In Search of Gold
By Mike McDonald
Eduardo Castro descended down a soggy mountain trail, crossing rivers and wielding his trusty machete. Cling, cling, rang the blade. He slashed branches and shrubs, clearing the path and pressing on with a large, green tree leaf over his head to deflect the afternoon drizzle.
He arrived at a waterfall that cascaded down a cliff, about five meters high, and splashed through the small pool below.
“Don’t get water in your boots, that’s miserable,” he said.
The terrain is wet and slick and tall rubber boots offer the only protection from the damp elements.
Castro leapt off the dirt path and turned up the river. He stretched his legs and hopped from one rock to the next. Water rushed across his black boots up to his knees, just centimeters below the opening of the rubber waders where his legs fit in.
He stopped, opened his backpack and pulled out a round, silver pan.
“There used to be a lot of gold here, but the indigenous took a lot of it…at least the easy stuff,” he said.
Before the Osa Peninsula’s rivers and forest-covered mountains were hot tourist destinations, they belonged to the gold panners, who, for decades, traversed the slopes and built small shanties along riverbanks, living outside for weeks or months at a time, squatting in waterways and sifting through sand and rock in hopes of finding a piece of the world’s most precious metal.
The days of golf-ball sized nuggets in the Osa are gone and the limits of Corcovado National Park prohibit panners from working in territory that is thought to be full of gold. What’s more, foreign mining companies removed most of the gold from the river banks during the late 1980’s when they were granted concessions to work in the Osa.
Since then, most of the area’s individual panners have found jobs in the tourism industry, working in hotels or as tour guides. But a handful of oreros in the Osa still continue the arduous work. Some have dug long tunnels into riverbeds searching further into the earth for a piece of the shimmering rock.
“It’s a hard life, very hard,” Castro said.
Castro dug his shovel into the bank next to the river, pulling out a load of rock and dirt, and dumped it into his pan. He dipped the pan into the river, twisting it back and forth and trickling water over it, washing away the extra material.
With just a few grains of dirt left, he pulled the pan out of the water. Three tiny flakes glistened.
“Look, there is gold here.”
The light drizzle turned into a downpour and Castro packed his pan, grabbed his shovel and trudged up the river. He walked for about 15 minutes and arrived at an open-air shelter. A black plastic tarp was stretched across five tall logs and a clothes line strung from end to end.
Inside, two small dogs tied to a wooden bed communicated their intention to protect the shelter with sharp yelps and fierce eyes. A small balance scale used to weigh gold hung from the center of the tarp ceiling. Red and orange embers in a small fire burned on a tin table where pots, cups and cooking oil were stored. Beneath the table, large bushels of bananas lay on the ground.
“This is very typical of a gold panner,” Castro said of the camp, where his friend Nelson lives.
Castro held up a quart size plastic bottle with a hazy yellow liquid inside.
“Diesel mix,” he said. “They use this as bug repellent.”
It’s a rugged lifestyle by any definition, but during the gold bonanza days in the 70s and 80s, the Osa’s oreros lived well. A gold bank in Puerto Jiménez paid a premium for fine gold. Bars and convenience stores accepted the mineral like it was cash. Some oreros reported pulling up to 500 grams of gold per day out of the mountainsides and stories of finding a kilogram at a time were not unheard of.
Carlos Montero remembers the gold fever days. An orero for more than 30 years, he recalls when “all the rivers and all the mountainsides had gold all over the place.” Oreros traveled into town, partied and bought drinks at local bars as though the gold would never disappear.
But the fever has calmed.
Montero now works at Crocodile Bay fishing lodge in Puerto Jiménez. On Sundays, though, he travels north to Río Agujas where he has been digging a tunnel in search of gold for nearly three years. He treks along the river for several hours to reach the spot, but since he began tunneling, he has only found a few morsels – which sells for anywhere between $2 and $20 per gram depending on quality.
The gold bank has been gone for years and local shops require colones or dollars now. Oreros can still sell their gold in a few places around the Osa. At the Marisquería 2 in downtown Puerto Jiménez, a sign hangs outside; “We buy gold,” it reads. But inside the bar, the stock in the safe is a mere fraction of what it used to be.
The Osa has changed since the gold fever first gripped the peninsula nearly 40 years ago and many oreros have moved on, finding work elsewhere. Still, gold has carved out an important place in the Osa’s history. And for the few who are still willing to bare the wet and muddy conditions, that history is not yet complete.
“You almost don’t see oreros any more,” Montero said. “Before, gold used to be everywhere and everyone was searching for it. It was the main source of income for locals here. Now, you can count the number of oreros on your fingers, but they are still a symbol of the Osa.”
Osa’s oreros are a dying breed and the gold that remains is scarce - a few hand-fulls of small flakes tucked away in remote corners of the peninsula. But since the fever days, hotels have sprung up and gold panners have become the ideal candidates to take on roles such as tour guides through forests and parks thanks to their intimate relationship with the land.
A tourism school was established in Puerto Jiménez and locals turn to it to learn English and study the region’s natural wonders with hopes of leading hearty groups of tourists through the mountains where the legendary gold industry once thrived.
The Osa has traded it’s solid gold for green gold.
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- Driving time: 8 hours
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