Sendero de Oro – Route Map
The Sendero de Oro (Gold Trail) is a conglomeration of a few kilometers of abandoned 4WD road, many following the riverbeds of the Rios Tigre, Piedras Blancas and Carate, a couple of long steep climbs up and down between drainages on indigenous footpaths, and a few kilometers along the beach. It winds generally northeast to southwest across the southern Osa Peninsula starting from Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre outside Puerto Jimenez on the Golfo Dulce climbs to nearly 1,600 feet (500 meters) twice before dropping down to the Pacific at Carate Beach where you turn west to La Leona.
The first afternoon we did a warm-up hike on the north fork of the Rio Tigre exploring the arm that we would not follow with our packs the next day. We found a rope swing vine and a nice swimming hole and everyone had their eyes peeled for shining nuggets in the stream.
Walking upstream was a good test for our gear and helped with footwear choices for the trek. Sue and I were in Solomon water shoes, Edwin was testing his new hightop rubber boots and dual sock combo and Meg and Ryan both decided on Keens for the water walking and switching to light weight gortex hikers for the climbs.
The trail is named the Sendero de Oro after the gold miners who inhabit each terminus and we spent the first night in Los Mineros, a small rustic guesthouse that occupies a long low building that housed the bar, the whorehouse and the local jail in the mining heyday of Dos Brazos del Rio Tigre. Suzanne the proprietor and our gracious hostess has been in the area for decades and told stories about the rich history of the valley.
Fifty years ago this was the last frontier where most businesses on the peninsula had a scale on the counter so the miners could pay for their purchases with gold; now it’s all dollars or colones. As with most gold rushes the only ones who made consistent money were the merchants who transported and sold food, booze and tools.
There also used to be a strong market for mercury which was used to extract gold from ore, but now the miners themselves have prohibited this practice (it has always been illegal) because they’ve seen the effects of mercury poisoning on the rivers they live along and rely on.
Currently there are two main types of operations on the Osa, prospecting in the gravel riverbeds and small hand dug mines in the hillsides. In either case the gold is captured in the same way. Shovelfuls of earth or gravel are deposited into a “canoa” or sluice where rapidly running water in a narrow channel washes away the lighter dirt and rocks and a rough bottom traps the dense gold nuggets and flakes.
The canoa can be as simple as a small ditch dug in the mud and lined with Astroturf or a slightly more sophisticated and portable version consisting of a long metal tray with a panel of metal mesh on the bottom. Either way the sluice is filled one shovelful at a time so the environmental impact of these methods is relatively minor.
There are also a few old timers who still stand in the river scooping a couple of handfuls at a time into a pan then whirling it in a mesmerizing oscillation that lets the water wash away everything except the flakes of oro.
The main direct impact of mining and prospecting is the addition of silt to the rivers and streams, but the small scale of the operations where the largest tool is a hand spade means that the impact is washed away in the heavy rains and gully washing floods that come every September and October.
The indirect impacts are more significant and the most noticeable is the lack of wildlife in the mining regions. Hunting is permitted on some of the private land and poaching inside the National Park is common. Birds, reptiles (except iguanas which are good eating) and amphibians are easy to spot, but mammals are almost never seen along the sendero de oro, even where it crosses the southern sector of Corcovado.
Other environmental concerns include cutting firewood and the small garbage dumps that accumulate near the camps but these are relatively minor compared to the impact of other rural activities like farming or ranching.
There have never been any big strikes on the Osa, just enough minor successes to keep fortune seekers coming back. Increasing urban unemployment has caused a surge in the numbers along the sendero de oro. It only takes a few dollars worth of equipment to set up camp and get started so we met several mineros who had arrived in the past couple of months after deciding that shoveling gravel was a better use of their time than hoping for a job opportunity in San Jose.
Day 2 – Dos Brazos to Camp “Ed”ease via Corcovado National Park
The second day of our adventure began the sendero in earnest.
Two groups set out from Dos Brazos that morning both headed to the same destination by different routes. Ours along the hiking trail, and a German couple and their guide Johnnie riding along the less steep but longer horse trail farther to the south outside the park.
Rivers are often the path of least resistance through dense rainforest and the first several kilometers outside of Dos Brazos we river hiked without any trail to speak of. We walked southwest either in or alongside the Rio Tigre. Our packs were light because the horses were carrying the food and other camp supplies and we thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed pace and stopping to photograph the birds, insects and forest.
We were dropping our packs on a gravel bar by a stand of caña when Meghan shrieked and jumped straight back and Ryan lunged valiantly forward brandishing his walking stick to drive off a large brown snake.
It was surprising because typically snakes are very shy of humans and slither off to hide as soon as they sense them. Other than Terciopelos (which we all agreed it was not) snakes approaching humans is almost unheard of.
When we reconstructed the events we decided that the most likely explanation was that the snake was actually targeting a lizard that happened to be in line with Meg and was seen high tailing it up the cane during the commotion. We decided that we’d allow Ryan to keep the title of snake slayer for his unhesitating willingness to sacrifice himself for the safety of his new bride.
When we turned away from the Rio Tigre to climb over the ridge through Corcovado National Park to the Rio Piedras drainage the trail up was very steep and heavily eroded in places.
We took a short detour down river to visit another minero that Ed knows, see a small waterfall and take a look at a pair of hummingbird chicks in a tiny pendulum nest made of Spanish moss. Before the birdwatchers out there chastise us for interfering with nature please consider that the parents had chosen to build their nest in the camp in the midst of human activity and since no harm had ever come from the humans they were around they seem completely unconcerned by our presence.
Our friend Edwin established camp “Ed”ease (get it? -at ease) on the banks of the Rio Piedras Blancas to accommodate the small groups of Dutch adventurers he guides along this route several times a year. We were a little slap happy after a long hot day of hiking and took up the theme of having fun with his name and decided that this was just one stop in Par”Ed”ise on our great “Ed”venture.
The camp is similar in many ways to the homes of the mineros. A pole frame supports a plastic sheeting roof with a cooking area and tables at one end and hammocks strung at the other. Fresh spring water flows from up the hill in a ¾” pvc tube to a sink and in small separate enclosures one of the nicest showers and toilets in Costa Rica.
Both are small cement floored “rooms” with three walls protecting the occupants privacy while the fourth is open towards the opposite hillside covered with the primary rainforest of the Osa Peninsula. The toilet is remarkable not only for the view but because the septic tank and field was properly designed and implemented so that you can actually flush your toilet paper – a real rarity in Costa Rica where even at modern hotels and expensive resorts you’re requested to deposit used paper in a trash can because the septic cannot handle it.
Meg discovered another bird’s nest in the crook of a tree a few feet from our hammocks and just about landed on her butt when she peeked over the edge and the little babies inside opened their mouths and reached towards her thinking she must be mom bringing dinner. When the parents did arrive a few minutes later they were easy to identify as scarlet rumped tanagers. They were unconcerned by our presence a few feet away and shuttled food to the babies continuously during the daylight hours while we were in camp.