Return to Emerald City: A Tale of Two Mountains
I really longed to go to Colombia again, even though I didn’t have a pressing reason to spend any more money on gems! But when my travel buddy Jochen asked me to come along on another adventure into the lush and rugged mountains of Muzo to hunt for emerald crystals, how could I say no? Getting up with the sunrise at 6 a.m., taking a cold shower, off roading on dirt roads of slithery shale to slalom down a steep mountainside in an SUV made for city driving, getting caught in the thick fog of the Muzo hills? Count me in.
The Boyaca mountains to the north of Bogota, its highlands and valleys, its endless green, the butterflies and low lying rivers and waterfalls are captivating even if one has never heard of an emerald. However, the history of the indigenous to those lands, the Muzo and Muisca Indians, know of little else. Their history has been intertwined with this green stone, a stone that is borne of the tears of the Gods, for over a thousand years.
According to the legend of the Muisca and Muzo, their creater god Are made Fura and Tena, Male and Female, the first beings. He threw them into the river to come to life, then granted them eternal youth. They had a son Itoko - the Itoko River, which separates Fura and Tena, is named after him. They also founded many generations of the Muzo and lived in happiness for hundreds of years.
There was one condition to their everlasting youth, however. Fura and Tena could not commit adultery. Centuries went by but then a stranger showed up in search of a rare and mysterious flower. Fura offered to help this stranger, Zarbi. Fura and Zarbi eventually fell in love. One day, Fura noticed she had grey threads of hair, and then she knew that she and Tena had lost their eternal lives. Tena found out by following Fura, he confronted Zarbi, but rather than hurting him, Tena stabbed himself to death in front of Fura. Fura realized her mistake and turned to Tena full of sorrow but Tena was dying. Fura held him and cried for eight days. Each of her tears was turned into an emerald. Zarbi pled for forgiveness with Are but Are turned Fura and Tena into rocks, forever separated by the river Itoko and forever facing one another.
Contrary to this rather sad story, the Muzo region actually bustles with life and there is quite a bit of money in the region (though a foreigner might not see this or know where it is). Everyone in Muzo is involved in the emerald trade or in supporting it. The same is true of towns near the other mining areas, like Santa Barbara near Cosquez and Chivor near the Chivor mine. Muzo can only be reached via stretches of dirt road (some is paved, some is not). The road is partly made of shale which is slippery as soap when it gets wet and frequently washes away. And yet, it is here where you find the largest Colombian emerald mining company, Mineria Texas Colombia (surrounded by wire fences and armed soldiers), as well as many other independently or collectively owned mines like La Pita, down to individual pits and indigenous peoples washing their river, rivera Minero, for emeralds.
The Muzo and the Muisca have inhabited the region for over two thousand years. Both were conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors but the Muzo, a warrior tribe, resisted an additional twenty years by retreating and fighting in the mountains. They were mining emeralds for over 500 years before the Spanish came, and they helped them mine emeralds during the occupation. When Colombia gained its independence in 1810, they regained control of the region and they are involved in every part of the trade. They mine independently, they own claims, they facet and sell to Bogota (or work for someone in the facet trade), or they are employed by one of the larger mining companies in some shape or form. We saw a group having dinner in the “restaurant”- kitchen we were in, wearing overalls with the mining company’s name. Men, and women, by the way.
The Muzo and Muisca also sell rough or collectors’ crystals, as we got to experience in Chalatta, a kind of town/trading post 15 minutes from Santa Barbara. Getting there was Jochen’s goal of the trip out of Bogota, where most of my own buying occurs. Because he collects crystals and "gangas," the local term for emeralds in host rock, he has the most luck buying on location. He wants the stuff exactly as it came out of the ground so that’s what you have to get close to.
