I ended up in Costa Rica first time round because to ship the pick-up truck from Panama to Colombia and continue the New York to Tierra del Fuego jaunt involved dry heat, delays, expense, innumerable bribes or chorizos, and a high risk of petty crime. After six months on the road, and having had most possessions already stolen by 15 year-old crackheads in Belize while interviewing the Minister of Tourism for a travel feature), I didn’t fancy it, and staying put seemed a better option than going on. Most foreigners land here as tourists, a smattering still as hoteliers and retirees, but the first wave of visitors to Costa Rica came in search of gold.
It must have been frustrating for Spanish conquistadores, who saw plenty of gold dangling from the various body parts of indigenous indians, but struggled to find the source despite wooing and / or killing many of the tribal leaders. Still, they saw enough to keep trying, and wrote boastfully and optimistically about the wealth of gold here in order to secure the money they needed for further expeditions to find it.
(Having said that, there’s a description in the 16th century ‘Tree-Dwelling Indians of the Lowlands of Panama’ that makes it all sound really easy. Court correspondent, De Bry, describes how two courageous noblemen sent by Columbus on a reconnaissance trip into the interior had come across seven rivers: “In the sands of these rivers gold was found, which the Indians, who acted as their escort, proceeded in their presence to collect in the following manner: they dug a hole in the sand about the depth of an arm, merely scooping the sand out of this trough with the right and left hands. They extracted the grains of gold, which they afterwards presented to the Spaniards. Some declared they saw grains as big as peas. I have seen with my own eyes a shapeless ingot similar to a round river stone, which was . . . afterwards brought to Spain; it weighed nine ounces.”)
Costa Rica is named for the rich coast that Christopher Columbus described during his voyage down the Atlantic coast of Central America (1502-1504), although in fact gold hunters would have been better off on the Pacific coast, and specifically here in the Osa where pre-Colombian figures buried by the Diquis Indians have been dug up from time to time, and where the discovery of high quality gold around what is now Sirena Ranger Station sparked a gold rush in the early 1930s.
From time to time the Americans got involved, setting up a massive dredging operation off the coast of Carate in the 1940s, and later dragging heavy machinery into the jungle to work the rivers, but most of the mining and sifting was done – and is done – in laboriously low-tech fashion by oreros holed up in rough – rough – riverbank camps in the mountainous jungle. When United Fruit pulled out leaving huge unemployment locally, the number of miners on the Osa swelled to at least 3000. A few struck lucky, but most were subsistence goldminers, spending their days in icy rivers, their nights on mud under plastic sheeting, and, every few weeks, blowing whatever they’d found on guaro, rice, beans and prostitutes in Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe and the other hubs of Osa civilisation. Don Jorge’s Las Vegas bar in Sierpe took gold dust for beer until fairly recently, and there are places that still do.
From time to time they were joined by foreign adventurers like the French, Greek, Moroccan, Albanian Cizia Zykë, a foul yet charismatic – or maybe that’s psychopathic – chancer who wrote a repellant and riveting page-turner ‘Oro’ about his gold-mining fiasco here in the 70s.
Zyke, a former Foreign Legionnaire, gathered a motley crew of losers and fugitives, and spent a couple of years blasting, rock shifting and panning in rivers, snorting coke, drinking guaro and dragging under-age girls into the undergrowth. Throughout his life he carved himself a number of careers, running a night club in Buenos Aires, working as an interior decorator in Ecuador, racketeering in Toronto, setting up a floating casino in French Guyana and doing something in the Sahara – and there are plenty in Costa Rica with a similar CV, but gold miner team management wasn’t his forte and eventually his men hated him sufficiently to turn him into the authorities on drug trafficking, counterfeiting and intimidation charges. He escaped to Panama while awaiting trial and became a bestselling author before dying in France, aged 62, a couple of years ago.
Like many miners, he was camping in what is now the Corcovado National Park, and the government felt that mining and the stuff that goes with it in these parts – the river pollution, the tunnelling, the hunting and trapping, the gun-toting and the anaesthetising drugs and alcohol use, didn’t belong in an ‘ecotouristic’ experience. Since the founding of the park in 1978 there has been a (mainly steady) tussle between miners and park authorities. Initially there was a big effort to relocate them, and even some help to get ex-miners into tourism, with funding for tourist accommodation at Dos Brazos for example, but it all feels a bit fake and forced, and there are still many indigent miners in the park sifting for grains of gold in a low-key, old-style way. There’s a sporadic attempt to track them down (my neighbour, Carmen, still quivers when she remembers how armed rangers with flashlights surrounded the house thinking she was harbouring one), but it takes a lot of energy, cash and manpower and the penalties are feeble – for example, four miners caught a couple of months ago got imprisoned for three months each and are bound to go back.
This forest swallows up a lot of non-pristine activity. People live here, and not everyone wants to be a waiter; they hunt and farm, and fish and mine, just as they always have – and a lot of them like doing it because they get to live on a remote mountain surrounded by la naturaleza. Environmental conservation and the expectations of your average foreign ecotourist are tricky concepts for an uneducated miner living in a remote shack to grasp. They don’t care. Given there is little gold left, leaving them to it and investing the policing money into a more achievable goal might be the best course of action. What do I know.
Weirdly though, these illegal, untraceable goldminers are becoming one of the park’s tourist attractions, with an increasing number of guides and tour operators offering visitors, tired of monkeys and macaws, a chance to pay $50 for a hike uphill for a few hours and look at one. Oh, look! Poor people. That really is odd on many different levels.
Incidentally, there’s a great (old) post on Mark Meadow’s blog on ecotourists, goldminers, illegal activities, a night at a goldminer’s camp (not part of an organised tour), and he also mentions the next classic-by-a-foreigner-prospecting-for-gold-in-the-depths-of-the-Osa on my reading list: Goldwalker by Patrick Jay O’Connell (sadly not currently stocked in Fitz’s library).