The day was bright and clear: breakfast at the hotel for the three and coffee for me. The maps were unfolded again, to match up the topographic versions with the all-purpose full size Guatemalan version. There was a plan. Find and get through the nearby town of Chiantla and go north, up and over the steep incline of the Los Cuchamatanes mountain range in front of us and see what there was in the first village nearest that showed the symbol of the crossed pick/shovel indicating a mine nearby.
La Capellania, it was called and it was cold at 9000 feet plus. The wind wasn’t kind and the natives wore ragged but colorful blankets. The sheep grew their own, the skinny dogs huddled under what shelter they could find and the turkeys just ruffled their feathers. The Paquix plateau tops out at 11000 feet or so and the high ranges were used to wind: the trees, what there were, had been sculpted by air flows.
The few houses we passed were adobe and built low to the ground, as if to hold in the heat. The pink and black pigs were also low to the ground and scurried quickly. There didn’t seem to be any obvious signs that pointed to any diggings so by unspoken mutual consent we kept on the road, which had turned northwest. At the first fork in the recently paved two lane track which had wound around a couple of brick-making operations in the middle of nowhere, we stopped to reconnoiter. Ponzi Bob found a small store to stock up on toilet paper, as his breakfast was haunting him.
Todos Santos Cuchamatan’, anyone? None of us had been there, the road was good and there was a dotted line and three more ‘pick and shovel’ symbols to look for. No such luck: there was a turn-out just over the pass going down into the far off valley where Todos Santos claimed to be. There were piles of boulders and small chunks of gray striped rocks that were proclaimed to be limestone. It was a brief field lesson in geology until the wind drove us back into the warmth of the Toyota and down the steep and winding road to Todos Santos Cuchamatan’.
It was Market day, being a Saturday and the narrow streets were jammed with buses, shuttles and men in their red and white striped pants, blue and white striped/embroidered shirts and topped with small round straw hats set off with wide blue ribbons. The womenfolk were a bit more subdued, with black skirts and vivid purple embroidered blouses. They stared at us and we stared back: where and why were these four old gringos from? Being in a small and remote mountain village where everyone dresses more or less identically and makes an effort to do so is a cultural anomaly, at least to most of us. If you can, imagine going to Wal-Mart on a Saturday, anywhere and finding everyone wearing the same striped canvas pants, the shirt and the round straw hat with a ribbon. The people of Todos Santos are proud of their heritage, taller than the average Mayan and this aberration in clothing choices is nothing more than a way to maintain their identity in a changing world, a simple native version of ‘us against them’.
The road back to town was now a known quantity: the vistas were as grand going the other direction and we never did spot any trails leading off into the nearby hills that might have been worthy of a stop.
Except for one: on the way up the steep and winding road to the first summit above Chiantla, we had passed a group of men and boys digging away at a hillside and letting the debris tumble to the side of the road. I’d observed that it might be a sand and gravel operation but on the way down, from above we could see at least three good-sized openings in the cliff face above. We stopped there and the digging was over for the day: what appeared to be a lone guard across the highway stared at us, but we were four and he was only one. Our vehicle might’ve been a bit dusty but it was fairly new and four large gringos probably weren’t on his list of potential problems. The ‘Professor’, Mike D, found a rock hammer in the back of the Toyota and scrambled up to the nearest shaft. The rest of us sat on boulders and soaked up the afternoon sun. The guard didn’t move.
Ten minutes later, the ‘Professor’ came down, with a chunk of rock in his hand: it was flat, gray, heavy and didn’t look like any ore any of us had ever seen. I was tempted to call it a piece of “Leaverite” as in ‘leave it right there’ but one can’t come home from an expedition with nothing to show for the effort.
The shaft had been tunneled in for about a depth of twenty feet or so and this didn’t have the look of a sand and gravel working site. The level of technology used was pick and shovel grade, and a step above the Ned Anderthal School of Mining Course 1-A. We loaded up again and waved at the guard, who now shyly waved back: his problems had just ceased by leaving and it was cocktail time at the Casa Blanca in Hue Hue.
The large vine-covered patio there held at least thirty tables, each with a red and white tablecloth: one in a corner for us, beer for them and a double 12 year old rum on ice for me. The rock sample was passed around and I was thinking paperweight material, except for the density and heft. Another round or three, the last dinner was ordered (try their beef fajitas if you go) and tired though we might have been, we weren’t coming home empty-handed. Had we really found one of the silver mines? If so, it wasn’t where the map indicated. The answer? maybe, probably. Norm the K did his homework later and pronounced his findings: ‘most likely, probably and nothing else would fit the description.’ Vindication? who knows? Even with the price of silver climbing, it wasn’t the kind of project that justified further more time and trouble. It was, after all, just a simple field trip, to see places we hadn’t and whatever turned up was a souvenir of a great weekend in Hue Hue and Todos Santos.