On Thursday, our 6th day in Colombia, we got up early with the intention of managing the drive from Muzo to Chivor in a single day. According to my GPS, the trip was about seven hours long with good road conditions for at least the first five hours. The locals in Muzo had given us some suggestions about which roads were best for the first part of the drive and I adjusted my map accordingly. Filled with a solid breakfast of coffee, tamales made of cornmeal, egg, and chicken, and some arepas with cherry jam (my personal twist on what’s otherwise a salty breakfast) we headed off, in good spirits that we would reach Chivor in the late afternoon.
I should have known better from my experience driving off road in Tanzania and Madagascar! We hadn’t left Muzo for more than 10 minutes when we saw the familiar sign of trouble ahead: a construction worker with a little flag and a handwritten sign that translated as ‘deviation,’ gesturing us toward a gravel road. Deviations in less populated countries, unfortunately, are never a short thing. They aren't really deviations at all, they are simply a different path to the next town, and in this case, a path that didn’t exist according to my GPS. As soon as we turned, the latter went into a downward spiral pointing in any direction and constantly asking us to turn around. I shut the GPS down. We forged on for an hour, asking along the way if we were still in the direction of the next town we hoped to get to, and eventually reached another paved road. Precious time lost…
After another hour or more we reached the highlands of Boyaca, a region that reminded me of the Austrian alps without the sharp mountaintops dappling the horizon. There were lakes, hills, and large green meadows with cows feasting on juicy grasses that their American counterparts would dream of if they could.
The Highlands of Boyaca
Eventually we turned off the paved road again. This time the GPS was working, the bright happy voice announcing that we only had four hours left to go. After another hour of bumpy road, we heard a thump under the left tire. After that, a rattling every time we hit a bump. The rattling grew more and more insistent. The GPS announced that it was seven more miles to the nearest highway with a gas station. Six miles, five miles. “We can walk that if need be,” we mused.
But our Tiguan rattled on, the last bit of the road was downhill, and we made it to the service station. Jochen’s Spanish, together with his pointing gestures, sufficed to indicate the area where the rattling occurred but it wasn’t enough to pinpoint the problem. So they went for a drive around the block and I went for a cup of coffee and fresh baked rolls filled with guava jam.
The news wasn’t too bad. We had a screw loose. “I know that,” I joked. Who else would go for this type of adventure but a bunch of crazies? Fortunately this loose screw was more easily fixed. The screw was part of the shock system and just had to be tightened. $10 and an hour later, we were back on the road.
By about 5 p.m., we had reached the town of Guateque, which was a 90 minute drive from Chivor according to the not always reliable but insistent voice in my phone (she never sounds unsure, does she?). The voices in my head, meanwhile, said that we best stop here for the night. My argument? It gets dark around 6:30 p.m. in Colombia during the summer (and the winter, too, since it’s close to the equator), and off road driving in the dark is even less fun than during the day. Plus Guateque is a fairly large town with 10,000 inhabitants, whereas Chivor, with just under 2,000 inhabitants, was at best going to have one hotel, or rather, by my estimation, one place to stay overnight for hire. “Hotel” in my view is overshooting it a little bit. According to my maps, there were supposed to be some places to stay as well, though the booking site showed only two and they were full. Well, we had to stop and ask in any case.
Guateque in Boyaca
Jochen, all gung ho to see more rocks, wanted to forge on. Klaus was being diplomatically silent in the back seat. “Too many cooks” was all he ventured to say as Jochen and I went back and forth. All the while Jochen drove on. This was not to last long, however. The debate got cut short as we got stuck in a construction traffic jam right outside of town. After 10 minutes in the same spot, Klaus finally weighed in. “Let’s turn around,” he said. Jochen caved – though I knew he was not happy.
At the next gas station, I got out of the car to ask for a hotel. Jochen, still grumpy, eventually came out to help. After the gas station attendant gave us an initial up and down, he decided to direct us to the “Hotel Grand Central.” That sounded just fine to me! We found the Hotel Grand Central in a small side street, the rooms small but clean. We got rooms with a nice view of the town and the mountain range just beyond it; and the shower had a hot water heater installed! We also found a supermarket where we got our tomatoes and some guavas, a shop that had wine for yours truly, and a chicken barbeque place for dinner. We sat for a while at the Piazza Grande overlooking City Hall and a small park, where Jochen had a couple of nice cool local beers and calmed down.
