Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

Adventures in Emerald City, Part II (Muzo, Cosquez, Guataque & Chivor)

So here we were, the three of us, in the dark in a small foreign town, just following two total strangers into their shop, who are then joined by two additional strangers along the way.  No one spoke English. After we entered, the owners locked up the shop after us.  For a brief moment there, we all had this ominous feeling: did I make the wrong choice?  The locals offered us chairs and we all sat down.  Then they proceeded to show us lots of gemmy crystals in host rock, and the trading began.  Jochen made some slightly higher introductory offers and bought a few pieces.  The situation began to lighten up.  This was just a regular sales meeting after all, despite the slightly mysterious context.  Jochen then told our temporary hosts that he wanted to go to the town of Cosquez but didn’t know where the trading took place.  Our hosts offered to take us.  We agreed. 

We then all had pleasant dinner together at a small local arepas place, and we paid for the food as an opening gesture in return for their hospitality.  They accepted with thanks but offered to pay for breakfast the next day.  They then brought us some local scarves that would identify us as in the industry and as buyers, and requested that we wear those the next day.  Oh, and they drove ahead of us the way back to the hotel up the hill (I wondered at the time if they wanted to verify our whereabouts…).  This turned out to be helpful though, as we might have gotten lost in the dim street lights of Muzo.

Early Morning Departure from Muzo


Promptly at 5:30 in the morning, I got my wakeup text from Lucila, the female shop owner. I woke up a very groggy Diana not used to early morning travel, and at 6:00 we were – more or less – ready to roll.  Lucila, and who turned out to be her brother Jose, showed up in their 4 wheel drive together with their two companions (one of whom might have been Lucila’s husband but you know I never did ask…).  Jose joined us in our vehicle so he could chat with us, and together we drove for what I’d say was about 1.5 hours on dirt roads to a very small town (a strip of a few houses really) to have breakfast.  The restaurant, or rather, the tiny kitchen with a few outdoor chairs, was already expecting us, and we were offered sopa with chicken and yukka, maduros, rice and smoked beef (delicious).  The freshly made hot sauce took Diana’s speech away for a few minutes, but generally, on these trips we all thoroughly enjoy a hearty and spicy breakfast, and lots of coffee too.  It was arranged that we’d be back for lunch at the same place at around 2 p.m. on the way home  - to have fish grilled in banana leaves, chicken, and okra cooked in scrambled eggs.

Sopa with Pork for Breakfast


It was not far of a drive from the breakfast place until we reached another small gathering of buildings.  “This is it,” we were told - the Cosquez trading post.  There were some covered areas with plastic chairs and tables, a sort of counter with coffee and offerings of some chilled beverages.  This is pretty standard in tropical areas that experience a lot of rain.  Life takes place outdoors, during daylight, with the covered areas protecting you from the elements.  We ordered some café con leche and Coke™ and sat down with our new “family.” The latter had (obviously) called ahead and within minutes, we were surrounded by sellers with "gangas" (minerals in host rock).  There were no gems for me here as cutting takes place in Muzo, Chivor, Bogota or the nearby town.  So I just got to watch and have fun.  

Trading Post Near Muzo


Offers were made quickly and under the eyes of a couple of dozen locals.  Jochen rejected some of them, accepted others, made jokes; the local chatter being interrupted by silence as numbers were called out and the seller or Jochen were thinking and calculating.  Nobody wanted to miss a thing!  After about 2 hours the selling started to wind down.  This is typical as by then one has usually seen everything that’s on offer that week, or day, or month depending on what people have saved up at home.  

The Backstreets Between Muzo and Cosquez


Many of the local mines are owned by several people or groups, or a group and the town, or an investor and some locals.  Profits are usually shared in various percentages.  "Gangas" are often locally traded as they are not yet processed into gems or won’t ever be because they are too small or included.  But that makes it a heaven for collectors.  If one selects well, one can make good money in the trade.

