Get-rich-quick in Costa Rica

Do you feel lucky? Most people come to Costa Rica to spend a fortune, so why not buck the trend and find a fortune instead? All you’ve got to do is go panning for gold … and get lucky.

We came across the Canoas border from Panama and turned left into the Osa Peninsula. Here, all we had planned was a bit of critter-spotting and some lounging around on the beautiful, remote, unpopulated beaches. But whilst I was doing some of said lounging around by the sparkling turquoise ocean with macaws screeching overhead, I read about a local gold-rush. I’d never heard of Costa Rican gold but as recently as the 1970s, prospectors flocked to the nearby hills in search of life-changing golden nuggets. The rush tapered off in the ’80s, but locals are now cleverly turning this relatively recent heritage into a small-scale tourist attraction and offering low-key, panning for gold experiences. It’d be rude then, not to give it a go.

Panning for Gold in Costa Rica

panning for gold in costa ricaWe’ve always found the whole gold-panning thing rather fascinating. Just how did those gold-rush guys find the life-changing nuggets amongst acres of grit? We’d thought we might get to check this out when we reached the Yukon… one day. But as we’re here, surely it’s got to be better to do it in the sunshine and warm waters of Costa Rica? I’ve never been one for getting both cold and wet at the same time. Also, an important reason more worthy than to merely satisfy our idle curiosity, is to support these small-scale, local tourism initiatives, helping rural communities. Reporting to the office in the tiny hamlet of Dos Brazos, we found Alvaro who took us down to the river, explaining a bit about the history on the way.

In our wellies in the shallow river, we followed Alvaro’s guidance and started hacking away at the mud and large stones which form the low riverbank. It’s not tightly packed and the rubble broke fairly easily into the river. Alvaro then started panning for gold… scooping-up some of the mud, grit and stones out of the river and into the pan. He showed us how to swirl the matter around the pan, just slightly under the water, allowing the heavier flecks of gold to separate from the lighter grit in the pan.

Back-breaking stuff

panning for gold

How did he spot that???

As he swirled, it took him only a few minutes to point out the first tiny flecks of gold amongst the grit. Blimey… how the devil did he spot these tiny flecks, weenier than a gnat’s whatsit? We couldn’t spot them at first, but as he angled the pan towards the sun it was easier to see that these dots did indeed sparkle in the sunlight much more brightly than the other pale-coloured particles in the grit.

So, on we went with the panning for gold, crouching in the shallow river-flow, scouring for that elusive golden-nugget. After a while, Alvaro confessed that this is actually a rather inefficient system. “It’s back-breaking work…” he said “… and there’s such a tiny amount of gold in each pan-full of grit”. Really Alvaro? Can’t say we’d noticed 😉.

panning for goldA more efficient method is to place a long oblong, metal tray in the water-flow, lodging it between some rocks. In the tray is a piece of carpet, held in place by an iron mesh. Alvaro showed us how to shovel spade-fulls of stones, grit and mud into the metal tray so that it flowed over the carpet and out the other side of the tray. He explained how gold is heavy and dense; how the small pieces of gold sink and stick in the carpet fibres; how most of the lighter, less-dense mud, rocks and debris will flow-on with the river water.

It all seemed rather unlikely, but we nevertheless humoured the chap and shovelled-on and on. This too was back-breaking work, although it has to be said, not as back-breaking as the panning. Eventually it was time to check-out our new-found wealth! Alvaro took the carpet out of the tray and rinsed it with river water; the carpet fibres deposited large amounts of mud and grit into the pan. Here started the magic!!

A Phial of Magic

Alvaro took the pan full of grit and began swilling it around with the same skilful circular motion that he had demonstrated earlier. He kept adding splashes of water to the pan, which swirled around depositing the lighter grit to the edges of the pan. He expertly flicked this lighter grit into the river, whilst the heavier matter sank to the lower, central point of the pan.

He did this over, and over again, for around 4 or 5 minutes: adding water, swirling it around, flicking out the lighter grit, bit by bit. Eventually, and without the aid of a magic wand, many golden flecks started to appear in the ever-decreasing amounts of grit in the pan. There were far more, and they were far easier to see, than the one or two specks that he had found in the earlier pan-fulls of grit.



