“You’ve got to be patient and have faith”. – Juan Cubillo on mining for gold
I woke to the sounds of the jungle in my open-air cabin at Amazonita Lodge in Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre. I felt amazingly refreshed and quite invigorated for another adventurous day ahead in the Osa Peninsula. Our gracious host Zulay made us a wonderful Costa Rican breakfast in her house before we headed out for our next tour. The beauty of rural tourism is that besides the tours and sightseeing, you also receive an intimate experience with the local community. You are welcomed into their homes for conversation, friendship and delightful home-cooked meals. It truly is an incredible experience that you miss when simply staying at a regular hotel or doing mainstream tourism.
It was time for us to say our goodbye to our friends in Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre and head to a new rural community called Rancho Quemado which is the least-visited community in the Osa Peninsula. There we would meet Juan Cubillo and his family to learn about artisanal gold mining, a traditional way of life that is on its way out.
The drive to Rancho Quemado was about an hour and half northeast into the interior of the Osa Peninsula on bumpy roads. It was a beautiful drive through glorious lush countryside and rolling hills. We were surprised to see many dump trucks hauling debris and road work being done to repair the damage from the Hurricane Otto. Normally there are very few cars and rarely a truck on these remote dirt roads. However, two months after the storm hit there is still much clean-up to be done.
We arrived at Rancho Quemado around ten o’clock and of course it was already steaming hot. Juan and his lovely wife Rosa welcomed us into their home and farm at Finca Las Minas de Oro where they have lived for many years with their family of three children. We were one of Juan’s first customers for his newly launched gold mining tour, a way for him to provide income for his family without having to illegally mine for gold.
Rancho Quemado is a small, rural town of about 300 people and has its origin in gold mining. Two gold miners settled on the site of Finca las Minas de Oro in the early 1940s when they discovered gold within the neighboring creek. One day when they were out hunting, their house burned down hence the village was named Rancho Quemado which means “Burning Ranch”. As soon as word got out there was a sizable amount of gold in the area, people came from all over Costa Rica to find their fortune and pan for gold. Juan and Rosa also moved to the community searching for gold and a better life for their growing family. Juan has panned for gold for years however it is difficult, backbreaking work in high heat and humidity for upwards of 8-10 hours a day and it is also technically illegal. But like most people in rural communities throughout the Osa Peninsula, gold mining is their only source of income and until more sustainable jobs are available, mining will continue.
The government and other organizations are trying to change this reality by promoting rural, sustainable tourism. Two years ago, Juan and Rosa both received free training on hospitality, rural tourism and environmental conservation. They say the training has completely changed their perspective and ideology on life and the environment. Before, Rosa used to cut down all the beautiful bushes and flowers along the property because they were a hassle. However, now she lets them grow and flourish realizing how nature beautifies the property. Juan understands how mining damages the environment and his dream is to make gold mining a thing of the past. Instead, he wants to show tourists the tradition and history of panning for gold. All he needs is more customers.
A slideshow showing the property at Finca las Minas de Oro
Juan and Rosa’s hospitality training has truly paid off as they were incredibly warm and gracious hosts. While we were talking about the history of the farm, we received a welcome drink of sugarcane with lemongrass juice, the traditional drink for gold miners and their families as well as “Arepa Orera” (homemade sweet bread). Rosa told me that this is what gold mining families pack when they head out to mine for gold up in the mountains. It was sugary but hit the spot given the humidity.
Juan told us that the open-air dining area, kitchen and reception room was built a few years ago to help with their tourism project. It was a lovely space! Inside, he had some gold mining artifacts set up as well as an area where he would show me later how he weighs the gold.
After our introduction, it was time to fill up our water and head out into the hot, humid air to see a live demonstration of artisanal gold mining. Juan lead the way behind his property to the river where he mines for gold.
We walked about ten minutes through the creek until we reached the area where Juan does his mining demonstrations. On days when he has no tourists, here is where he mines for gold. He told me that some days he is out there for 8 hours and comes home with nothing. Yet other days he may discover $100 worth of gold which will help feed his family for a while. Although he has two sons, he does not want them to do this back-breaking hard labor and hopes they will find a better future.
Gold mining is hard work especially given the high heat, humidity and sun. I am sweltering hot just standing there watching Juan do the demonstration. Juan told me that the going rate for gold is $32 per gram. On good days he can find 20 grams and on bad days he finds nothing. When I asked him how he does it he confessed, “You’ve got to be patient and have faith”.
A slideshow demonstration of how to pan for gold.
It is a laborious process that doesn’t always pay off. While Juan mines for gold he tells me why it is harmful to the environment. In the rivers and creeks, mining removes rock which changes the direction of the water and also releases sediment. Miners also use chlorine that can kill the fish. Since many miners don’t have access to their own property to mine they have to go up into the jungle for a week at a time causing further damage to pristine, protected areas of wildlife and nature. While they are away mining for gold, they have to hunt for animals, killing protected and sometimes endangered species (hunting is also illegal in Costa Rica), they pollute the environment with garbage and human waste, and damage the environment. Unfortunately most of the community at Rancho Quemado still rely on mining and hunting for their livelihoods. However, the community is coming together to change this reality by promoting rural tourism. They realize they are sitting on a gold mine of beauty and they have a lot to offer potential tourists who want to explore something unique and beautiful besides Osa’s crown jewel Corcovado National Park.
After the demonstration, we headed back and Rosa had prepared an absolutely magnificent feast for lunch.
We finished lunch completely stuffed. It was the best meal I’d had the entire week in the Osa Peninsula. When I told Rosa, she beamed.
After lunch Juan showed me how he weighs the gold by hand. He still does it using his judgment. After so many years mining for gold, he is never wrong.
As we leave we snap a few more photos with Juan and I marvel at what an amazing experience it was to be welcomed right into Juan and Rosa’s life. I hope that more people find their way to Finca las Minas de Oro and that through tourism, people like Juan and Rosa can not only share their lives but have a better one for themselves.