Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
Our quest for gold began as we waved goodbye to San Juancito and started on the road up the mountain toward La Tigra National Wildlife Preserve. Though rough in spots, the road is very scenic and uneventful overall. All is quiet and serene except for the raucous calls of tropical birds.
A stop at El Rosario Mine gave us the opportunity to try our luck with the metal detectors and wander around for a while acting like tourists. After collecting a religious medal and a few coins, nothing older than 1980, it was time to continue on.
La Tigra provides water to San Juancito, Valle de Angeles, Cantarranas, Santa Lucia, and Tegucigalpa, so we were certain to find running streams within easy hiking distance.
A road winds down the mountain toward a beautiful valley below. It is in good shape for truck traffic, but it doesn't go far. It comes to a halt near an old abandoned explosive shack once used by the mine. The little building is picturesque and, like many structures in San Juancito is covered with remnants of explosive drums as siding. Taking the truck is not an option. From here on there's nothing but burro trails, and a machete comes in mighty handy. This is Indiana Jones country.
About a quarter mile into the jungle we came to the first small stream gurgling down toward San Juancito. I unpacked my panning gear and took a few samples in likely places, both in and alongside the water. Finding nothing to indicate gold, we again moved on.
Panning for Gold
A few explanations may be in order for those who have never taken to the wilds in search of gold. First, panning is for sampling, not production. The purpose of a pan is to locate gold, not to get rich extracting it. There are far more efficient machines for that.
My "IQ" Rule
Here IQ doesn't have much to do with intelligence, but stands for “iron and quartz”. There is an old and time-honored rule of thumb: “You can find iron and quartz without gold, but you cannot find gold without iron and quartz.” In the same breath there is the other adage, “Gold is where you find it.” So there are always exceptions, but this rule works in the vast majority of cases.
In our first stream, the pan residue was only gray andesite and basalt sand, no iron and no quartz. It was a little disappointing but there was no point wasting time here. Another half hour of walking brought us to another stream, with the same sad results. I was becoming a little doubtful of this mountain.
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Our trail became narrower and more difficult to walk safely. After slipping on numerous wet rocks, sliding on muddy hillsides and hacking away overhanging branches, we arrived a little worse for wear at a third stream gushing along. The water was crystal clear, as were all, cool and refreshing for aching mud-caked feet. An old wooden bridge about eight or ten feet high spanned the creek. How long it had been there I don't know, but it was still in somewhat usable condition. Behind the boulders beneath the bridge was as good a place as any for our next sample.
Reading a Stream
Panning for gold requires a minimal knowledge of geology, mineralogy and the physics of water movement in a brook. If there is gold in a stream it's the heaviest material there, and the most difficult for water to move. In a time of flood sand, rocks and gold will all move downstream, the heavier the material the straighter the line in which it will move. Look at the stream and imagine the straightest line possible, and that line is where gold will travel. The inside curves of bends and behind boulders or large rocks are good places to look. Gold will sink to the bottom of any flowing material, so if you can find bedrock you have a great advantage. Gold can sink no lower than bedrock.
Geology and mineralogy are important because you need to know what you're seeing in your pan. The last couple tablespoons of material in the pan will tell you a lot about a stream. It may be gray andesite like the first two streams we sampled, and it may contain a lot of heavy black sand. Or it could be white massive quartz, tiny clear quartz crystals, or any combination of these. The black sand is oxidized iron in the form of magnetite or hematite.
Many times a pan will contain flakes of the most brilliant gold color. If these remain on top of the sand in the pan, and if they swish around with water movement, they are not gold. The flakes are mica, the stuff that fools untold numbers of amateur prospectors.
I dug a hole about a foot deep behind a huge boulder under the bridge and put two or three cupfuls of sand, mud and rocks into my pan. This was the last stream we would test if we wanted to get out before dark, so this one was important. After panning out more than half the material I checked with my loupe magnifier. I was elated, because there in my pan were bits of white quartz and lots of tiny clear quartz crystals, looking like glass needles. After panning down to only a couple teaspoons of sand I looked again. Most of the material left was black iron. I swirled the sand in the pan, and in the last of the tail I saw some tiny specks of yellow. I had found gold!
We sampled a dozen more places along the little brook and found gold in every pan. Only not enough to be worth the effort. A sluice or rocker might do well, but a pan is only a sampling tool, not a production machine.
How to Recognize Gold
So many people, when they hear I've been a gold miner, bring me rocks, gravel, and sand thinking they have gold. Usually it is pyrite, mica, or something else. Gold is difficult to find, and few recognize it when they see it.
The old saying “all that glitters is not gold” can be taken literally, for all that glitters in a stream is NOT gold. Gold does not glitter, pyrite does. Even the tiniest pieces of gold in a pan will look almost like a melted lump of yellow metal, never with flat reflective sides like pyrite.
Could It Be? Two Gold Tests
The shade test: Gold in the sun will look bright yellow and golden. Pyrite in the sun can look similar. Gold in shade will look bright yellow and golden. Pyrite in shade will look dark and dull.
The crush test: This is the most positive field test for gold flakes or tiny nuggets. Put a piece on a flat metal surface like a large knife blade. Using another piece of metal, a spoon is ideal, crush the piece on the knife blade. Pyrite and mica will crush into a dark powder, gold will flatten into a foil and still keep its original golden color.
A Priceless Experience
We found gold below La Tigra, but not a lot. The pan did its job, showing us the geology of the canyon above, and gold. That's all it's supposed to do. I believe a sluice could do well in that stream and perhaps be worthwhile for the labor spent. Hardly anyone in Honduras has seen a sluice or metal detector, and most don't know they exist, so the opportunity is wide open for anyone with an adventurous spirit. Even without finding gold or buried treasure, the trip and the commune with nature in the tropical jungle is priceless.