“Magic Happens when you push back your fears”
Looking back, the scariest part of the Emerald tour to the mines was the drive. Five hours through windy one lane mountain roads, swerving around bridges on a cliff, navigating blind curves, it was breathtaking and terrifying at the same time.
They told me to rest but I could barely blink, I didn’t want to miss a second of uncharted Colombia, the cloud forests, the valley views that plunged into icy blue rivers, the random waterfalls, or the miscellaneous shrines of Guadalupe at every hint of civilization.
The driver drove so fast, every shade of misty green was blurred in my memory. It was just like the landscapes from Romancing the Stone and even more like Lord of the Rings meets an India Jones high speed chase.
In the morning mist, we took a ferry across a mossy green lake, and continued driving for another hour without seeing any other cars, up and up, further into the high altitude.
Rugged and remotely hidden, it took the Spanish 50 years more to find and conquer the emerald mines after they overtook Bogota in the 1500’s. My driver shared stories of the reputation for danger in the mines that came from thieves and partnerships with Narcos (what better way to wash money right). It was a red zone up until 10 years ago when peace was declared in the mines. The tour was designed to stimulate the community of this small mining town.
A stone statue of the Indian Chief Chivor and his wife, holding huge glass emeralds in front of a beautiful little church welcomed us to town. Upon arrival, I enjoyed a typical Colombian breakfast with Arepas and eggs, and yes, hot chocolate with coffee! It was so fresh and delicious because we were so remote, all the food there was grown locally.
Hugo, my guide made the tour unforgettable. A kindred spirit, we connected immediately, first because I speak Spanish and then when I told him I was a jewelry designer he made me feel like a celebrity. We both had May birthdays and both shared a nerdy kind of love for emeralds.
(Pic. of emeralds in white quartz crystal and pyrite veins. )
A son of a son of miners, Hugo was a fine jeweler and lapidarian. His workshop was my classroom, we geeked out at all kinds of emeralds, raw and faceted. As he explained colors, clarity, and the grading process we both agreed the raw and uncut were the most interesting and artistic.
Suited up with a hard hat, rubber boots, head light, and a pick, we headed to the mine, another hour drive north of town. This time we drove slowly on dirt roads that wound around waterfalls and grassy green mountains speckled with flowers. The landscape looked like a fairytale, where a dragon would be protecting her treasure.
We arrived at the entrance of the mine, asked permission from the armed guards to enter and drove passed a spot where the dynamite was kept. I wasn’t scared. (Deep breaths)
We traveled further and picked up a hitchhiker whose brand new pick up truck had stalled. It was a miner boss, and he told us from what I understood in Spanish, that they had found a new vein of green and were going to blow it up.
Nicknamed “La Reina de La Mina”, Queen of the mine for the day, I was introduced to some of the owners while they played cards, in cowboy hats and blue jeans, dripping in emerald jewelry. They asked me if I wanted to go blow stuff up. (Ahhh, no, I’m good...)
At this point I had survived the drive and I didn’t feel like blowing anything up. I wanted to use my pick and find some emeralds. I learned later that when they find a new vein of emeralds, it’s a privilege to be the first to go in and scout out what has been blown up. Only the owners and bosses are allowed in first. You get paid for what you find and sometimes that could equal a new pickup truck or a fortune.
Walking around outside the mine reminded me of sea glass hunting on the beach, instead we searched the rocky rubble for emeralds. I actually found the prettiest emerald on the ground outside the cave. They used carts, like the ones in Indian Jones, to carry rocks out of the mountain, then dump and sift through them on the outside in the light. It had rained the night before so little chips of emeralds were easy to spot in granite rocks.
It was hot and sticky inside the cave, we looked for white veins of quartz crystals and golden pyrite to strike a pick into. We struck emeralds right away, they fell from the walls encapsulated in crystal dust. Hugo was so animated with every emerald we found. We got deep into the mines, army crawled through tight spaces that opened up into caverns of beautiful aqua green and golden stalactites.
It was magical. At one point, deep in the caves, we turned off our lights to feel the pitch darkness and the crystal vibrations surrounding us. I had never seen anything so black and had never felt such vibrational energy around me. Instead of being frightened, I felt a heightened sense of peace. Hugo said a prayer to the emeralds in Spanish and I felt so grateful for life and the experience of that moment.
We brought all the emeralds we found back to the workshop to polish, but first it was lunch time. I wanted to finish with the emeralds, but I was ready to eat when I saw what Rosa had prepared. A surprise Colombian dish, wrapped in steamed banana leaves like a tamale, inside was rice, red beans, chicken, steak, pork chops, eggs, plantains, and potatoes. I barely had room for the hot chocolate they prepared especially for me after they saw how much I enjoyed it at breakfast.
Hugo went out of his way to help me cut and polish all the emeralds we found. I bought a ring from him that he carved out of a solid piece of rock with a layered matrix of pyrite, quartz and emeralds. I saw one like it in the market the next day that was twice the price and another one similar in the airport at five time the price. I have been buying emeralds from a Hugo ever since. I know that his emeralds are mined with integrity and love.
The magic followed me back on the drive in the dark as I held my breath and closed my eyes around every blind curve. The hotel staff was relieved when I was safely returned with a pocket full of emeralds and story to tell. As I changed for bed, I had proof of my real live fairytale when crystal dust fell from my clothes.
Please check out my precious emerald collection that has evolved over the past few years. As Gollum from Lord of the rings would say, “I like them raw and wriggly”.