Naturally, our “family” also collected a brokerage fee for each of the trades that Jochen made.  That was understood although neither side mentioned it – after all their services did not come free. Lucila and Jose were in many ways invaluable as we would never have found this place.  Initially their fee seemed high from what I could tell (about half).  Over time though, and as Jochen’s money dwindled and people still wanted to trade, the fee seemed to be shrinking into the acceptable territory of 20%.  Nonetheless for Lucila, Jose and crew, we were something of a jackpot, as you could almost say we fell out of the sky into their open but helpful arms.  By far most traders that come to Muzo are Colombian.


After the trading ended, we headed back for lunch.  During the lunch break there was a short but heavy downpour, and Jose got worried about the road conditions ahead.  He wanted one of his friends to drive instead of Jochen but Jochen is quite experience at this and refused.  Driving was indeed more treacherous as the black shale dirt is very loose and the road takes many turns along the steep mountainside – I had to close my eyes a few times.  Toward the end of the ride, Jose included a few more stops down unknown roads to see “relatives” who had more "gangas".  Each time our engine started, more people came running out of their houses, showing their "gangas" stored in towels, buckets and small pots to see if they’d fetch a few bucks. It was getting quite comical, but also quite late. 

We reached Muzo just before dark, and I was exhausted.  Lucila and Jose wanted to meet us again the next morning but we said “no.”  We really wanted a chance to explore on our own, without the brokerage fee and possibly getting cheaper deals, which meant going to the marketplace alone.  But Jose and Lucila were well aware of that.  We eventually agreed to meet in the afternoon and we spent the morning just sleeping in and working online. As agreed, the afternoon was spent with making more purchases in Jose’s office. Jose is a gem cutter, so I bought a few pieces from his shop, mostly Muzo crystal, which is lighter green emerald. 

The morning after that, we set off to the next leg of our trip, this time much earlier.  Back we went, initially 20 miles of hairpin curves on dirt road, then ascending from 800 to 3000 meters and going back down, across a bit of highway and then over the Bogota plateau to Guateque.  By then it was 4 p.m. and we decided to call it for the day, as the road to Chivor is also a dirt road alongside the mountain and those roads cannot be driven on after dark.  At El Gran Hotel Central in Guateque, we got two miniature style rooms but with a view AND with hot water. 

Diana Looking at Fossilzed Rock


We went out for dinner just before the restaurants closed at 5 p.m. - in some towns the restaurants close early to save electricity.  I don’t recall this being as much of an issue in 2019, so I am guessing that due to the lock downs there was a significant downturn in business. 


Guateque Boyaca Colombia


Diana vs. a Big Tamale


People in countries where not everyone can afford electricity spend their working lives between sunrise (6 am ish near the equator) and sundown (6 pm-ish).  Once you get used to it, it’s quite nice, as this is our natural pattern anyway and we produce sleep and wake hormones according to the light.  Workers get up before sunrise, may get to their job before breakfast, and break for a later breakfast and a late lunch, then for dinner it’s just a bit of bread and perhaps some cerveza (beer).  8 p.m. is bedtime. 

I can’t say that we ever really adjusted to this time table but we did our best.  In any case, we were up for a 7:30 breakfast in Guateque, with a view of the mountains to die for.  Huevos rancheros, a large corn tamale stuffed with all kinds of meats and egg, fresh guarana and mango juice (unsweetened), fruta, and fresh baked bread were the morning feast.  Plus hot cocoa and coffee!

Breakfast in Guateque
Tiny Market in Chivor

Right after breakfast, we set out for the 90 minute drive to Chivor.  The road took us along a recently paved road with many tunnels heading southwest, then south across the Chivor dam for which Jochen took the first measurements in the 1970s.  After another (very wet) and unpaved tunnel that opened to an amazing waterfall, we hit dirt road for the last hour or so.  It was a gorgeous drive.

Dam of Chivor
Waterfall Near Chivor


Hotel El Klein in Chivor (or the Lack Thereof)

We had tried to call ahead for a hotel in Chivor, a small town of perhaps 800 souls.  Although Google maps listed the hotel we used previously, Hotel el Klein, we couldn’t find a phone number for it that worked.  The hotel next to it which I had remembered was Hostal Anni never answered the phone.  Once we pulled into town, we realized why there was no number for El Klein.  It was gone, gone, the whole building razed to the ground.  It was unsurprising, really as it was half fallen in in 2019.

