Romancing the Stone in Guatemala

From his workshop in Antigua, Guatemala, geologist Jay Ridinger demonstrates the beauty of a boulder of Olmec Blue Jade before it is cut into gemstones.
From his workshop in Antigua, Guatemala, geologist Jay Ridinger demonstrates the beauty of a boulder of Olmec Blue Jade before it is cut into gemstones.

Deep within the cloud forests of Guatemala lies a mystery hidden by a mountain range stretching more than two miles (3.2 km) high. Far above, mists swirl like ghostly wraiths over the remains of centuries of volcanic debris, sheltering the most prized treasure of the Mayan universe—the rare blue jade.

When the Spanish conquered this region in the 16th century, the source of this gem was lost. That is, until 1998, when Hurricane Mitch tore open the mother lode—a deep vein of translucent blue jade. Like many others, I’ve been captivated by this blue gem. So, with two companions, I’ve come to the Sierra de las Minas, the Mountain of the Mines in northeastern Guatemala, hoping to retrace the steps of the early Mayan traders and archaeologists.

Our objective is a trek down into the Motagua Valley, where most of the jade has been discovered. It’s a 20-mile (32 km) wilderness trail through forbidding terrain that is home to more than 2,000 species of flora and 800 different birds and mammals, including ocelots and howler monkeys. The Nature Conservancy reports it as one of the last truly wild places of Guatemala.

Looking for help in narrowing down the location of the blue jade mines, I meet with U.S. geologist Jay Ridinger, who has been living in Guatemala part time since 1975 in the colonial city of Antigua. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and is itself a gem. Crumbling ruins rest in splendour alongside cobblestone streets, and stone fountains peek from behind wrought iron grates.

Ridinger’s showroom, Jades S.A., is located in a restored 17th century building. In 1975, Ridinger and his wife, Mary Lou, a noted archaeologist, explored the remote canyons in search of the source of jade beads they’d spotted in the shops of Antigua.

Most archaeologists assumed Guatemalan jade had come from China across the Bering Sea, but the Ridingers believed otherwise. Their persistence was rewarded with a find of Olmec Blue Jade, a descriptive term referring to the Olmec culture that blue jade is commonly called.

Ridinger, his monocle firmly in place, shows me how to identify jade. “It’s an old stone that lies deep below the surface,” he says. “You need to strike it to wake it up, and when you do, it sings.”

Sure enough—a good rap with a hammer and I hear a resounding echo instead of a thud.

Ridinger explains that Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Guatemala are the only two countries in the world that produce Jadeite, the most valued of the two types of jade. (Nephrite is the other and has only little value.) But Guatemala produces jade with the most color variety. The palette includes rainbow, champagne and lavender, but the blue hue is the most prized.

The Mayan made sacrificial knives, beads, and ceremonial masks of jade—the most famous being the death mask of a King found in the Mayan ruins of Tikal in northeastern Guatemala. But Ridinger won’t disclose the source of his jade, and it becomes obvious that the location of the mines is still a guarded secret.

Hoping to uncover the secret, we launch our jade hunt from the pueblo or village of Chilasco, seven miles (12 km) off the main road in Sierra de las Minas. We ask directions from a local, and soon he’s in the backseat of our Toyota, coaxing us up the narrow road that leads even deeper into the mountains.

“It’s steep but solid, if you’re careful,” he says. We near the town—a few battered homes and a large playing field. Soon, Esteban Hernandez appears. High rubber boots and a tattered cowboy hat, he’s the wiry commissioner of the Defensores de la Naturaleza, the conservation authority. His two dogs are the same amber color as the thick mud that puddles in the street.

“In 1969, we found a jade boulder weighing several tons submerged in the earth not too far from here,” Hernandez explains. “It took 300 villagers to haul it back to town.” The huge monolith now sits in the local schoolyard. Hernandez points out a series of grooves along the top edges where ropes were once suspended and used by the villagers to hang criminals. I surreptitiously tap it, and there’s the resounding ring again.

After a four-mile (6 km) warm up hike, we were familiar with the terrain, and I was anxious to go further. Hernandez waves over a villager who will be our guide for the next stretch. It’s a steep descent to a waterfall and then two days of heavy trudging into the Motagua Valley, where I believe the jade lies. A light misty rain, called chipi-chipi, is falling, and, with the thick fog, it’s bone chillingly cold but beautiful. There’s a giant florescent fern uncurling in perfect form and waterfalls that quietly fall into dark reflecting pools in the dense jungle.

More than 63 rivers find their source in these mountains, providing water to irrigate the valley below and 90 percent of Guatemala’s water supply. Although it rains 300 days a year here, January to March are the driest. In late November, we’re pushing our luck.

A small crowd of villagers forms to accompany us. They look concerned and tell us that a mule broke a leg here earlier this week – not a good omen. The mouth of the trail is in poor shape – a thick muddy soup.

One serious boy watches my face, and I joke, “Dinosaur caca.” He laughs, but this is a serious problem because even the guide ropes to control our descent are buried in the smothering mud. “It’s worse below,” our guide offers, trampling the ferns along the raised edge.

Yet, we agree to press on, and I forge ahead. Suddenly, I’m careening out of control, falling head first down a water slide of surprisingly slippery goo that slides and moves forward like a living beast. As they haul me out by my collar, I peek around the bend and see that the rest of the trail is completely submerged in water. I realize that this attempt is over.

The rain continues to fall for the next several days, and we explore a maze of underground caves while waiting for the jade trail to improve. But time runs out, and it seems the treasure is not yet ready to reveal its secret source. Yet, as we return from the mountain toward the arid desert, long fingers of columnar cacti seem to point to distant river valleys and the source of the lost jade.

If You Go

In Sierra de las Minas

Hotel Posada Montaña del Quetzal: Km 156.5 Hwy. #14, 502-332- 4969 or 502-335-1805. Choice of single rooms or stone bungalows with fireplaces.

Biotopo Mario Dary Reserve: The Quetzal sanctuary is open each day until 4 p.m. and the entrance is at 161 km Hwy. #14.

Trekking Guides (Spanish speaking only) into the Motagua Valley can be arranged by asking in the towns of Chilasco, seven miles (12 km) off Hwy. #14 or in Salama via Hwy. #17.

In Antigua

Jades S.A. Showroom is located at #34, 4 calle oriente, Antigua.

Posada La Merced Hotel: #43, 7 Avenida Norte, 502-832-3197. Single rooms with private bath set around a lush garden courtyard are US$ 31,

Janna Graber
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