Hotel Grand Central
The next morning we made our second attempt to reach Chivor, a supposed 90 minute drive from Guateque with some traffic due to road construction. The first half hour went fine, then we had to turn onto a gravel road once again. And this road deteriorated quickly. The narrow winding path was full of mud and previous truck traffic had turned the regular tire tread marks into deep gashes. The mountain rain, heavy at times, didn’t help. We nearly got stuck more than once. And as we got closer to Chivor, the tire pressure began to deteriorate. Clearly we had a slow leak somewhere. But it held. A few more turns and we finally saw the town of Chivor across the hill in the rainy mist.
Driving to Chivor
Chivor in the Mists
With our slowly deflating tire, we just made it to the main town square, and parked in front of a building labeled “Hotel El Klein” – Fritz Klein, more of him later, was the re-discoverer of the emerald mines in Chivor. The location had been unknown for a few hundred years after the Spanish had abandoned it in the 1600s. Once we reached the steps of the place that was to house us for the coming two nights and turned around, we saw that the front tire had now deflated completely. We decided to leave it for now. In small towns like this, it’s pretty easy to get a tire fixed, and not uncommon either.
Car Trouble Again
Hotel El Klein
We greeted the young woman at the counter inside and asked her for rooms. She, too, recognized Jochen from the year before, as he had sat in her restaurant buying emeralds the previous November. She showed us her two best rooms, which even had bathrooms. The roof was leaky, there was no hot water, the beds small and soft, the paint was peeling off, but having had a hot shower just that morning, I again decided to yield to fate. I certainly didn’t feel like getting back on the road. (Chivor has another place to stay, Hostel Anni, but I can’t tell you how that is; we never went inside).
Cold Showers Only
After dragging our suitcases upstairs, we sat down at the small restaurant, ordered café con leche and waited. The young woman turned out to be the co-owner of the hotel & her husband was working at the mines. She showed me her small collection of emeralds her husband had found, all faceted.
Emerald Bought in Chivor
I was stunned. Never before had I seen such color. The pieces were more blueish than I am used to, and cleaner. A super bright cool neon color, typical of emeralds, yet somehow different. I told Jochen, and he explained that indeed, the Chivor emeralds had a unique color. He translated the differences I perceived to the young woman so she could appreciate my observations. As I was to find out later, most of this material does not come to the United States. The few foreigners interested in buying emeralds that show up in Chivor on occasion are usually Chinese, and even in Bogota, the material from Chivor is more often bought by the Chinese. The public, in my limited experience, does not usually ask if an emerald is from Muzo or Chivor, or anywhere else in Colombia. The selling point is that the emerald is Colombian, and that is all a lab can say as well, because the precise and numerous scans needed to make such fine grained comparisons are usually lacking.
Chivor Emerald Rough
I immediately bought the three pieces that were presented to me and asked for more. But after counting out my pesos, I saw a small problem ensuing. Not enough cash. Was there a bank? Yes, but it didn’t give out cash or exchange dollars. A bank machine? Yes, but it was usually broken. Luckily the bank that owned the machine was open, and the manager helpful. After about a half hour, the machine yielded cash, 400,000 pesos per draw (about $130). Between Jochen, Klaus and myself, I think we just about emptied it out for the weekend.
Meanwhile, the pace at which we were shown materials was slow. People trickled in one or two at a time. I saw a few more pieces and negotiated hard for them. I also bought some rough, mostly for the fun of it. At dinner – which consisted in a type of beef stew and arepas – the husband greeted us, brought more buddies with stuff, and over beer Jochen and Klaus found out that in recent weeks there had not been much production. In the evening, the shop owner from next door – a stout 40-something named Don Hugo, came over to offer us a tour of the mines for the next day. “Absolutely,” we said. Don Hugo took a (very steep) 50% advance of $100 US from each of us, but also offered to fix the tire and provide us with a miner’s style lunch at the end of the tour which he said would take most of the day and involve a trip inside an actual working mine.
As promised Don Hugo met us the next morning at 8:30 a.m. in a more suitable four-wheel drive (a Toyota), and we started up a dirt road once more. After a half hour drive, we stopped on a hill that was, according to emerald lore, the first spot where Fritz Klein rediscovered the mine back in 1911. Originally worked by an indigenous tribe called the “Chibcha”, the Spanish worked the mine from 1537 and abandoned it in 1675 due to mismanagement.