Hostal Anni was still there though, and they also had space for us; and, to our surprise, they had hot water heaters installed in the showers.  We were offered two rooms, one with an inside bathroom and three beds, which we turned into our dorm style bedroom, and an adjacent room which Jochen decided was the office.  That’s where he spread his goods from Muzo and took his measurements, photos, and made the listings in his Shopify when internet was speediest, at 4 a.m., while we slept.

Hostal Anni in Chivor

In Chivor, the experience we had in Muzo somewhat repeated itself.  We walked down the trading street (or just “the street”), and were quickly ushered into someone’s house for gangas and even a few small faceted emeralds.  We bought a few things but then quickly extracted ourselves and sat down in a café.  Soon, a few traders showed up.  Not that many though, not as many as in Muzo.  Over time I was shown some faceted pieces but at higher prices than I expected.  I did buy a small cab and the cutest little briolette from a cutter named Herman. 

We spent next morning having a hearty breakfast and making a few last minute deals.  The 4 ½ hour drive back that turned into 6 with traffic.  On the whole I found the traffic not as bad as in 2019 though, and of course the economic recovery is not like ours.

It did seem that many of the working people in Bogota seem to be immunized, and vaccines readily available at this point.  Mask rules are still strictly enforced, however, even outdoors.  Once, in Muzo, we were politely encouraged to please pull up our masks.  We hadn’t considered that many people there had not yet had the opportunity to be immunized and COVID testing was not as available. 

Back in Bogota we had just a couple of days left to rest up, finalize business.  We even used the hotel spa!  A connection we made in Muzo met us at our hotel in Bogota and I selected some amazing pieces, currently at GIA for batch testing the level of treatment.  We also met up again with Diana in the emerald shop.  This shop specialized in Chivor gems and they had sourced quite a collection of lovelies for me to go through.  My favorite purchase was a large, possibly no oil Chivor baguette that weighs four carats.  This gem is right now getting the full works at GIA.  And I bought another locally certified no oil emerald cut, also in the lab right now, from a vendor who also had some nice pieces in 2019.  It always makes me happy when I can strike up business as a repeat buyer.

And yes, of course. I will go back! 

Sundown in Bogota
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Colombia Part I. Bogota and Muzo

Colombia Part I. Bogota and Muzo

A lush countryside, a rich history of gold and conquest, delicate indiginous art, well-preserved ancient Spanish towns, and the lure of going treasure hunting for emeralds in Muzo and Chivor: who wouldn’t want to go to Colombia for all that? 

Boyaca Region Colombia

Looking for emeralds in Colombia had been a dream of mine for some years. But it didn’t become a reality until my travel buddy, Jochen Hintze from Jentsch Minerals did a scouting trip in November 2018, pronouncing it safe and accessible, all the way to the mining towns themselves. The guerrilla movement of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) which was responsible for the kidnappings, drug trading, as well as illegal mining for decades, had made a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2017, and had surrendered its weapons. Only a very small group is still active today. Pick pocketing is still a concern, as well as poor road conditions on the way to the mining locations, but I’m used to those things from elsewhere. 98% of roads in Africa are not paved, and in large cities like Nairobi you have to protect your belongings constantly.

So, on Saturday July 13th (yep), I took a direct flight with United Airlines to Bogota, where I was picked up by Jochen at the airport, together with his friend Klaus K., a burly 50 something private collector and seller, as well as a seasoned traveler of mining regions all over the world.  Between those two, I knew I would be safe and have fun on top of it.

Our hotel in Bogota, hotel Santa Marta, looked unassuming from the outside, but turned out to be a beautiful and recently renovated Hacienda style building, all rooms facing an inviting courtyard with comfortable tables and chairs, and lots of decorative plants. The rooms were small – so were all rooms in the hotels we stayed at, and there was little storage, but it was clean and safe, had nice bathrooms, comfortable beds and offered a solid breakfast (eggs, sausage, bread, pancakes, and local style breakfasts upon request). The cost: less than $50 a night for a room.

