Motorcycling and Searching for Emeralds In Colombia’s Remote Muzo Valley
The world we know may be a “civilized” place filled with Starbucks, strip malls, and social media, but in the heart Colombian Andes, the veneer of civilization is stripped away and true adventure can still be found. Exploring these far out, rarely visited corners of the world is my idea of a vacation.
A Brief History of Muzo
Motorcycling Searching for Emeralds In Colombia’s Remote Muzo Valley all jewels on Earth and since the late 16th century, of all the emeralds in the world, most of them come from Colombia. It is estimated that Colombia accounts for 70-90% of the world's emerald market. Deep in the the eastern portion of the Colombian Andes in the department of Boyaca lies the town of Muzo, known as the world capital of emeralds. From these open pit mines and dark shafts miners have pulled out emeralds so precious, they have names, such as Fura, at 15,000 carats one of the world’s biggest, named for a mythical unfaithful king whose wife’s tears turned to emeralds.
As with most places in the world, where there is money to be made there is violence, and Muzo is no exception to this rule. Starting in the 1980’s territorial disputes between some of the country's leading emerald mining families escalated into a full-blown conflict called the “Green War.” Before long the country's most powerful drug gangsters, the Medellin cartel, became involved too - sensing an opportunity to establish a new supply corridor from the cocaine growing regions in the interior to the coast. And of course, they also saw a chance to take a slice of the huge profits the emerald industry generated. The mine owners fought back, turning Muzo into the most dangerous place in Colombia and by the end of the decade more than 6,000 people had been killed making Muzo and the surrounding area one of the most dangerous places in Colombia.
I knew that I had to visit.
Motorcycle Touring In Colombia
Colombia is a big country, roughly the size of Texas and California combined with half the country being made up of roadless Amazon jungle and the other half being mostly mountainous terrain. You'll find tons of different driving conditions here: from flat roads near the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to curvy mountain roads with stunning overlooks around every turn, not to mention plenty of rutted jungle tracks.
Even though it's only 370km away from Medellin the trip to Muzo wasn't going to be quick. Although beautiful, Colombia's mountainous geography filled with switchbacks coupled with tractor trailer caravans slowly lumbering down the road turn what would normally be a 3 hour trip in my home state of Colorado into an over 8 hour adventure.
The route took me due east climbing out of Medellin's famous Aburra valley winding my way through the cool green central mountains that make up the Antioquia department. Listening to latin pop and salsa music I passed cascading waterfalls, sweeping overlooks and jungle mountains filled with fog and mist rolling down their sides. Driving down the other side I made a high speed run across the hot flat farmland of the Magdalena Valley passing through the town of Puerto Berrio and crossing the Magdalena River before twisting my way back up into the rugged Oriental Mountain range and entering the department of Santander then Boyaca.
The road became rough. Once outside the small mining town of Pauna the road became even rougher and narrower with seemingly random sections being brand new due to the Colombian government making good on at least part of their promise to pave the road, and other sections being unpaved and rutted taking me on a zigzagging journey deep into the valley. The landscape was spectacular with high mountain crags and deep valleys carpeted in green. Quickly dropping in altitude the temperature warmed up quickly and I was soon packing up my sweatshirt for in exchange for riding in just a t-shirt and jeans while crossing gushing jungle streams. A friend recently told me “Driving a car is like watching a movie, you just watch the scenery pass by, but when you drive a motorcycle, you're in the movie.” This movie had to be something like the 1980’s action/adventure movie “Romancing the Stone” where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner ran around the Colombian jungle searching for an emerald called El Corazón.
Pulling into the town of Muzo I had a hard time believing that it was once home to so much violence. Listening to the birds and watching people eat pizza and play soccer near the main square I could only think of the words idyllic or bucolic to describe the town. There is even a really nice swimming pool where, after paying a $1 admission, you can swim all day.
Mining for Emeralds
The adventure begins at zero dark thirty since the valley heats up quickly. Leaving Muzo the drive to the mining area is only 30 minutes but takes you 200 years back in time to what I imagine the wild west was like during the gold rush period. Driving through the town of Mata de Cafe is a perfect example: small plywood and bamboo shacks, tin-roofed restaurants, bars, whore houses and tiny general stores line the rutted one-lane muddy track through town. Kids on horses share space with mud covered chinese motorcycles while old Toyota land cruisers bounce through the river along the valley bringing the informal emerald miners known as guaqueros to their job site. Known as echando pala or “throwing the shovel” by the locals, these guaqueros, scour the river beds of along the Itoco river in the Muzo valley as well as scavenge the mining fields for overlooked emeralds from the private mines.