Because I asked for some slightly less rugged lodging conditions, we approached our goal from the town of Otanche, which is north of Santa Barbara and accessible via a paved road. We stayed in a rather decent tiny hostel, essentially occupying the top floor rooms which had bathrooms within, a kitchen, and seating area as well as a huge outdoor terrace overlooking the valley. The water was still cold but not icy, as it’s collected on the roof with a cistern. The nights were balmy, we just left the doors to the rooms open into the living area to catch the breeze. That’s how safe we felt there! Breakfast was made for us (eggs, a bun, rice, soup with potato, and a chicken wing), for dinner we went around the block to the “restaurant” cucina for whatever they had that day. It was usually the same as lunch – the Indigenes do not eat as late as we do. Light is expensive. We would have pounded pork chop or chicken or beef (usually very tough beef) with yucca or fries or potatoes, or rice or plantains and perhaps a wee bit of a salad – literally a half tomato and three slices of onion. One evening I asked for three salads (for $50 cents each). And when you are there with company, people share as did we and our hosts.
Yes, we did have hosts, of sorts. We had met Don Honorio and his sister Lucila, respective husbands, wives, children, cousins etc. on our previous journey to Muzo. They acted as our brokers, taking us everywhere and helping us negotiate, translate, making sure we were fed, didn’t get lost etc., for the 2 days we were in Muzo last Fall. It is an implicit and worldwide understanding of sorts. You come, you don’t know stuff, you want to buy, someone offers to be your point person. They take 5%, on average, they don’t interfere with the trade, you have to know your stuff or you lose out. They guide you, or parade you as might like, but they will be your person for everything you need, including staying with them if necessary. You will not want for anything (you may be asked to pay or share the small and honest bill though). They drive with you everywhere and make sure you find the hotel at night. They also won’t let you out of their sight because of the commission. If they don’t attend the deal then they don’t get a share. But if you have separate connections and meetings then you say you do and that’s that.
We arrived late in the day but our hosts met us (coming from Muzo, a 60-90 minute dirt road drive) promptly at 7.a.m. They had first dibs to show us stuff of course, which they had collected in the month since we told them of our arrival. They came with two cars, lots of people, and I almost thought our hostel owners were gonna freak but apparently there was nothing even remotely unique about what they were doing. People don’t come to Otanche for sightseeing. Then we all drove to Santa Barbara for more trade, then Chalatta, then back at 3 in the afternoon, starved. The next day, more trading in Muzo and a private and guided tour of the emerald museum in Muzo (imagine something like the smallest kind of museum possible, and you are about there). Dinner in the market place, with fresh sausage and chicken, rice, plantains, yucca, you get the idea. If, like me, you really like vegetables, this is not the place for you. Apparently, not even beans are a very common food in these parts. Nor is it ideal if you think of a hot shower as an integral part of your day.
Back in the womb of the king suite of the 5 Star Hotel della Opera in Bogota, I pampered myself with a hot bath, a more European-Colombian vegetable laden dinner, and I was ready for my tiny bit of shopping. I had prepared very quickly before the trip, but I was sure to contact the three parties I had previously done some business with. Before we left for Muzo from Bogota, I had already picked several stones that interested me, but I had these pre-certified at the local lab before even committing to a purchase. I paid the lab fees up front with no request for return, simply for my own peace of mind (each report was $20). Upon returning from Muzo, I made my buying decisions for three larger stones, two to three medium and a small lot of fancy cuts. Prices were up 20% from last fall, mainly due to fuel and supply shortages, and therefore lack of production. Also, in Chivor there have not been any bigger finds in some time (I believe it’s probably been a few years but I didn’t ask). Maybe they lost track of the vein due to a fault, I don’t know for sure. It can take time, even if the gems are there.
Anyway, there was no reason I could think of for prices to come down anytime in the next few years, so I bought what I liked that pre certified correctly, and that I thought was affordable. Two come directly through my contacts with the la Pita mine, and another is sourced from my Chivor connection, and was from a little bit of an older find, not a resale but within personal ownership of producers in Chivor. I also got some lovely trapiches. The owner of one of the shops we had worked with before (who, paradoxically also exhibits in Tucson but charges more in wholesale than I do in retail), had a vast collection of them – apparently, he was just a real fan.
Trapiches come from Muzo, not Chivor, and they cannot be found anywhere else in the world - they are a very unusual phenomenon, and form part of the unique people connected to these gems for far longer than the present-day Americas ever existed.
Here are some of the treasures I brought back with me from Colombia, currently listed in the shop (click the photos for direct links to purchase)