Hotel Santa Lucia

On our first day, Sunday, we decided to get acclimated with a visit to the museum Del Oro, the Gold museum of Bogota.  The museum is filled with thousands of indigenous gold artifacts collected since 1934. It was started by the bank of the Republic with the intent to preserve the gold art of Pre-Colombian times, dating back more than two thousand years. To the indigenous cultures, gold was a sacred metal, though it wasn’t perceived to have trade value until the Spanish conquest, during which much of it was melted down to make Spanish coin and fund Spanish wars. As we browsed through the floors filled with art ranging from the opulent to the extremely delicate, we got a glimpse of how rich the region’s history was before the Europeans arrived and wreaked havoc.

The gold museum is located just a block away from the Emerald Trading Center, a 3 story mall like building lined with shops and offices only selling emeralds in any form you can imagine: faceted and rough, trapiche, cabochons, crystals and specimens, emerald jewelry, and there are two gemstone laboratories as well. Of course we went to check it out right after the museum tour, but found it was only open on weekdays. We postponed for first thing Monday morning.

Treasures of the Gold Museum


We did, however, locate a smaller shop gallery across the street from the museum, filled with booths selling emeralds, jewelry, pottery and coffee, scarves, shoes bags and anything else a tourist could want. 

While Jochen and Klaus concentrated on the shops selling rough and crystals, I wandered through all the places that sold faceted gems. Most of the prices, it seemed to me, were too high, certainly for a wholesale buyer like me (though from the retail perspective, in my opinion, prices were quite good). As I found out later, the shops there mostly had items on commission, which accounted for the higher markups. One of the shops, however, seemed to have rather reasonable prices (as it turned out, their gems were mostly proprietary).

One of the sales people spoke a little English, so I started to peruse the gems while chatting with her about my trip. I pulled out my loupe and tweezer to signal some knowledge and they let me browse peacefully. The selection was small but well sorted and priced, so I bought a cabochon and a small but phenomenally clean pear shape to signal interest for further business. Meanwhile a family from Norway came in that didn’t know anything about emeralds, and I helped them select a piece that I felt was what they were looking for and made sure the price was good for them. Everyone was happy of course, including the shop owners. Another positive step toward trade, which was to become very useful in time.

.39 Carat super Clean Pear shape from Chivor

In the late afternoon we sat down to have a big steak, arepas (corn pancakes), salad and maduros (sweet plantanes, my favorite).  Bogota, as well as the rest of Colombia as far as I got to see, has amazingly tasty meat.  It tasted fresh and slightly gamey as it should when cows are raised outdoors as opposed to giant feed lots providing a diet with corn, hormones and antibiotics. Our plates were so large that we skipped dinner and spent the evening sipping beer in our hotel, making plans for the week.

Emerald Trading Center

Early Monday morning, and off to a fresh start, we went directly to the emerald trading center. The doors were protected by armored guards, and I was told not to take photos or video (I did anyway but very carefully). I perused the first floor but found it to be too expensive again. Instead, I went back to the same shop I had found the day before and bought two more emeralds there instead, chatting with the salesperson and absorbing knowledge. I told them we were going to visit Muzo and Chivor and asked their opinion.

Around lunchtime, we took the teleferico - the cable car - up to the local mountain called Montserrat, taking us from 2700 meters to an altitude of 3200 metres (9000 feet) and a beautiful view over all of Bogota.  We had lunch at an upscale restaurant, more steak of course, enjoyed the view and a home brewed beer. Before we knew it, it was past 3 p.m. and high time we got back to the hotel and check out.  We had reserved a 4 wheel drive at Europcar and needed to get to the airport before 4. Our intent was to make our way to Vila de Leiva to arrive there by around 7, have a nice dinner and enjoy a walk in the one of the most ancient Spanish towns in South America.


Teleferico going up to Montserrat

Views of Bogota

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, not exactly anyway.  We organized a cab driver to drive us to the hotel and then airport, but with three suitcases, a carry on and two backpacks, we didn’t fit until driver had to remove his mega size amplifier from the trunk (intended, we assume, to entertain several blocks with the music in his cab).  He left it in a parking lot across the hotel to pick it up later for a small tip.  It’s a curious thing, I think in the US that would not have worked, people fear it gets stolen or damaged, and parking garage attendants aren’t likely to want to store or take responsibility for large stereo equipment.

