Mining Ametrine in Bolivia

What is it like to be in a dense jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a tight, chiseled cavern 200 feet underground, sweaty, dripping wet, hunting for crystals? In 1995, I was invited by a miner named Ramiro Rivera to meet him in the Bolivian jungle and there to unearth treasure in his ametrine mine.  Ametrine is a recently discovered gem in which amethyst and citrine decided to lie down together, purple and gold united in the same crystal. The Anahi mine may be the only place on earth where Nature concocted this anomaly. It’s a long way to Bolivia. Once there, it’s a long way to the banks of the Paraguay River. Then it’s a long way upriver through hundreds of miles of impenetrably thick jungle, weaving through estuaries, gliding over massive areas of water in an open skiff with an outboard motor. Tropical birds of all colors enliven the skies; alligators sun themselves on the banks. Fall overboard and get eaten: the piranhas are the size of my forearm. Before the sun has set, a desolate road pokes out of the jungle, meeting the banks of a prehistoric lake. At the end of the world’s bumpiest road is the mining camp. The mouth of the mine is a 100-foot vertical shaft. A large bucket lowers to the bottom, to be filled with debris as earth is carved out and brought to the surface. I head down a series of ten woven, vine-wrapped wooden ladders, submerging into the darkness. Gripped with a curious blend of excitement and fear, my boots finally find their footing in the inner earth. Air is being pumped into the hole, but there is appreciably less and less with every step deeper into the mine. Not enough room down here for claustrophobia. I didn’t have it going in, but I’ve got it now. With every step I hunch lower and lower, body scrunched tighter to accommodate the narrowing, descending black tunnel chiseled out of rock. The fantasy of being in a subterranean crystal mine was exciting a month ago. The reality now is terrifying. My mind asks ugly questions that I don’t really want to know the answers to. I was bubbling with optimism until I entered this hole; now the reptilian part of my brain has taken charge, coiled and rattling in this hot, wet subterranean sauna with the air sucked out of it. My adrenaline is spiking, and my heart has moved, up just below my ears. The jarring banging of my hard hat on the low-lying rock ceiling mixes the cocktail of body chemistry into a froth. Something has to go—either my body or my mind.  But I didn’t come all this way to split now; I’m going deeper.  The tunnel is supported by strategically placed hand-hewn hardwood timbers to keep the roof from caving in. My headlamp reveals that some of these rock-hard logs have sprouted bright green leaves in the blackness of the cavern, a testament to Nature’s inexhaustible will and the bizarre ecosystem that exists in inner earth. Crawling on my belly through the tightest passageway, my white shirt’s become a painting in shades of red clay mixed with sweat. Suddenly, the limestone walls open into a chamber and I stand before a stream gushing through the cave walls at my feet. Affixed to the roof are thousands of crystals hanging like bats. My wide-open eyes pan the room, my headlamp beam sparking reflections off of every facet. In one pocket are different matrices from pegmatites to clay, producing crystals that exhibit a variety of shapes and growth patterns.  The choicest fruit are the floaters on the far wall, delicately packed, pressed into the soft, moist, squishy clay.

My focus has shifted from self-preservation to the wonderment of being entombed in a treasure chest. I take my crowbar and carefully lance the mud, prying out a floating crystal, taking pains not to ding or damage the specimen from its million-year slumber.

I am no longer 200 feet down in the belly of the underworld. I am in heaven.

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