Alvaro continued painstakingly, reducing and reducing the grit in the pan until only the densest but tiniest pieces were left – just the flecks of gold – nothing else at all!! It was mind-blowing to watch this reduction process, how from a river-bank of stones, grit and mud Alvaro could produce a small pile of admittedly teeny-weeny, but very clear, pieces of gold.

For the final pièce de résistance, Alvaro produced from his bag, a small screw-topped phial. He filled it with river water, before sliding the tiny pile of gold flecks out of the pan and into the phial for us to take away.

Getting rich quick?

panning for gold

The Panning for Gold Meister

So what about the getting rich quick? Well, Alvaro told of how this low-land part of the river had been cleared out by US and Canadian contractors using huge machinery in the early ‘80s – a kind of industrial panning for gold. There is very little gold left down here and there’s certainly none of any real commercial value. Hmmm… so that’s why they bring the tourists here. So much for the get-rich-quick idea 😊.

However, there is apparently still plenty of gold in the surrounding jungle. Around 2,000 families in them-there hills make a living solely from gold prospecting. There was an attempt by the government to either plunder the gold for the national coffers, or to tax anyone who benefited from finding a decent chunk. But it proved harder than they thought. The mountain folk closed ranks and kept the best golden nugget spots to themselves. When Government agents went up there to try to find the spots, the locals sat back and watched in amusement. Ha! Unlucky suckers!

When the villagers find larger nuggets, they break them up and sell them off in smaller chunks so as not to attract government attention or to flood the local market. It’s all very clandestine, but it works for them.

Okay… so clearly panning for gold in Costa Rica is not likely to get you rich quick. But we did come away with our very own bit of gold. Our new-found wealth now sits in its own little jar, with not a single grain of grit in there with it. Seriously impressive skills Alvaro. And a fascinating morning.

Panama’s Wild West

How long for Panama d’ya reckon?” I asked Marcus in a rare and rash attempt at planning before we arrived here. “Dunno…” he said “…three, four weeks? Not much there, is there?”. “Dunno” I replied. Truth is, we really had no clue as to what there is to do in Panama. The Canal was on our bucket list, but other than that…. who knows? Even if you’d offered us a few $$$ to do so, we wouldn’t have been able to name another town or attraction that Panama had to offer the casual overlanding tourist – particularly not in the wild western Panama.western Panama Continue reading

Panama City: Mind the Gap

It’s a big hop from South to Central America. From Colombia, our Cuthbert took a luxury Caribbean RORO cruise and we took a flight into Panama. Once we had Cuthbert released from Customs, we set out to explore eastern Panama, Panama City, and one of our bucket-list destinations: the Canal. As Panama City is a glitzy, first-world, cosmopolitan city, we also took the opportunity to sort out some over-due dental work. What we hadn’t anticipated, is quite how long the dentist would keep us here!Around the Darien Gap.

north of the darien gap

Cuthbert with a London Taxi in Panama!

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South America Route Planning: 10 Reasons to go beyond the PanAm

You’re doing your overland South America route planning. Hitting the PanAmerican north/south corridor route between Colombia and Tierra del Fuego is the way to do it, right? A PanAm road-trip down the western side of South America is a terrific, jaw-droppingly gorgeous drive. With adventures galore… stunning scenery, awesome mountains, simmering volcanos, breath-taking hikes, challenging routes, relaxing hot-springs, interesting towns, tasty food and fascinating historic sites. All these are served with a generous sprinkling of llamas and the occasional chunky chap in a brightly coloured poncho. Sounds just the ticket for ‘doing’ South America doesn’t it? Continue reading

