“It’s like being on another planet,” said Felipe, a philosophy student from Lima who hiked around the rock forest with friends. Huayllay (pronounced why-yaee) seems untouched by the tourism industry. A collective taxi from Cerro dropped me off at a visitors hut, where I gave a park ranger two soles to enter and wandered the forest for several hours.

Thousands of craggy formations pop up from moss so delicate that I sometimes tiptoed around, trying to avoid making footprints. On that vacation weekend, groups of visitors and a few rock climbers joined Huayllay’s roaming llamas.

See slide show of the Rock Forest of Huayllay.

The forest is at altitude, 4,200 meters, which helps for the other-worldly feel. A slight headache crept up on me as I wheezed up inclines. I found a spectacular vista next to the cobra formation, but never found the two most famous formations, one resembling an elephant, the other a grazing alpaca. Ominous clouds formed towards late afternoon, and I managed to hitchhike to the nearby mining town as a frigid rain began, where I caught a collective taxi back to Cerro.

A grim mining city

I stayed at Hostal Santa Rosa, located off Cerro’s main square, easily identified by a giant statue of pioneering doctor Daniel Alcides Carrión holding a large syringe. Santa Rosa has rooms for 20 soles that smell like lead paint but offer the essential for Cerro’s nights: layers of heavy blankets.

Lucy the receptionist became my friend for the weekend, if somewhat reluctantly. In her free time Lucy knit a sweater for her little son, who was living with aunts outside the city. Which is good for his health: A study in Cerro done by the U.S. Center for Disease Control showed that 9 of every ten children have high levels of heavy metals in their bodies, like arsenic and lead. I asked Lucy if the pollution and mining spurred protests. “Sometimes,” she said, “but since a lot of people work in that, what can we do?”

Walking the streets, Cerro was grim, mostly reflected by residents themselves. There were few smiles on the street, young men milled about the plaza. Street stands showed locally produced DVDs, morally didactic, depicting miners abusing alcohol and their wives.

An Easter parade danced through the doctor-with-syringe square at night, cheering the town atmosphere a bit. Back in the hostel, Lucy offered me a “chola” to keep me warm in bed. I agreed, a bit amused, chola being Peruvian slang for girl. She showed up at my door with a rubber hot water bladder. The chola didn’t help the strong altitude sickness that came during the night. I slept fitfully through headaches and gasped like a landed fish for most the night, accompanied by vivid dreams.

Sunday was uneventful. The altitude sickness subsided over a morning coffee at a bakery. I received strange looks when walking around a market, watched parts of Ben Hur with Lucy and a young couple from Lima, and downloaded photos at cyber cafes full of boys battling each other via online games.

That night, the bus to Lima was broken down; the Limeño couple and I walked back to Hostal Santa Rosa. One more night of altitude sickness in the city formerly-known as Opulent Cityof Pasco, which, if the government and Volcan figure things out, may be disappeared by the ever monstrous Raul Rojas pit.