This morning I woke up (bright and early) in my rickety top bunk perch in the Las Juntas community center. The sun was streaming through the full glass wall across from me and luscious greenery made me burst into a giddy smile. It was the first time I had seen Las Juntas in the light of day and I must say it was an awakening that fueled my excitement for the day. Sunscreen was applied, hiking boots put on and before I knew it we were gathered in the courtyard of the community center and very ready to dig in to some rice and beans. After a delicious breakfast of rice, beans, eggs and orange juice, we loaded into taxis and headed to the Las Juntas gold mines. The drive to the gold mine was an adventure in itself! Our taxis climbed steep hills surrounded by tropical forest. At the mines, my group geared up with helmets and rain boots to enter the tunnel. Working miners passed by us with heavy carts while we plodded through dark, rocky tunnels. Being in the mine made me feel very grateful for my safe life at home. Hearing the dynamite used in nearby tunnels while stumbling around in the dark made me realize how lucky I am to work where I know I am safe and how I never fear for my well-being while trying to make money. Our mine guide Bernie also challenged us near the end of our tour to make it out of the mine without using any light—just as many miners do daily. I felt like a helpless child! I truly respect the hard work the miners do to provide for themselves. After climbing through the tunnels themselves, we got a chance to see where the collected quartz in the mines is actually processed for gold. Large machines called rastras ground the material collected by miners and use mercury to amalgamate the gold. The mercury is then burned away to leave a clump of gold. It’s interesting to think about this process through the lens of sustainability and reflect on the many damaging effects of mercury use on the environment. Now we are settled in at Carlos and Elieth’s house after another delicious meal and a bit of rest time. I feel very fulfilled and peaceful after today—especially without feeling any pressure to use my phone. I’m so so grateful for this opportunity and I’m truly enthused to see what the next week and a half has in store! – CarolAnne
Waking up before 6am, something unlikely to happen again this trip, was the start of our first full day in Las Juntas, Costa Rica. We started our day the best way possible, eating gallo pinto with a tortilla, eggs, and cheese. Moving on from breakfast, we pile into taxis and take off down the road, off to the mines. Splitting up into two groups, the first put on boots and hard hats and took off into the mine under the guide of Bernie. The second group got to experience Dr. Niesenbaum howl at the howler monkeys and pictures of college age Don Ricardo. We also got to see little, new puppies; they were so cute!
The first group returned and traded gear with the second group. Adorned in hard hats and boots, we took off into the mine with Bernie. We were shown different shafts that have been, or are currently being, mined. We learned that where there is quartz, there is gold, that the gold in the mines are tiny flecks of gold, not nuggets like you find in the west of the states, that the water in the mines is ground water that has run down through the ground into the mines, and that walking out of the mine in the pitch black is a serious trust exercise.
Moving on from the mines, we went on to the area in which the gold was refined. The rock is ground up and then moved into basins in which the ground up rock is pulverized in water mixed with mercury, so the gold can form an amalgam with the mercury. It is moved from basin to basin until an amalgam is formed in such a way that it can be removed and rinsed to form a hard ball of mercury and gold, then the mercury is burned off, leaving you with a beautiful nugget of gold.
We all piled back into the taxis and came back to the community center for an hour of free time before we got a lunch of rice and beans, meat (or veggies for the vegetarians), and a salad; another DELICIOUS meal. After lunch, we moved on to the bank to exchange our money. I realized that we can appear to be such a large group of people when we pile into such a small building and each have to individually interact with the people at the desks. Jenny and Taj kindly translated for everyone who was not fluent in Spanish. We sat and waited for everyone to exchange their money, which was so worth it because we were able to sit in the nice cool air-conditioned bank.
We then broke out our fresh, new colones to buy ice cream and snacks on our way back to Carlos and Ellieth’s house. The welcome they greet us with when we show up is so exciting and makes me feel at home. I am so excited to tour Las Juntas later today, for more food, and the rest of the experience of being in Costa Rica! Day one and done, onto day two!! -Sydney