Panama Canal: The Chicken of Golden Eggs

Panama has a canal. You’ve probably heard of it, it’s quite famous. But have you heard it referred to as ‘The Chicken of Golden Eggs’? For Panamanians, the Canal is indeed the gift that keeps on giving. For us, the Canal is a much anticipated, Bucket List destination. We’re excited merely to see it. It’s fabulous to watch from the viewing-decks, the ships passing through. We don’t even dare to hope that we might do the Panama Canal crewing on a yacht. But guess what? Holy moly… we actually do get to do it! We help to crew the beautiful s/v Platina through the Canal. “No waaay!!!” you say in amazement. “Yes waaay” we say to convince you. Read on how it goes…

yachts in panama canal Continue reading

Caribbean Colombia – The Final Call

Unlike the rest of the country, Caribbean Colombia is hot and humid. The northern coast and plains are a marked contrast to the temperate green highlands of central Colombia that we enjoyed for the last weeks of 2017. Now to kick-off 2018, we help another overlander after his unscheduled rendezvous with a local moped near Mompos; cross the desert of La Guajira; go to jail in colonial Cartagena and finally… we wave farewell to Cuthbert as he sets sail on a cruise to Panama. Oh… and in between all that, Marcus learns to kite-surf!Caribbean Colombia Cartagena Continue reading

La Guajira Overland – the Pie-crust and the Wayuu

Few places in South America have poverty like the far-northern desert wastelands of Colombia. La Guajira is Colombia’s most northerly region and a marked contrast to the prosperous green lands of the central coffee region where we spent Christmas. It’s wild, remote, windy and inhospitable up there. But at the top sits our Holy Grail destination, the most northerly point of the whole South American continent: Punta Gallinas. On our South American journey so far, we’ve visited the most southerly, easterly, westerly and the geodesic centre points of the continent. It would be churlish to leave without popping up to see Mr Northerly. En-route we have the challenge of driving the mud-pan pie-crust and the dilemma of the poverty-stricken Wayuu children (click here for Map and notes for self-drive to Punta Gallinas).Punta Gallinas Continue reading

Mud-roading Cuthbert – The Videos

A belated Happy New Year for 2018!  Over the Christmas chill-out, Marcus ‘Spielberg‘ Tuck has put together some more video stuff from our 2017 moochings around South America in Cuthbert. Four short videos including the mega-adventure double-feature-set of mud-roads through the Amazon jungle, hiking through Colombia’s towering wax-palms and a super-moon setting at dawn.

First ‘proper’ blog of 2018 coming soon, but in the meantime… get your popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show 🙂   Continue reading

Colombia: Down to the Heat

It’s a curious thing this overlanding. Who’s to tell you when to move on, where to go next? Time in a country is obviously dictated by visas and permits palaver, but other than that we kind of ‘go with the wind’ or sometimes not. Colombia is a particularly ‘stick-around’ place for us. We’re staying here longer than any other country in South America and the cool central highlands/coffee region is our favourite. Here we’re hanging around doing… ummm… not a lot. Just avoiding ‘the heat’ really.

overlanders steel horse finca

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New Map, New Brakes!

Look, look, looook……. a new map of all our favourite bits of South America!  Zoom in, scroll around, click on the links!  If you’re itching to find out how we came to have such a fab new South America highlights map on our website, and how Cuthbert came to have such beautiful new brakes… read on below 🙂 Continue reading

South America Overlanding Video Fest!!

Central Colombia is as good a place as any to take a bit of time out and rustle up a few much-overdue videos of our South America travels. We love it here and are more than happy to stay-put near Medellin for a while, but if we’re honest… our sojourn is actually less our choice and more enforced by Iveco. Remember way back, weeks ago, we placed an order for spare parts with Iveco (Navitrans, in Colombia) which were going to arrive second week of November? Well… surprise, surprise, they didn’t arrive on time and we had a week of sitting around waiting. Anyway… here for your delectation and delight, are the results of our South America Overlanding Videos Fest week: the Lencois Maranhenses, the Salar de Uyuni, and the Sacred Valley Skylodge. Continue reading


Bogotá is big. A city of over ten million people. Ten million!!! It’s a gritty working city, full of graffiti and certainly not known for its colonial charm. A trip up the Monserrate cable car for an overview of the metropolis provides a small clue as to the scale of the place, but never let it be said that we judge a book by its cover.  We’re here to give Bogotá a fair crack-of-the-whip and we find it a nice city to mooch about! Also, we’re here to do some gadget shopping. Hmmm… sounds expensive!  Bogotá BlogBogotá blog Continue reading

