Gold. The Aztecs killed for it. The Inca enslaved whole populations for it. Spain sent legions of marauding conquistadors up and down the Americas in a hallucinatory hunt, believing that gold was so abundant that chieftains rolled in it, washing away the glittering residue in their daily morning swims.Down the centuries, the quest for El Dorado has held the South American continent in thrall, luring generations of fortune hunters to its far reaches, from first-century warlords to 21st-century adventurers.Nowhere has Peru's frenzy for gold been so fevered as in the mountains that surround Lake Titicaca. And nowhere has that fever been so intemperate as in a town tucked into a glacial aerie: La Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world.It is a destination for only the most valiant. Clinging to the peak of Mount Ananea, with a cowl of glacier overhead, La Rinconada boasts few tourists, no hotel and no sights to speak of. For the 50,000 souls who brave the subzero cold to pick rock on those hoary heights, there is no sewage system, no water, no paved roads, no sanitation whatsoever. It is a wilderness of ice, rock and gold, perched more than 18,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes.Beside the gaping mine shafts that scar the mountain's face are huts of tin, built at capricious and precarious angles, with nothing to keep out the glacial wind but improvised sheets of metal; nothing to generate warmth but fetid heaps of garbage. The only convenience here is electricity, brought in by overlords so that the machinery can grind and shuttle-cars can rumble through the mountain's black veins. At night, La Rinconada glitters like a cruel oasis.Make no mistake: This is a trip for the armchair only. As Dante might say, let me guide you through a fascinating circle of hell.The journey inI would not have gone up to the peak the locals call "la Bella Durmiente" -- Sleeping Beauty -- had I not been accompanied by a team of professionals from CARE. I traveled there to write a script for Girl Rising, a film directed by Richard Robbins and produced by the Documentary Group.It is about girls who live in desperately hard places, about how educating them could change their families, their communities and possibly the world. In the course of my journey, I had every expectation that I would find hunger and hardship. What I had not expected was to find beauty in ugliness -- to see, as a mountain shaman might put it, the sacred in the profane.Being a native of Lima, I knew what every schoolchild knows, that although Peru is small, it encompasses a mountain, jungle, desert, marshland, archipelago, coastline, often in dramatic contiguity. Fly over Peru, and Mount Huascaran's majestic peak seems to hover over the foliage of the Amazon jungle; the green cliffs of Miraflores are just down the coast from the sands of Chan Chan.But riding in a truck from Puno to the little village of Putina -- circling the northernmost bend of Lake Titicaca -- I almost convinced myself that this trip would continue its happy, paved course into the horizon. The roads were good, the views of the so-called "highest navigable lake in the world" breathtaking, and at almost 13,000 feet, there was no malaise that cups of coca tea couldn't cure.Within a half-hour of leaving Putina, however, the road had become dirt, rock, soon frozen mud, and my crew was being pitched about, as it would be for two more hours of a difficult journey. The Altiplano, a high mesa only slightly lower than the Tibetan plateau, stretched before us, stippled with rough grass and stone. Trees were scarce, thatched huts more so, and the odd flowers -- bright orange cantutas -- had brought a herd of startled alpaca onto that frigid January plain.Before long, as broad swaths of arid plain gave way to scarred earth, we could see why La Rinconada is only rarely visited by government poobahs. The air at 18,000 feet is stiflingly thin, the cold excruciating. Now and then, ramshackle trucks and vans rattled past, carrying miners and their families, stopping on the roadside to catch their breath, chew coca leaf and leave offerings to the earth goddess, Pachamama, to whom altars had been erected along the way. All about, for as far as the eye could see, was a crazed landscape. What was once a region of sparkling lakes, leaping fish and grassland is now a barren world that beggars the imagination.What you see as Mount Ananea looms into view is a lunar landscape, pitted with orange lakes that reek of cyanide. The odor is staggering; it is the putrid stench of chemicals, of rot, of human excrement. Even a whipping wind cannot sweep away the stink.As you ascend toward the great white cap of Sleeping Beauty, all you see is garbage, a choking ruin, and ghostly shadows picking through it. Gigantic trucks shove at the earth. Whole families wade out into the toxic pools, fishing for gold. Along the perilously winding road that climbs to the summit, flocks of women in wide skirts scramble up cliffs, carrying heavy bags of ore, hoping to pound a fleck