CONTINUED FROM 'Portfolio' - 'Osa Peninsula - Costa Rica'
After saying my farewells to Freddy, I’m introduced to Juan – a golden example of this new initiative. He has an infectious smile and his gnarly look has all the hallmarks of a prospector from an old spaghetti western.
Only recently having abandoned the mining ways of his past, he’s set up Finca Las Minas
– an artisan gold mining experience. Juan demonstrates how to pan for gold, taking shovels of earth from the riverbank and washing it through a long metal chute.
We’re up to our ankles in the river as I begin question my choice of footwear – the standard jungle-wear here being a pair of rubber boots. Mine however, are a lovely pair of ergonomic, cushioned, breathable walking boots fit for all weather and all terrain. My naivety was all too apparent.
Once you have a damp pair of boots in the jungle, there’s very little chance of you finding a place for them to dry out it seems. I spend the remainder of my trip cursing my choice of footwear with every squelch.
The equipment used to mine the gold is rudimentary, with little change in the process over many decades of mining. Juan demonstrates the process. After the large rocks have been removed you’re left with small stones and sediment in the tray, which is transferred into the more recognisable silver bowl-shaped pan.
There is a technique to the panning, of slowly removing the lighter gravel and sediment to leave the denser metals at the base. It’s hypnotic the way Juan swirls the pan, watching the water dance around the hand beaten aluminium dish.
He waves a magnet over the final flecks to remove the iron to reveal the gold. It’s hard not to feel the excitement – my heart quickens as if I’d just backed a winning horse and I have a burning urge to go and dig for more!
Juan’s grin widens when the spoils of his labour are revealed… He swiftly sucks up the residue with a plastic container and we return to the ranch where his wife awaits, cooking up freshly made tortilla, obviously with obligatory side order of black beans, rice and Plantain.
Back at the ranch Juan brings out some favourite artefacts he found whilst mining and a small tub of gold dust. A small indigenous whistle is his prize find which he demonstrates in between regaling us with stories of his mining days. But spending time Juan is merely the beginning. My next stop is Rio Tigre, a town on the edge of the national Park where miners have lived for decades, and still do.
After my stay in the wonderful Danta Lodge – an independently owned, eccentrically decorated eco-lodge, I travel to Rio Tigre, an old gold mining town where I meet ex-miners, Wilbert and Pablo.
Now retired, Pablo sits on his porch with his shovel and pan lying at his feet, having seen the large mining corporations come and go through Rio Tigre over the many years he’s spent here. He finds it too difficult to mine now he’s 67. Pablo talks fondly of the day he found 80 grams in one day – market value at $30 per gram – not a bad haul he chuckles! Now, depending on the location you can come back with a gram or sometimes nothing at all.
It’s not exactly the safest form of work either. Wilbert, who could easily be mistaken for a cast member from Pirates of the Caribbean, had his leg crushed when one mine he was working in caved in.
There’s a little bit of discrepancy as to what is allowed and what isn’t. Inside the national park (where the gold is more abundant) it is definitely illegal to mine, but outside the park – which is where Wilbert has his mine — he finds the legality questionable.
Pablo and Wilbert argue that it isn’t the small scale panning or hunting that unbalances the ecosystems here it’s when the multinational corporations are brought in and literally jet wash the hills away using chemicals and flattening the forests.
Wilbert’s view of the panning lifestyle is pretty simple. “You get the gold and then you party!” he says.
I have visions of a group of pirates spending their bounty, drinking rum all day and night, and then, when the money runs out, picking up their shovel and returning to the forest. He says he has mellowed a little now and is embracing the Camino De Osa initiative to convert miners to tourism by setting up his own accommodation for travellers. For Wilbert, digging for gold is still fun though.
The other group keen on changing the culture of Rio Tigre are the rangers who patrol the national parks and demolish any mining camp they find, destroying the equipment to try to prevent further mining.
It doesn’t deter the hardcore of the miners with the benefits outweighing the negatives in their minds. Even my guide Giovanni – a second generation miner — talks of returning and his eyes begin to sparkle as he recalls his mining escapades deep in the jungle.
He’d camp out in the park – evading the rangers whilst he, his family and friends would dig for gold. “You forget about how tired or hungry you are, It’s like a drug,” he says. In truth, I’m finding it hard to argue after finding a few specs of gold with Juan.
We visit the local grocery store, where the owner Alberto shows me his electronic scales. Mining is so much a part of the local community that people will use the gold they’ve mined to buy their groceries. It’s a real economy here and not just put on for show.
My evening in Rio Tigre is spent in www.amazonitaecolodge.com
one of the many reasonably priced eco lodges in Costa Rica, and perched on a hill at the top of a long stone staircase enveloped by the jungle. I’m now getting accustomed to the sounds of the rainforest as my eyes close. The next thing I know it’s morning and I’m awoken by the sound of a woodpecker tapping.
My final day in was spent in the luxurious Lapa Rios in one of only 17 lodges nestled in the hills overlooking the ocean. The secluded accommodation with slightly unnerving outdoor shower — they had one indoors too for those reluctant to get that close to nature — has a terrace which looks down onto the waves lapping the coastline and has won awards for its Eco credentials. It is a perfect way to end the journey with a touch of luxury in a treasure-trove of a country, rich in nature and experience.