image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

From the March 2004 edition of Nectandra Institute’s newsletter

My First Encounter With Osa

It was the year 1965. I was returning to Costa Rica from the United States on a flight of the former famous Pan American Airline, which stopped in every capital city of Central America. Because of severe thunderstorms, we circled back and forth in the area until we finally arrived in San José, as I recall, almost completely drunk. The crew had offered us unlimited complimentary drinks in order to calm our fears and most of us had taken advantage of it.

Sitting next to me was an American couple in their fifties, who was moving from the West Coast to Costa Rica in search, they said, of paradise and lots of gold. He was a gold-miner and she a retired teacher. They met in a bar and had fallen in love. As I learned later, both were definitely alcoholics. He had talked her into marrying him and selling her home and possessions, in order to settle in Costa Rica and look for the source of gold in the Osa Peninsula.

Nineteen years old and naive, I set out to help them as much as I could. The first crisis came that very same day. For reasons that I don’t remember, their dog could not be taken out of the airport upon arrival. The animal tried to escape during the night, hurting himself so badly that it died in their hotel bed a couple of days later. It was a real tragedy for them, much to my disbelief.

The amount of gear to be purchased in San José in preparation for our jungle trip to the Río Madrigal in the Osa Peninsula was unbelievable—food, gold-mining pans, metal detectors, tents, other camping and mining utensils, etc. and a revolver, which I bought under my name. Finally, we chartered a small airplane which took us to our final destination. The wife stayed in San José.

We landed uneventfully on a small grass strip in the middle of nowhere, and were met by excited local residents. The name of the place was Río Oro (gold river) and was owned by a man named don Felix Avellan.

Years later in 1976, as I was trying to establish Corcovado National Park, I had to deal intensively with don Felix, since he owned another large property inside the newly created national park, which contained another landing field, a grocery store and hundreds of cattle and pigs.

As I recall, from the air Osa was then almost as impressive as it is today. The area which is now part of Corcovado National Park was absolutely pristine, but there were a lot more pasture lands outside of the park, toward the point of the Peninsula. Cattle ranching to export beef to the US swept the country in the 60s and 70s. Over the years, especially in the last 10 to 15, a lot of foreigners have purchased and retired many of these cattle ranches. In addition, we began many years ago a new era, based on conservation, restoration and ecotourism. Nature has been coming back.

The day after our arrival, we set out to rent horses from don Felix and rode for a couple of hours to the mouth of the Madrigal River, where we found boarding at a house owned by Toño and Rosa, and met several gold-miners.

I wish somebody had taken photographs of us with all our gold-mining gear. We must have looked like Don Quijote and his assistant Sancho Panza. The miners looked at us with a kind of a hidden smile which forewarned me a great deal about our foolishness and predicament. Toño’s and Rosa’s house was full of the same kind of gear and utensils we were carrying ourselves, only ours were shining new, while the old mining utensils were rusted and half buried in the sand. It was obvious that hundreds or thousands of fools like ourselves had gone through there over the decades.

But a series of tragedies were to begin in our gold-mining expedition.

After dismounting on our arrival, my American friend was in agony. The two-hour horse ride had produced blisters in the very lower end of his back and, as he got off the horse, he could hardly walk. All his gold mining spirits had kind of transformed into painful gestures, although the pain would briefly disappear when he tried to find gold. We panned for gold by washing sand in the river mouth. As is the case every time we tried it, tiny specs of gold were visible in the bottom of the pan. On these occasions, his face was transformed into a kind of a glorious moment, with his eyes bulging out. For the first time, I thought he was really crazy. Only much later in 1985, as I was immersed in solving the gold-mining problems of the park, did I realize that he was possessed by “gold fever.”

The same first night, Toño’s and Rosa’s pigs and chicken were trying to eat our tent, our food and all our belongings and that infuriated my friend. The mosquitoes didn’t help either.

The next day we finally set out to conquer our goal. We hired 3 or 4 gold-miners as guides. They were very happy to get a paid day, but were obviously laughing at us. They knew better.

We walked for about two hours, climbing the Rio Madrigal in the direction of its origin, where, according to my friend, was the big source of all the gold in the Osa. He had purchased a map of the area, and had drawn a line from the mouth of the river to our destination. Since there were no trails, we walked up following the river bed. It was full of rocks, pebbles, sand, mud and water. I do not remember what kind of shoes we were wearing, but soon after, my friend began to complain about his feet hurting too much. Little did I know that the gold-mining side of our expedition was soon to take an abrupt change.

Suddenly, my friend announced an unexpected decision to me and the others. In spite of all the expectations, money spent in utensils, flights, etc. all of a sudden he uttered the following words, “I can’t go on, forget gold-mining, let’s go fishing.” This, of course, was the best moment for me. We hiked back to the house, threw all utensils on top of the pile built up over the years by people like us. He pulled out his fishing rod and fishing he went.

After that moment, we were the happiest men on earth. The fishing was absolutely great, so he was fully enjoying it, and I went about watching the scarlet macaws and the magnificent wildlife of Osa. I was witnessing it for the first time. I was, of course, very unaware that years later as director of the Park System, I was to lead the battle to create Corcovado National Park and save nature I was witnessing for the first time. When the park was established in 1975, the Madrigal River was not part of it, but my colleagues and I made sure it was included in a park extension presidential decree in 1982.

In the meantime, back in San Jose, the wife had gone crazy. For three or four days she had not heard from us and considered us lost in the jungle. She went about calling the authorities and the US Embassy and started begging for help. I do not remember exactly how many days went by, not many, but the entire fuss ended when we showed up in San Jose in one piece, but much poorer than when we started.

They lived in Costa Rica for another several months. And as the time went by, my family and I realized how serious were their alcoholism and their mental problems. Costa Rica was no longer the paradise they called it at the beginning. One day, they left for their next heaven, Canada, and were never to be heard from again.

So this was my first encounter with Osa, as a gold-miner for a few hours—an encounter that was to be imprinted in my mind. Osa is as one of the most magnificent places on the planet—a place that later, through my actions, would become Corcovado National Park, a place for which I am still fighting for almost 40 years later.

Alvaro Ugalde, Director
Osa Conservation Area