Fritz Klein, so the story goes, was obsessed with emeralds and traveled through Bolivia and other places before he eventually located old maps and stories that led him to this region, guided by the Chibcha. The stories had described a particular view from the mountain ridge, and “all” Klein had to do was find exactly that spot – Somondoco, it was called by the locals. In the 1920s, the town “Chivor” built up below it on the hillside. With the help of the Chibcha, Fritz Klein hollowed out soft wooded trees to build water pipes, running water down the hill so he could rid it of bush and debris. He then built terraces onto the mountainside, mining there for several years. The mountain ridge is now called “Banco Klein” but not many people in Chivor know the history of the name any more.
On top of Banco Klein
After our initial introduction to the region, we headed to one of the mines that is actively producing. The Don Pedro mine belongs to the community but we were told that the financial backing comes from other Colombians. From what I was able to gather, production in the area is very intermittent but was ok in the last two years. The community keeps 50-60% of the proceeds, the rest goes to the investors. In the shaft we were about to explore, about 20 kilos of emerald were found in the last two years, employing roughly 100 people. The quality is varying, ranging from terrible looking, unusable morsels to very fine quality rough.
Before we could get into the actual mine, we were equipped with hard hats and high rubber boots, both of which we very much needed as I was about to discover. I must have bumped my head more than a dozen times during the course of our visit. These mines were not excavated for tall people like me, and you often don’t know what’s behind you when you bend down and get up again. Water drips from the ceiling in many places, turning the ground wet and muddy.
San Pedro Mine
After slipping and sliding down a large gravel hillside, we finally got to the unassuming looking entrance, leading 600 meters, or 1800 feet, into the dark and unlit mountain. The morning shift had just ended and the workers were breaking for lunch. Equipped with strong torches and of course, my cell phone flashlight, we headed in, accompanied by another miner who could explain things. For the first few hundred feet the temperatures were comfortable, similar to the outside: about 65 degrees. But once the natural ventilation ended and we got to where air was pumped in through 6-8 inch wide plastic hoses, it quickly got very hot and humid. I’d say the temperature shifted by nearly 30 degrees Fahrenheit within just 5 minutes.
We continued sloshing through the mud between the narrow walls. It smelled humid and a little smoky from recently used explosives. The miner occasionally used his hammer to poke the wall to show us the soft clay in which the emeralds are found. From what he said, this mountain ridge is where two faults are crossing and there’s a lot of tectonic plate movement. The emeralds are trapped where the faults meet. Suddenly there was a fairly loud “boom” in the distance and my heart nearly stopped. “Oh, those are just explosives in a nearby tunnel” we were told. “Yes, it’s totally safe.”
Inside San Pedro
Jochen, Don Hugo and a Mine Worker
My only response: “do we turn around now?” Nah, of course not. My “boys” were far too excited. So we trekked on and I took video. We finally got to a freshly opened side tunnel called a “stope” – strongly smelling of fresh explosives. Klaus started to pick on the wall with his hammer and the clay easily came off. He pulled together a small heap which our guide shoveled into a net like bag to be sifted through, thank God, outside!
If we found anything, we were told, we could keep it. After a total of about an hour in the tunnel, we headed back. About a hundred feet before we reached the entrance, we were asked to stop and rest to acclimate to the outside temperature. Then, sunshine. Finally.
Once outside our netted bag was washed in the river and we picked through it. We found some morsels of emerald, but not much. Our guide was probably relieved because pockets are not opened every day, and tourists are rare, so the two coinciding and yielding a discovery would have ended in some debate over who gets to really keep it at that point.
We Found a Tiny Emerald
After we got back to town we got our promised local miner’s lunch: Chicken, beef, potato, rice, egg, cheese, plantains, beans and yuca all cooked together in banana leaves to make a giant tamale type thing, keeping it hot and moist. It was delicious. Dessert consisted of a soft cheese type substance, sliced and drizzled with honey (it’s called “cuajada con miel”). Plus fresh guava juice, all very very tasty. I probably shouldn't have eaten it all but I reasoned that the recently experienced fear must have cost me some calories.
And Miner's Breakfast. See the Beer in His Hand?
There were sad good-byes the next morning, and many hugs from the hotel owners, I think they hadn’t made this much money in some time. We promised to be back. When, I have no idea of course, but I really hope it happens!