Central Colombia

Help! We need an adequate superlative for Colombia. Bit unimaginative to say that it’s just the loveliest country… but trust me… it really is. After the friendliest welcome, countless scenic small towns, the finest coffee, the ancient history and the fascinating former drug-lands… we’re heading east and south a bit, on a very roundabout route through central Colombia to Bogotá.central colombia Continue reading

Medellin: Tale of a City

Milo is just 25 years old and extremely personable. At the age of 7 years old on his way to school, he saw his first dead body, lying riddled with bullets in the street of his neighbourhood. Eeishh… bit of a grim start to a travel blog, eh? Milo has much to tell us about growing up in the ‘90s in a drug-war-torn Medellin, but first let’s lighten things up and back-track a bit… Continue reading

Colombian Coffee Time

Got time for a coffee? These days we’re not short on time to sit around and swap stories with other overlanders over a coffee, so it’s rather cool to finally be here in the centre of the Colombian coffee universe. You know that Colombia’s big on coffee, right? Well, here in the Zona Cafetera they grow shed-loads of it. And many of the coffee haciendas don’t just do the coffee-crop, they do coffee-tourism too. Large-scale and small-scale producers take pride in both educating visitors and producing top-notch beans. We trotted along to a hacienda at each end of the spectrum to see them do their thing.Colombian Coffee tasting

Here’s ten little factoids Colombia’s Zona Cafetera has taught us about coffee: Continue reading

Cool Colombia

Hope we’re not tempting fate…. but after three weeks, cool Colombia ’s already looking hot-favourite for Cuthbert’s ‘Top Spot – South America’ Award. In the last blog we joked about Colombia’s notoriety for drugs barons and banditos. In truth, the threat to tourists from such characters is now very much history. Beautiful, clean, lots to see and do, outstanding value for money, exceptionally friendly and with a kind of chilled-out vibe that’s difficult to quite put your finger on. We’re continuing north now for some ancient tombs, a photo-dilemma and (yet another) visit to Iveco. The bar has been set high for Colombia so far… let’s see if we can find any points to knock it back along the way!
Cool colombia Continue reading

Colombia: Drugs Barons and Banditos?

Drugs barons and banditos are what Colombia is famous for, but we don’t spot any obviously suspicious candidates in the immediate vicinity of the border. Maybe they’re all further up-country? We’ll keep our eyes open for them as we head north. On our way, our Colombia travel blog takes-in the odd mysterious monument, cactus desert, crater lake, death-road and a jaw-droppingly beautiful religious sanctuary.

San Agustin Continue reading

Ecuador Equator: Hummingbirds and Fiestas

Quito’s not a bad place as far as capital cities go. We wouldn’t ordinarily choose to spend ten days there, but we’re on an admin-mission here. Missions accomplished, we head north towards Colombia, with a few detours hovering around the Ecuador Equator: a misplaced monument, some little and large birdies, a great-fiesta-escape, some hats, and (another) volcano.
Volcan Cayambe Continue reading

Ecuador Volcanos: Just a Puff of Smoke?

Ecuador has its fair share of volcanos and an even greater share of active ones. In our last blog, we saw Chimborazo and Tungurahua. Now we’re moving on to the hyperactive Volcán Reventador. On the way, we see some jungle critters, spot a rare bird, walk to some pretty cool waterfalls (yes… more waterfalls) and end up with Uncle Sam’s ‘Man in Quito’.
Ecuador volcanos Continue reading

Closest to the Moon

Physically speaking, we’re doing some ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in Ecuador. We enter from Peru across miles and miles of banana low-land. Then we climb up-high. We get lots of cheese and chocolate, and spend a night closest to the moon. After that, we do a quick swing off a cliff (as you do) then it’s back down-low on the other side of the Andes, to the Amazon (again!).

Swing at the end of the world Continue reading