At Europcar we were given ample instructions on what not to do with the four wheel drive, instructions we mostly ignored, like not going off road and being careful and whatnot. Far too late in the day, we left for what we expected to be a three-hour drive according to my GPS.

And it might have been a three-hour drive, had my GPS not decided to stop collecting data at a crucial intersection, so we drove 30 miles too far north. With the help of an actual paper map that Jochen’s generation always has on hand, we located a different route. Located on the map, that is, we then had to locate same said route in the town of Tunja, which was another matter entirely. We discovered a few dead ends instead, and eventually stopped to ask at a gas station. A few wrong turns and several heated discussions later (“he said to turn here”, “no, that’s the wrong landmark,” “we are definitely not heading east”, “we should turn around”) we ended up on an unlit gravel road in the dark, which, in Europe or the US, would have led absolutely nowhere. But after several miles and a few very well hidden signs we did end up at our destination. It was 9:30 p.m..


Vila de Leyva

Vila de Leyva is absolutely worth the visit if you so happen to be in the neighborhood, it was built by the Spanish in 1580 but in contrast to European towns built around the same time, it is set up grid style, does not really have a fortifying wall except for a small moat, and has very wide streets.  As a European, I found the juxtaposition between a modern grid and wide roads with such ancient buildings quite extraordinary. The pavement and most of the buildings are original, only windows, doors and roofing being modernized. And of course, now that we are in the 21st century where there’s little of beauty left to be discovered, there were gift shops everywhere.


Piazza at Vila de Leyva

Unfortunately – at least for my taste in quiet and romantic old style towns – we arrived smack in the middle of a big festival. The central piazza was covered in booths offering anything from BBQ to hats and ponchos, and there was a stage with a band playing South American music. Fireworks began at 5 a.m. and woke us up, but when we finally got to have our only short daylight stroll at about 8 a.m. the town was fast asleep.  In another local hotel, I had a local milk soup with cheese and eggs and soaked bread. Jochen and Klaus were more adventurous.  They tasted horse steak in tomato sauce. It was pretty good actually, once I had sufficiently repressed my memory of one of my favorite childhood books: Black Beauty.


Caballo and Changua, Typical Breakfast Foods in This Region

Strengthened and ready for the next leg of our journey, we left for the bumpy ride to Muzo at 10 in the morning. Spurred on by a working GPS, we figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to get to Muzo. Thankfully the GPS decided to process data for the entire day or we would have never found it! 


Drive to Muzo

We drove down many single lane roads, the GPS would announce left, right, straight at nearly non-existent intersections of gravel roads suddenly turning paved then gravel again. For about four hours we were pretty much on dirt roads, ascending serpentines up to 3000 meters to highlands that vaguely reminded me of Bavaria, then descending again on more winding roads with sharp curves down to 800 metres with a view to of the river Rio Minero, the river in which the population of Muzo finds its emeralds. Meanwhile the vegetation changed slowly from lush and foggy meadows to thick and tropical. Colombia is the fifth highest country in biodiversity in the world, and we covered a good bit of that on our trip. 


Muzo, Colombia

Eventually, we saw the town of Muzo nestled between the mountains from afar. The GPS guided us straight to our hotel, Kalina Kampestre, named after a local vacation style that reminds of camping but without tents, in a very simple hotel with a pool instead. There was even a basic bar selling beer and water (the water in Colombia, for the most part, is not for human consumption); there was a grilling station where chicken and beef was roasting during the day, and the typical music blaring near the pool (we eventually asked politely to have it turned off as we appeared to be the only guests that night). The rooms were beyond simple. A bed, chair, no TV but a ventilator that we could put into the window, and a bathroom/shower, no showerhead, just a pipe sticking out of the wall with cold water only. Thankfully it was 90 degrees which was good for the shower, not so good for sleeping.

Hotel Kolina Kampestre

We had no time to waste and Jochen was eager to see green (rocks, not paper), so pretty much immediately after checking in, we drove downhill to the town square and sat at a lunch place that was a big open space, hoping for people to show up with gems.


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