The El Dorado Trail
|Paul is a geologist and engineer and publishes this newspaper. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org|
At 5:15 the grey of dawn illuminated the Río Tigre from the bridge that we coursed across, and I looked upriver across decades of history, nervous at the day’s challenge. We were set to cross the peninsula by horseback and foot from Dos Brazos to Carate in a single day. People have done this in both directions for at least 90 years, since gold’s discovery on Madrigal Beach in the 1920’s, mostly on foot all the way. I had made the hike twice, once in 1985 in the opposite direction with traveling pal Dan Troop (RIP) and again in 2011 with my son Aladdin and Office Manager Katiana Becerra. But there’s no cartilage left in my right knee, and it’s bone on bone down there, my variant of a mid-life crisis. At 54, my turn at the Bataan Death March should by all rights be over with. Yet a High School pal from my Bolivia days was visiting, and brother Karl—the Tico Times travel editor—was here for the occasion. Murphy opted to stay home with AC and CNN to watch the capuchins traipse around my second floor landing and lounge at the pool. But his wife and daughter and Karl and I were headed off for the Osa hinterland for adventure and derring-do, and a little old knee problem was not going to intrude upon that.
The Rio Tigre is the peninsula’s largest river. It was the richest river during the heyday of the 80’s gold rush, when an estimated 5000 kilograms were mined from the Osa. The Carate River was neck and neck in production of the precious metal, but the Tigre ruled. Today we would hike both rivers and across the peninsular spine that divides their watersheds, and in the grey light of dawn I knew that if I were to lose my knee in the middle of it, I would have to crawl or roll down the other side of the divide or be hauled out Don-Quixote style like a sack of potatoes over a mule on this side. I kept my trepidation to myself. Some things you just do because you have to, and this was not one of them. It was only twelve miles through the jungle with lovely La Leona Lodge our reward at the end of our day. What could possibly go wrong?
Don Gerardo was fifteen minutes late with the horses, and we geared up. I was waiting to see one of the women strap on a camelback, but none appeared. They and brother Karl had their space-aged hiking shoes, and jungle-rated garments, zip-away pants and stuff made of lycra, space-aged things like that. I’m old school, rubber boots and knee-high soccer socks—two pairs in lieu of Dr. Scholl’s—and my Orvis fly-fishing field vest, all its nifty pockets stuffed with the tools of my trade: GPS, altimeter, knife, lighter, cell phone, zip loc bags, machete sheathed to my back, a few meters of rope, pack lunch, two liters of water, and cash money.
The wrangler gave the feisty stallion to Mia, the 20-something daughter. As the, ahem, weightiest of the party, I was given the strongest horse, and Karl the crazy one that liked to run. Our horses were both gelded males, and Mia’s ride’s biggest ambition seemed to be to get close enough to one or the other of our two to start biting. Don Gerardo, a Tico of about my age assigned a mare to Momma Bear Cindy and rode one himself. He surely smirked a bit at all the biting and potential rearing of one or the other of the two gringos’ horses, and off we went, crossing the Piedras Blancas left fork of the Rio Tigre before turning up into the highlands on the two-track that rises through the forest and wends along a ridgeline to cross the spine and come down as a semi-intact road way over yonder in Rio Oro. It was a beautiful summer day and by eight o’clock as we admired the stunning Golfo Dulce with a toucan piping in its comments, everything seemed perfect, the passage pleasant and breezy under the dappled light beneath the canopy. We saw birds and monkeys and ate water apples and admired the forest and four hours in reached the turnoff that took us back down into the Piedras Blancas valley where we detoured to go visit the Villalobos farm. On outfitted expeditions trekkers that do the first stretch on foot up the river valley rather than by horse along the ridge line spend the night in a rancho set up there, and I had not seen these accommodations yet, so I detoured us in for a bit of due diligence.
Not trusting completely my own powers of navigation, I had insisted Don Gerardo walk us beyond where the horses could no longer go to the Carate trailhead. But Henry Villalobos was in camp, and he agreed to join us and show the way. His uncle gave us a tour of the facilities, and I appraised the Spartan camp. There was an outhouse, a cook-spot, covered camping area, and piped-in water. What more could a prospective Mendocino Valley hiker ask for? Wireless Internet?
The Piedras Blancas is a beautiful river. It bounds Corcovado National Park for a couple miles and has shallow relief and a broad floodplain. It is laden with gold and lies at the heart of this peninsula’s storied relationship with the troublesome metal, featuring prominently in two published novels, the mainstream Goldwalker by the American author Scott Anderson, published in 1989, and the ribald and defamatory Oro (1987), banned in Costa Rica, penned by the Moroccan-born French-Albanian-Greek raconteur Cizia Zyke (RIP). Bottom line, the Piedras Blancas is the gold super-highway of the forest of this extraordinary peninsula, the route that has historically connected the gold fields of Carate and Madrigal (before Corcovado’s formation) to the “civilized” side of the peninsula, where Port Jim lords over the famously fjordic Golfo Dulce.
And sure enough, we happened across rock curtains lining the channel that were the tell-tale signs of active workings. We walked up shortly afterwards on a trio of hand miners huddled in the channel. I knew Robito from my Terrapin Lodge days in Carate, and shook hands, greeting a taciturn young man and the wild-card of the group front and center, a man of about my age, neither of whom I had met. They were shirtless and sockless in rubber boots and eased up from their labor upon our improbable approach.
“Pictures are ten rojos apiece,” joked the garrulous one. “Maybe you’d like to buy some gold.”