of gold from the waste that has spilled from the mine shafts; children stagger beside them, shouldering burdens of their own.With so much poverty about, it is hard to believe that Sleeping Beauty harbors riches, that gold ripped from her entrails will glitter on Cartier and Tiffany counters around the world. But history books tell us that Mount Ananea has been offering up gold since the days of the Inca. According to travelers' journals, a block the size of a horse's head and weighing more than 100 pounds was pulled free in the 1500s and sent to the Spanish king. The region's rivers were said to be strewn with glittering nuggets.Although the king's mines collapsed in the 1700s under the weight of the glacier and were abandoned for 200 years, interest in Ananea was rekindled in the 1960s, when teams of European and Japanese mountaineers scaled the stretch known as the Cordillera Real. Hordes of village boys followed, building huts, bringing families. With little more than small picks and big dreams, some defied the odds and struck gold. Today, there are just enough stories of random fortune to keep their children here.Labor's rewardPeru is booming these days. Its restaurants are full; its cuisine has become all the rage. Cusco and Machu Picchu are world-class destinations. Peru's economy boasts one of the highest growth rates in the world.Peru is one of the world's leading producers of silver and one of Latin America's most exuberant founts of precious metals. It is an energetic producer of natural gas. It is one of the top five harvesters of fish on the planet. Its premier fashion photographer is the darling of Vogue. Walk Lima's streets and you can't fail to see the evidence of progress: Here is a country alive with investment and tourism, a hive of construction, home to a robust middle class.But it is gold that has brought multinational companies to the highlands of Puno, many of them installing sturdy, viable operations that promise to lift rural communities out of poverty.All the same, the wheels of progress that have sped Peru toward economic success have yet to climb the pestilential road to La Rinconada. There, every miner is on his own, every woman and child who accompanies him a hostage to fickle fortune.Gold no longer rolls from the mountain in chunks the size of a man's head (if it ever did). But the present generation of miners has found that a manic pounding of rock can produce miracles. In 2011, 150 tons of gold were harvested in Peru, worth $6.8 billion. In order to produce it, almost 5 million tons of rock were knocked free and ground down.In La Rinconada, the ore that harbors those precious flecks is washed in ponds of cyanide, pounded with mercury in giant mortars of stone and burned clean in ovens that send mercury fumes coiling up onto the glacier's snows. The work outdoors is often done by women and children. The work in the damp, freezing shafts is done by men. At the end of the process, a miner working under the cachorreo system -- a man who labors for 30 days gets paid on the 31st day in the form of whatever rock he can carry -- may walk away with a nugget worth $40. His neighbor, on the other hand, may be rich.One thing is sure: Every year, less and less is harvested from Sleeping Beauty. There is only so much gold on this planet. For all the masks of Tutankhamun, for all the bling and glitter of Fifth Avenue, the total amount of gold that humans have been able to pull from rock is a mere 170,000 metric tons, barely enough to fill two Olympic swimming pools. More than half of it has been mined in the past 50 years.Squalor and beautyWandering the ice-mud streets of La Rinconada, with its drunks and fetor and HIV-infected sexual slaves, one can't help but hope that this gold town's days are numbered. The population that lives below -- that has inhabited the shores of Lake Titicaca for centuries -- made that hope known last year in a protest against all mining operations that didn't take into consideration the health and welfare of the locals.Even so, with all the antipathy a traveler might summon for a place so willfully despoiled, I found myself standing beside the road a good distance from La Rinconada, looking back at that promontory in wonder. With all my senses jangled, with the altitude making my every step as labored as an astronaut's, I was filled with awe.Like the Ancient Mariner, who stared at the leaden sea and its hideous slime and eventually beheld a rare, soul-lifting beauty, I suddenly saw the tin rooftops gleam like a mantle of diamonds. As the sun moved over the snow, the ravished mountain seemed to ripple with ribbons of color. In that happy trance, I recalled the kindness of a widow who offered me the shelter of her hut and a gourd of hot soup. I remembered the fiery spirit of Senna, a 14-year-old girl who could recite a string of verses by the great poet Vallejo. I heard the laughter of a child in yellow, who danced in a noonday cantina, emptied of drunks and prostitutes.Even here, on this plundered peak, there are fleeting moments of joy.