Driving the a motorcycle through the Muzo valley is an interesting experience. The drone of motorized water pumps can be heard while small groups of miners work together using high pressure fire hoses blast water onto the loose rock in hopes of exposing an emerald. Individual miners can be seen using shovels and pickaxes to pick away at arbitrary places in the river while women walk around selling soft drinks and snacks. Some women are actually mixed in with the miners braving the heat and humidity in search of the precious gems. Even more interesting is seeing some plots of land being run by entire families with mothers and daughters working in water filled pits with only a black plastic tarp strung overhead to provide shade from the oppressive sun.
After driving for a few minutes I parked my bike at a random area I thought would be as good as any other and brought out the shovel that I bought the day before. I basically had no idea what I was doing and I guess that people could see that. At the end of the earth in, the heat and humidity, in what was formerly one of the most dangerous places on earth, the miners were friendly and came over to me to start conversation and teach me what to look for and how to mine for emeralds. Basically you don't have to pan for emeralds and there is no need to use mercury or other chemicals to help extract the emeralds from the surrounding substrate. You simply use your back and muscle to move the dark earth away and hopefully see a gleaming emerald lying in the rough. It's that simple.
Speaking with the miners I found out how the area has changed since the introduction of multinational corporations to the area. In 1990 an emerald baron named Victor Carranza brokered a peace treaty with the help of the Catholic church. The peace treaty has held for over 20 years and even after Carranza's death from cancer in 2013.
During the green fever thousands of informal guaqueros were involved in the search for emeralds with people bringing in huge bulldozers to help collapse huge sections of river bank in hopes of exposing the emeralds.
Now with the arrival of Charles Burgess, an American emerald barron who formed the MTC mining corporation as well as other mining corporations from as far away as Dubai, the mines are being run more efficiently. Rather than leave tailings for the guaqueros, the firms sift through it themselves leaving less behind for guaqueros to sift through.
Even though the pickings are slim, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of emeralds in the area. Even during quick walk through the town square on a Saturday morning you can see miners and salesmen trading and selling gems. Entire tables in the park are filled with uncut emeralds being inspected and sorted by quality and color for sale or shipment to Bogota and just a few miles up the road an entire airstrip has been cut into the jungle where helicopters and light planes from bogota land twice a week to fly out multimillion dollar shipments of emeralds for sale on the world market.
P.S. I didn't find any emeralds.
The Journey Back To Reality
Thanking my lucky stars that I didn't have to destroy myself mining for emeralds I woke up the next morning and began the drive back to Medellin. Wanting to complete a complete loop, I decided to route myself through the mining towns and see Cosquez and Otanche. Again remote rutted roads pervaded the landscape interspersed with totally random sections of perfect brand new paved roads. Driving through the towns were memorable experiences: run down wooden shacks standing next to brand new brick churches, prostitutes standing in doorways, black faced miners with lamps on their helmets walking down the street, people on horseback talking and drinking beer. The road was long, rough, and remote. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn't more than a little worried about getting a flat tire. Some of the roads could only be described as dirt single track with vertical rock walls on one side and steep drop offs into the jungle on the other. I passed waterfalls and streams and took in more panoramic views than I can remember.
Dropping down from the mountains into the hot plains of the Magdalena valley I shot across the valley stopping only once to share a coca cola with a group of soldiers before jumping back on my bike for more indeterminable hours of riding. Salvation was in sight when I finally made it to the main road back to medellin and started the climb into the beautiful central mountain range. Descending into Medellin I rolled on the the throttle 100% before slowing down to split traffic on the highway and finally making it to my house.
I haven't been to the moon or to the bottom of the sea, but I have travelled and lived in many far away places and had a lot of amazing adventures. I've taken a lot of neat photos along the way and met a lot of interesting people. That being said this was a truly a once in a lifetime adventure and completely different than any other trip I have ever taken. I feel that riding a motorcycle is the best way to experience a foreign country. Feeling the air around you while twisting through some of the most amazing and beautiful landscapes in the world is an experience that is impossible to forget. Let's be friends, better yet, let's take a trip to the moon.