To start things out, I think an explanation of just where in the hell I am would be appropriate. I am living in the far southwest corner of Costa Rica, on a piece of geography known as the Osa Peninsula. This region of Costa Rica contains the largest pristine rainforest in Central America. And sprinkled amongst this massive forest are several small villages, connected by dirt roads or even just footpaths in some cases. It is one of these small communities that I call home, the village of Carate (pronounced kah-RAH-tay). This small community consists of four off-the-grid ecolodges, a few vacation homes, and the sporadically spaced homes of locals. I would estimate that the year-round population of Carate is less than 75 people. It is quite literally the village at the end of the road, a road which also happens to be the longest dirt road in Costa Rica. The dusty jungle path starts in the town of Puerto Jimenez before it begins climbing thick canopied hillsides. After 40 kilometers, it weaves its way back down to sea level and then along the longest stretch of unspoiled beach I’ve ever seen. This is Carate Beach. The road continues parallel to the beach until coming to its end at a remote airstrip that sits on the banks of Rio Carate. One can cross this river by foot, and then walk a two-mile trail through the forest before arriving at the entrance of Corcovado National Park.
Surprisingly, there is public transit from Puerto Jimenez all the way out to Carate, but not in the sense that those of us from more developed countries might imagine. The preferred means of travel to Carate is via the colectivo. This operation is a small family run business that uses converted box trucks to shuttle people along this 50km road. The back of the truck has a wooden floor, wooden railing around the sides, and a metal scaffold covered in their trademark blue tarp for a canopy. A bench lines each side railing, covered in handmade blue cushioning that does little to absorb the jarring vibrations felt as the truck bounces up and down the busted dirt road. The ride from Jimenez to Carate costs about $8.00 US. The experience is tough. With the intense bouncing comes waves of exhaust filling the passenger area as the driver downshifts to make it up the steep inclines. The clatter of the truck with its makeshift implements is near deafening. Dust is everywhere, coating everything. And, for those of us born with testicles the colectivo can be particularly painful, as genitals are pounded by the hard benches if not sitting in just the right position. The smartest travelers on the colectivo use bandanas or buffs to cover noses and mouths, sunglasses to protect the eyes, and loud music playing in ear buds to help muffle out the ear-splitting racket as the truck smashes down the rocky path.
Recently, I’ve been reading up on the history of the Osa Peninsula, and also speaking with locals about the region’s past. I’ve learned that in the 1930’s, before Costa Rica had national parks, or any conservation-based policies at all for that matter, the area that is now called Corcovado was the site of a major gold rush. Huge deposits of exceptionally high-quality gold were being pulled from rivers . But the mining efforts had a devastating effect on local wildlife. And in 1975, President Daniel Oduber declared the area protected, dubbing it Corcovado National Park.
Artisanal gold miners still work the rivers, such as Rio Carate, just outside the park, and many still work covertly within the park to access forgotten gold deposits. These miners risk being imprisoned for such violations. But, most ‘gold hunters,’ as they refer to themselves, still work the areas just outside the park, especially Rio Carate. Make-shift camps line the river’s banks made from crude bamboo frames and covered with black plastic tarps. Miners live and work from these camps throughout the year. Children here learn how to pan and dig for gold from an early age and spend much of their life laboring in the shallow silty waters of Rio Carate. One such individual has become a good friend. He speaks some English, and with my limited Spanish, he and I can usually manage a decent conversation. We will call him Eduardo, not his real name, because he is one of these gold miners who often ventures deep into the mountains of Corcovado National Park on the hunt for bigger earnings than what can now be found in Rio Carate. I’ve asked him already if he would ever take me with him on such a mission, so I can see firsthand what life is really like for gold hunters such as him. He lives on meager earnings and supplements his food resources by hunting illegally for agouti and paca (giant rodents), which he does with the help of his dog. This was, and still is, a common practice for miners living in the jungle, to use poaching as a means of sustaining themselves while on a dig. It was also supposedly one of the primary reasons that the National Parks were set up back in 1975, to protect the animals that were being hunted for food by miners in the area.
Two nights ago, after I’d gotten off work, Eduardo and I sat up for several hours drinking rum chased with cola, talking fishing, hunting, hiding from the park police, and just what we would do if we hit the mother lode. I asked him if gold could still be found in Rio Carate, to which he shrugged, and said, “Sure…some. But, if tourists found out what Carate means, they wouldn’t want to come here.” I, of course, asked, “well what does it mean?” His story, paraphrased, went like this: When miners were expelled from Corcovado, they began looking for gold in the surrounding rivers. Gold was subsequently found in Rio Carate. But when miners began working the river in earnest, many of them broke out with ringworm, a skin fungus that appears as concentric circles all over the skin. He explained that in Costa Rica, the word Carate means ‘ringworm.’ So, the gold miners named Rio Carate for the fungus that afflicted so many of them. And the town of Carate was named for the river that runs through it. So, I live in the town of Ringworm on the banks of the Ringworm River.