“He’s Panamanian,” the dour young man was quick to make clear.
“Chiricano,” the old man boasted, pouring out his take into the gold pan and dipping it into the water to swirl it around and present it to us for our ogling admiration.
“Looks like a half a gram,” I peered in.
“Half a gram,” smirked the Pana. “That’s a gram and a half if I’m a day over 35 years old! Twenty rojos per gram,” he beamed.
“I can buy it in town for fifteen,” I said. “I’ll give you twelve and save you the trip!”
That settled him down a notch, and we talked a spell about the latest news, the cocaine plane with the drowned Mexican pilot that had crashed the day before off Pejeperrito Lagoon and the million Euros and 600 kilos of cocaine confiscated by the fuzz in town the day before. Their news was from AM radio and less titillating than mine, and we chatted it up. I handed out a few rojos to each, and we pushed on.
Henry turned into tour guide and suffered Mia’s mild flirtation gamely, pointing out trees by their names and the spider monkeys that he heard up in some tree off the trail that he stalked to point out and then bask in the spate of picture taking. He singled out a giant black hawk perched stilly in a Ceibo that surely predated Vasco da Gama, and we all watched as it spread its wings inside the canopy and listened to the strokes of air as it flew upriver to play hell on an inattentive guatuso or a sloth moving around too fast or some other ready-to-eat meal in Paradise.
I asked him about the Gringo that went missing in these parts a couple years earlier, and he said it was from this trail that he had gone missing. It would turn out just a month later that we were in fact within 500 meters at that moment from where the young Alaskan’s skeletal remains would finally be found beneath a fallen tree.
I laid fifteen rojos on him and we parted ways at the trailhead. “From here no hay perdida?” I made sure.
“Just follow the trail,” he grinned.
My knee was solid, and I was comforted from my memory that it was just a short hike uphill to the ridgeline, and we reached the peninsular divide a half hour later to collapse in a heap and pull out our water bottles and and settled into the rustling leaves to explore with our plastic spoons the contents of our “box lunch,” breakfast to me.
“It’s all downhill from here,” I pronounced post-repast, shuffling back into my vest and knee brace and sheathing my mighty rula.
I led off all alpha, moving fast, but it’s a steep slope and even with my staff, I reined it in after a few hundred meters for the old knee’s sake and let the kids take the lead and took it one step at a time pretty gingerly and felt the descent’s pain every other footstep all the way down, taking it in through gritted teeth as the endorphins started scrambling around inside of me. It’s downhill steep for a good twenty minutes until you hit the Luna Lodge stream. I was ten minutes behind the scrum and found them all sprawled out on the rocks beside Lana’s hydro intake and waded into the water to splash myself and dip my head and shake the water from my imaginary locks and drink water and enumerate the deficiencies of the intake when Karl suddenly realized that he had been here before, to this precise spot in fact, only from the opposite direction, a marvelous epiphany for those that ever experience such an unusual thing. He did a story on Luna Lodge for the Tico Times a few months earlier, and this was as far as he’d ventured on the lodge trails.
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The trail down to the Carate River was like an escalator, all easy walking, the snakes all banished to the sides, a great tended trail beneath the canopy, and we broke onto the Carate floodplain twenty minutes later where I examined the pelton wheel and turbine manifold. Fifty percent under-utilized, I estimated, but the tailrace water pounding me on the head and shoulders on the sun-splashed river bar was hard to not love.
The bouldered Carate River channel is tough walking and treacherous since you’re already tired. The rocks can be slippery, and you have to go from boulder to boulder to gravel bar to river channel to boulder and back again and struggle with yourself—if you care—over whether it is worth the effort to try to keep your feet dry. We made it down to the road and then to Carate by 2:30. The Pulperia was closed, Daisy in town, Glenn off penancing in San Jose, our valiant party denied our warranted cold drinks, so we drank from our warming bottles instead, and we hit the beach and trudged the sand for the 3 km hike to La Leona, drifting up onto the trail for the last half.
I was not yet to the trembling point, but still pretty whipped when we stumbled into the mecca before us, swaying palms and a churning surf, offshore breeze, immaculate tents on platforms and then reception and our watermelon fresco welcome drink. After re-hydrating après-douche with a few ice-cold barley-pops and a superlative supper, the breezy sleep beneath the clarion of crashing waves brought transcendental dreams, and at six I strayed out for coffee, surprised to find my knee working just fine, not even hardly sore, strong even, at least for the arthritic wreck that it was.
On the walk back, we passed guiding luminaries Rodolfo, Oscar Cortes, and Poro Poro leading tours in. Our driver Alvaro was waiting for us beyond the pipa stand, and we dropped in on on Ave Azul de Osa at Agua Buena on the ride back for a stunning side-trip into avian infinity and stopped at Upper Matapalo to chat up lovely MA at her roadside coffee stand and suffered stops in Carbonera and Tamales to tick off the remaining two monkey species (howler and squirrel) that we had not yet viewed, a tiger heron, and a giant tree with twenty or more scarlet macaws before landing back in Port Jim to decamp to showers and nap alcoves before scouting out the next day’s adventure.
Corcovado National Park is a de rigeur Osa highlight, its Sirena wildlife viewing somewhere north of world class. But for those that have hiked it a time or two and for those that don’t apply early enough to land permits, there are many trails that criss-cross the peninsula beneath the canopy, and you can’t go wrong with good outfitting to set off on any one of them, and the El Dorado Trail is at the top of the list. Check in with any of the local guides or tour outfitters to learn your options.
But if you have a bum knee, you sign on at your own peril.