By Jack Ewing
In 1957 Juanito was 12 years old. He was the youngest member of a group of six who left San Isidro early one morning on an adventure they would all remember for the rest of their lives. Rodolfo’s 4WD pickup was loaded to the brim with supplies, including enough rice and beans for two weeks, shovels, picks, bars for digging and prying, machetes and a few other basic items. Juanito and Ignacio’s son, Jorge, rode in the back of the pickup with Luis; Rodolfo drove; and the other two men, Ignacio and Quincho, rode up front. The Pan-American highway was rough and full of holes, but after nearly four hours they pulled into Buenos Aires and stopped for a bite to eat. There the group was joined by an Indian named Porfilio, who would serve as their guide for the rest of the trip. Porfilio rode with those in the back of the heavily loaded pickup. They drove out of Buenos Aires and again headed south on the Pan-American highway.
Though the construction of the road had begun 16 years earlier, much of it was yet unpaved and many of the bridges were still under construction. They worked their way south through Palmar, across the Térraba River and about half way to Rio Claro to a village called Coquito. Rodolfo drove to the home of an acquaintance of Porfilio’s. Porfilio pointed to a ridgline in the distance. “That’s where we’re going,” he informed the men. And they all started walking.
Porfilio went first, machete in hand, clearing vines and fallen branches from the path. They walked single file for an hour and a half, arriving at the location that would be their home for the next two weeks. Juanito stood in an open area and looked back down in the valley where Coquito was barely visible. “Juanito, come lend a hand,” called Rodolfo. “We need a roof over our heads before dark.” Three of the men returned to Coquito for the rest of the supplies. Juanito helped cut and carry poles which were tied together to form a frame for their temporary home. Several nearby palm trees provided leaves for thatching the roof. By the time the other three returned with the rest of the supplies, a crude open-sided shelter had been constructed. It wasn’t much, but would provide protection in case of an unseasonable rain. A cooking fire was located at one end with the food stacked nearby. After a dinner of rice and beans, and a few pieces of meat from a toucan that one of the men had shot, everyone dozed off early. It had been a long day. Tomorrow they would begin the job they came to do, the excavation of a large indigenous cemetery.
Porfilio not only served as a guide to the treasure hunters but also as an advisor. He had discovered the cemetery where he believed the chief’s tomb to be located and had led the group here to excavate it. In return for his services he would receive a portion of the gold. Porfilio repeatedly poked a pointed piece of construction rod into the ground until he found an area that was completely sealed with flat river rocks. There was no river nearby and the stones would have to have been carried from at least 500 meters (541 yards) away. The men began digging and prying up the smooth, flat stones and laying them off to the side. Juanito piled the stones and carried water for the thirsty diggers. The men kept removing the stones until no more remained. The now bare patch of earth measured six meters (20 feet) by six meters, an enormous area for a tomb. Porfilio had obviously led them to something bigger than any of the men had imagined. That night the men stayed up late talking, speculating on what they would find over the next few days. The level of excitement was high. Juanito finally fell asleep as the flames of the cooking fire dwindled to a few glowing coals.
When Juanito awoke the next day, it was still dark, but Ignacio was already fixing coffee, and the others were in various stages of waking and getting up. Everyone was anxious to get on with the day’s work. Now that the stones had been removed, the serious work of digging would begin. They started in the corners and dug a trench around the perimeter of the tomb. Half a meter (20 inches) down, in each corner, they found a cylindrical stone with monkey faces carved around the surface. The digging continued with a heightened level of expectation. That first day, the men removed almost a meter of soil, a tremendous amount considering the large surface area of the tomb. By dark everyone was exhausted, but expectations were high, and no one complained about the work. Other than the monkey stones and a few shards of pottery, nothing else was found.
By the end of the second day, it became obvious that it would be necessary to move the excavated soil farther from the edge. Porfilio explained that an Indian chief would have been buried at least three meters deep and maybe as much as five. They calculated that the amount of soil would be such that it would be necessary to shovel it several meters back from the edge of the site. Part of this work fell to Juanito in addition to his water carrying duties. On the fourth day when one of the men threw a shovelful out of the tomb, Chepito noticed a slight glitter. He picked up what appeared to be dirt clod and, scratching away the red clay, he realized that the center was metallic. “Hey, is this gold?” He held the partially cleaned piece between thumb and forefinger. Quincho was out of the hole and by his side in an instant. Grabbing the piece from the boy, he rubbed off some more dirt. “That’s what it is, a golden eagle.” He happily slapped Juanito on the back. “Good work boy. Our first piece of gold.” The decision was made to dig slower and sift through the soil more carefully. By the end of the day the hole was two meters (six and a half feet) deep.
