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Photo story: Wild corners of Costa Rica

Macaws squawk and monkeys chatter on a hike through the Osa Peninsula — a wild corner of the country where a longstanding tradition of gold panning still shimmers in the rich and verdant landscape.

photographs by Pete Goding
Published 22 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
A local treks with a donkey
A local treks with a donkey.
Photograph by Pete Goding

Squirrel monkeys begin bouncing through the air over our heads, playfully sparring with one another. These friendly faced creatures are the smallest and most sprightly of the four species of primates found in Costa Rica — but also the most endangered. Meanwhile, on terra firma, silvery rivers glisten in the midday sunlight, snaking west to the Pacific Ocean, where the all-important mangrove swamps provide rich ecosystems as fresh water meets the sea. 

View from above.
Photograph by Pete Goding
Squirrel monkey.
Photograph by Pete Goding

There’s a long tradition of panning for gold in the Osa Peninsula, and I find myself ankle-deep in a river with Juan from Caminos de Osa — an organisation that helps arrange tours that not only protect the area’s natural resources, but also benefits local people by creating tourism in the national reserves. He demonstrates how to pan, shovelling earth from the riverbank and washing it through a long metal chute. Equipment is rudimentary; the process has hardly changed in the past few decades.

Panning for gold.
Photograph by Pete Goding
Washing the earth through a metal chute.
Photograph by Pete Goding

The remaining small stones and sediment are transferred into the more recognisable bowl-shaped pan, which Juan swirls hypnotically, the water dancing around the hand-beaten aluminium dish as he does so. There’s a definite technique to panning: slowly removing the lighter gravel to leave the denser material at the base. Back at the ranch, he brings out some artefacts he found while mining — his favourite being a small, indigenous whistle — and a little tub of sparkling gold dust.

Small stones and sediment.
Photograph by Pete Goding

In Rio Tigre, an old gold mining town, ex-miners Wilbert and Giovanni take five. The pair argue it isn’t the small-scale panning or hunting that tips the ecosystems off balance in this rich, diverse wilderness; it’s when multinational corporations are brought in, flattening the forests and ‘jet washing’ the hills away using chemicals. But Wilbert’s view of the panning lifestyle is pretty simple: “You get the gold and then you party!” 

Ex-miners Wilbert and Giovanni.
Photograph by Pete Goding

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller 2018

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