Costa Rica has its own gold-mining traditions

This is a 39.2 gram (1.4-ounce) Osa gold nugget 3.4 centimeters high (about 1.34 inches). Photo: Gene Warneke

César calls to me from my front gate and asks me if I’m buying gold today. I reply, “Si, claro, y el precio es más alto hoy.” I swiftly invite him in. César is stout at 5 foot, 4 inches with bulging glistening guaro eyes widely set on a robust sun-wrinkled face. He smiles easily and politely converses with me, inquiring about my health, my mare with her new filly and what the local gossip is.

César is an orero or gold miner. He lives on a remote mountain finca on the Río Barrigones near the tiny pueblo of San Miguel that has not even a mom and pop pulpería, just homesteads and a one-room school. To sell me small amounts of gold he’s panned from the river, he walks an hour downhill from his primitive shed-like home without electricity, municipal water, and no Internet or cell phone service. It’s his only source of income, but even with the price of gold so high now, he only makes barely enough to buy basic supplies and his precious guaro, the sugar cane liquor. After about a half hour, César says his goodbyes and benedictions, then disappears down my little gravel lane in calf-high rubber boots.

This is a way of live for hundreds of Tico campesinos in this area. Some are part-time oreros, others full-time, for gold has sustained them for generations. Most of them live in primitive conditions high in the jungled mountains of the Osa peninsula. Occasionally, they hunt protected game inside or outside the parks and reserves to add protein to their daily diet of gallo pinto, string beans, river shrimp and tropical fruits.

They spend hours each day bending over in the hot tropical sun swishing their pans for gold. Each has their favorite spot or spots and is close lipped as to where they pan. It’s not wise to approach them quietly along the rivers or to even ask them where they have their unofficial but protected claims. In fact, the Osa has a history of gold fever violence that continues even today, as evidenced HERE! on Page Two.

The peninsula, on the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica has a hot humid climate and contains the richest biodiversity in the whole of Central America, especially within its Parque Nacional Corcovado. Unbeknownst to most foreigners, it has been one of Costa Rica’s largest and most prolific gold bearing regions since the 1930s. Its placer gold, at 21 karats, ranks as some of the world’s most pure.

When it rains hard and long, the rainforest rivers rise quickly and tumble the gold down from a myriad of veins exposed high in the mountains of the parque nacional and adjacent reserves. When the rains stop and the river levels quickly fall, the Osa miners descend to the river banks to pan for newly deposited gold dust and nuggets. The prime gold-bearing rivers have the names Tigre, Rincon, Barrigones, Agujas, Riyito, Nuevo, Conte, Madrigal and Carate. They are short, cool, clear-running streams that cascade down from the mountainous backbone of the peninsula.

In Spanish, osa means “she bear,” but the peninsula’s name is from a source with a golden background. The original Osa was a nearby Diquis tribal chief, or cacique, who wore gold pendants and bracelets fabricated from the placer gold found in the rivers of his large tribal group. The homelands of his Diquis group were on the northeast side of Gulfo Dulce from the Osa Peninsula, but it was the rich rainforest covered peninsula that was given his name by the Spaniards.

Since Osa peninsula was such a remote and barely settled region of Costa Rica until recent times, non-natives didn’t discover gold nuggets until the 1930s. Much gold has been taken out by Ticos with dredges and shovels When Corcovado park was created in 1975, gold mining was declared illegal, and the rangers had to sometimes resort to weapons to drive the gold miners out. When the United Fruit Co. abandoned its banana plantations, many of its workers moved over to the Osa peninsula and took up gold mining both inside and outside of the park. Again, park rangers had a tough time getting them out of the park. Miners still sneak back into the park on a regular basis.

Local land owners talk about how U.S. troops occupied their fincas as a staging ground for the 1990 invasion of nearby Panama. The Ticos watched the Americans dredge the rivers for gold with heavy equipment. The river scars are still there. No one here knows who kept the gold.

*Besides being a former buyer and seller of gold, Warneke, a permanent resident, is a writer, editor and photographer mostly from California who has lived on the Osa peninsula for two years and in Costa Rica for six.

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