Over the next week the treasure hunters removed another two meters of soil from the tomb. The work grew harder as the hole got deeper. They could no longer throw each shovelful out of the four meter (13 foot) deep hole. Instead it was necessary to shovel it into sacks which were hoisted to the top with ropes. They found no more gold, only pottery decorated with drawings of monkeys and iguanas, and figurines of clay, some of which were very elaborate. Most had been broken by the shovels. As these pieces had little resale value, the men threw them aside. Gold was what they were after.
One day, while digging in one of the corners, Rodolfo’s shovel struck something hard with a dull metallic clang. “Hey guys, I think I’ve got something here.” Quickly clearing away the dirt he revealed a golden platter about 16 centimeters (six inches) in diameter. Digging deeper they found seven plates stacked on top of a stone cylinder. According to Porfilio, this was typical of a chief’s tomb, and there were probably similar stone cylinders and golden plates in the other three corners as well. One man moved to each corner and began to dig. Again Porfilio was right. They found seven golden plates in each corner. Ignacio calculated that altogether the plates weighed about six kilos (13 pounds.) At a little over four meters (13 feet) deep they were probably nearing the bottom of the tomb, the layer where they would hopefully find the big payoff, the Indian chief with all of his belongings.
That night the group sat around a kerosene lantern and discussed what to do next. After nearly two weeks of excruciatingly hard work, they finally had something of real value. Protecting that investment was now a concern. They were especially worried because Luis and Jorge had walked to Coquito two days earlier for supplies, and had mentioned the tomb to several of the villagers, who seemed overly interested. Nobody blamed Luis and Jorge, but all agreed that there was a real danger of losing their treasure, either to thieves or the police. By law, all Indian artefacts were the property of the government, but they all knew that if the police “confiscated” their gold, it would never make it to the National Museum. The decision was made to take a couple of precautionary measures like posting a guard 24 hours a day and hiding the golden plates in a safe place.
The next morning Rodolfo and Ignacio took the gold and walked for about half an hour to a creek they had crossed on the way in. About 100 meters up stream they hid two sacks containing the golden plates in a small rocky cave that was barely large enough. They leaned a rock over the opening. On the way back to camp they found a point that overlooked the valley and the only route from Coquito to the tomb. From that moment forward someone was always on guard duty. Nobody wanted any unpleasant surprises.
It was now necessary to sift every shovel of dirt, as gold pieces were appearing frequently. Golden eagles, kings, bells and simple cylinders were the most common. Late in the afternoon of the thirteenth day of digging Quincho’s startled voice echoed out from the hole. “Oh my god! I think I’ve got some bones here.” A few seconds later Rodolfo, Ignacio and Porfilio were at his side. Juanito peered down from above. The four men began moving dirt away from the skeleton. Near the skull appeared the feet and ankle bones of another skeleton. Working until dark the men uncovered three skeletons in a row, head to toe. The next morning they found five more. The skeletons were perfectly preserved, even the teeth. Juanito was visibly shaken. Seeing the bones and knowing that they had once belonged to a living person was really spooky. The men tried to act like they weren’t bothered by the find, but Juanito noticed that everyone was quieter and more subdued than normal. They all turned in early that night, but most tossed and turned and got little rest.
At 4:00 AM, Rodolfo, who had been on guard duty, aroused his sleeping companions. “Hurry, we’ve gotta get moving. Somebody’s coming. I can see their flashlights. We’ve got less than an hour.” Thirty minutes later as the group abandoned the site, a yellowish hint of daylight was peeking over the horizon. They left all of the tools and heavy items behind and moved off into the jungle. They circled down and around and intersected the trail behind the advancing, uninvited visitors. First, the two bags of golden plates were recovered from their hiding place; they then continued on to Coquito. In addition to the plates, they carried another bag of golden trinkets weighing a couple of pounds.
Arriving in Coquito, it took less than five minutes to load their meager cargo in the truck. Porfilio’s friend told them that it was the police from Buenos Aires who had gone to raid their dig. On the way out of town they saw two police pickups at the local guard station where normally there were none. They drove straight on past. On the way to Buenos Aires, Porfilio told those in the back of the pickup that he believed the chief’s chamber was even deeper, and the discoveries up to that point were only his loyal servants and maybe some family. Rodolfo didn’t drive all the way into Buenos Aires but pulled up at the edge of town. He left the motor running while Porfilio climbed down and waved goodbye. He had received a golden eagle, a king and two small bells for his help. Shortly after 2:00 PM the weary travelers rolled to a stop in front of Ignacio’s house in San Isidro. Over a cold beer, they divided the gold into four equal portions, one for each of the men. The two boys, Juanito and Jorge each received a small golden eagle for their help.
As the sun descended in the western sky, Rodolfo and Juanito set out for Dominical. They rode in silence pondering the events of the past couple of weeks, an experience neither would forget for the rest of his life.
Author’s Note: The basic facts of the story related above, including dates, places, and the items found in the tomb, are true and were recounted to me by one of the participants. Most of the details including the names of the people involved are purely fictional.