Gold Mining in Nicaragua
By Pat Werner
February 3, 2007
When Nicaragua was much younger, and I was too, I worked for a time in the old aduana at the Mercedes airport on the north highway. I knew the old Guardia Nacional colonel, and I made some extra money working with him getting items out of customs. During the days of Somoza Debayle in the early 1970´s Nicaragua´s economy was red hot and the aduana was quite busy. One day, I noticed a wooden box sitting in a corner and one of the customs workers asked me to lift up the box, which was one foot by about two feet in length. Try as I might, I could not make that box budge off the cement floor. For a moment I thought someone was playing a trick on me and had bolted the box to the floor. The old colonel had, I suppose, played a trick on me by having one of the workers point out the box to me. The colonel, laughing, came up to me and with a hammer opened up the wooden box. It was full of gold ingots, not shiny bright like brass, but more the color of butter, radiating out the warmth of the metal in a gentle yellow. That was my introduction to Nicaraguan gold.
Gold has been mined in Nicaragua since well before the Spanish conquest, and is presently mined in several large mines in Chontales, Leon, and Zelaya provinces. Much gold, 30,000 to 60,000 troy ounces ( no one knows for sure), is produced by native gold miners, both hard rock miners and gold panners, called guiriseros in several areas, most notably along the Coco River from Wiwilí to Raiti and the large cataracts below Raití. And of all the towns in Nicaragua, it is probably easiest to buy gold in Murra, in Nueva Segovia, and in the town of Santa Rosa del Peñon, in Leon province.
Santa Rosa, located on the southern slope of the mountain call Tisey, is hard rock mining country. There is a geological anomaly there in the form of a large quartz vein of dog toothed quartz that runs for some kilometres along the mountain and is quite visible. What is interesting about the vein is that it contains a lot of powdered iron oxide, and where the vein touches the living rock little drips and dots of gold can be seen in the translucent quartz. The inhabitants of Santa Rosa discovered the vein in 1771 and there was a sort of gold rush. The Spanish Crown brought in mining engineers who examined the vein and pronounced it valuable to exploit. They cautioned that the vein should be exploited in a scientific manner, and if not the area would cease to be productive.
Nothing more is found in the archives about Santa Rosa and it is doubtful much as done to set up a system of tunnels with proper shoring up. God production diminished. Today the vein is still visible and noted, as one follows the vein, by tunnel after tunnel burrowing into the vein, that is about 18 inches wide.
Rather than there being the remains of one old mine, there are remains of many modern day tunnels and many rock grinders, in the shape of outhouses, in many yards of Santa Rosa. During the Contra War it was an area where many diplomats went to buy gold. During those war years it was a serious crime to traffic in contraband gold, but diplomats paid little heed and the inhabitants of Santa Rosa were able to supplement their Meagher income by pounding and grinding rock.
Both in Santa Rosa and much of the north country along the Coco River, gold mining continued during and after the Contra War with artesanal production open to all comers. One of the more interesting elements of this informal gold trade was the mildly archaic way gold was weighed and purchased. The ancient Hispanic apothecary units for weighing medicines were the grano, based upon the weight of a grain of wheat, and the tomín, which was one twelfth of a grano. And somewhere between Ocotal and Wiwili, as if in a time warp, the unit for weighing gold changes from the gram, or gramo, to the tomín, one twelfth of a grano. It can be a bit confusing.
As usual, campesinos resolved the fine elements of weighing gold by finding out that a fired .22 shell is equal in weight to five tomines. To put it in another way, one and a half tomines equal one gram. That is what must be kept in the back of one´s mind when dealing with supposedly unsophisticated campesinos.
A large mine in Leon, El Limon, located to the east of Santa Rosa, and the mines around La Libertad, Chontales, are the largest commercial operations in Nicaragua. But one wants a bit of romance and do a little gold buying, other than Santa Rosa, two other areas bear mention. The first is the town of Murra, with the El Rosario mining district above it in the high sierra, and the other is the Coco River. Murra is located past El Jicaro and close to the end of the road close to the Honduran border. It is a modern town, and like San Juan de Rio Coco, it is a town extended along the main street, with none of the colonial flavour of a central plaza. There the inhabitants mine in the Murra River and up above at Rosario and sell their product to all comers. It is a long drive from Managua, taking at least six hours over uncertain rods to reach the mountain town.
Another place to visit is Wiwilí on the Coco River. Best reached from the Jinotega side, Wiwilí was the site of Augusto Sandino´s mini state, until Somoza destroyed it in 1934. There are more artesanal miners here perhaps any place else, and gold is a common commodity for trade or sale. For the more adventurous, a leisurely trip down the Coco River, the largest and longest river in Central America to Raiti, the last large Miskito village before the river drops into its impressive cataracts, will yield many opportunities to buy gold and see sights not seen by most tourists. There are several villages and one dangerous rapids, el Callejón, where the river, at least 100 yards wide, narrows into a chute with jagged rocks only 50 feet across. More importantly, gold is for sale all along the river, particularly at the mouth of the Bocay River. The gold along the Coco River has the interesting characteristic in that its purity increases as one goes east. The gold around Ocotal and Macquilizo is about 12 carats. The gold around Wiwilí and points east is 18 carat.
Nicaragua´s ancient gold districts turn out to be Nicaragua´s modern gold districts, and an interesting, offbeat view of rural Nicaragua can be had by visiting some of these places. And these trips can be spiced up with a little gold purchasing. Just keep your wits about you as the measuring units and their real value may take a little mental gymnastics.