Costa Rica’s Second Meteorite
Un caso de pura birra.
The summer Tuesday night skies were clear at 9:07, April 23, 2019, when the fireball flew above the crater of erupting Volcan Turrialba, captured on video by government cameras monitoring activity.
Dash cams and security cameras around the country photographed the object as it exploded, dropping material. The fireball had a tail, and wiggled like an eager spermatozoa as it prepared to impregnate Mother Earth.
I was already asleep, my body rhythms aligned to the suns’ voyage across the sky.
At nine degrees north of the Equator there’s a twelve-hour day/night schedule year round. I constructed my mountain-top home to allow dawn’s light to invade the bedroom.
Later, as the curtain closes on another day, the Sun falls into the ocean, behind islands that float like boats in the sea.
My neighbors wind the same time piece. I’ve never heard an alarm clock nor met a campesino who needed sleeping pills. I live within a slow heartbeat of the Nicoya Peninsula ‘Blue Zone’, where people live past one-hundred years, forgetting to die.
While I slumbered, Facebook was buzzing with witness observations, and the news of the meteorite fall spread around the world.
Aloof to the black stones sitting in cow pastures 50km to the north, Wednesday promised to be another fine day. It began with a plate of sliced papaya and sweet mangos washed down with legendary coffee, taken black. Then I squeezed into my rubber farmer boots and hauled a few buckets of water down the mountainside to irrigate the Peruvian Aji pepper plants and my blooming Haas avocado tree. It hadn’t rained since December 2.
I drove to a futbol field manicured like a golf course and ran my laps. Returning home, I showered and enjoyed a simple lunch of sardines, crackers and olives. Joel Schiff sent a congratulatory email for successfully blooming an orchid, my first. I plugged into the NY stock exchange, joining the ‘smart money’ that trades at the close. I stirred up some Szechuan Shrimp for dinner. Already nighttime at 6:15pm, I eased into my chair with a second glass of red to watch the national news, then ‘Survivor’, my English-language treat of the week.
After a blind-sided victim was voted off the island, I walked out to the dirt road alongside my terracotta-colored block wall. Under the last streetlight before the cow trail descends into blackness, white-feathered moths had flushed, forming clouds of hopeless prey. A dozen bats feasted, flying inches from my face, uncaring of my presence, their wings creating the briefest of breezes.
Glad for that day-ending wildlife experience I retired for some reading in bed. Buried under 445-pages of Cosmic Debris, Burke’s book grew heavy and fell from my hands and was put aside.
Meanwhile, an elite group of meteorite hunters were rushing to catch flights to SJO – San Jose, Costa Rica, to clean up some real ‘cosmic debris’.
Thursday is my errand day, spent driving to the mountain town of Puriscal where I food shop and talk with merchant friends who share gossip. I purchased a copy of La Nacion, the country’s best newspaper, and drove home. Once there, I tossed it on the table and made some lunch, more sardines, a quality brand from Spain.
I opened the paper. There was an extraordinary article taking up most of the front page.
“Cientificos cautos por roca que perforo’ techo de casa”.
Scientists are cautious about the rock that perforated the house roof. There’s a photo of a hole in a tin roof and another of a hand holding a fist-sized, well-articulated meteorite. The writer asked, “Is it a meteorite?”
I laughed out loud. No doubt! But the local volcanologists wanted a chemical analysis before they confirmed or ‘discarded versions’.
The story continued on page 14 where I learned that a woman at home watching TV heard “the intrusion”, observed the hole in the roof and a rock inserted between halves of a folding table. A geologist skeptically suggested that “the roof did not exhibit much damage, while meteorites are known to be very heavy as they are made of iron, nickel and other elements”.
Mauricio Mora, director de la Escuela de Geologia de la Universidad Costa Rica remarked, “The country has no protocols to manage these situations, like when a rock falls at Aguas Zarcas.” He added that personnel at the school often were given ‘meteorites’ that had been confused with celestial bodies. “Many times they are volcanic rocks.” Costa Rica has no laws regarding meteorites.
I hastened to finish eating the small fishies, and went into the office to start google-searching people mentioned in the story. I was able to email each one, sending a brief summary of my experience and offering to help recover and curate specimens. I was copied on a reply that had been flipped to the others, “That sounds good!”
I googled ‘the meteorite fall at Aguas Zarcas Costa Rica’ and was startled by the volume of photos and descriptions of meteorites. Some news sources were definitively calling it a ‘chondrite’ without explanation. I read that it was part of a ‘meteor stream’, the Lyrids.
I found a Face Book timeline from Repretel news reporter Allan Jura. He had met several people with specimens. Many were ebony-black, 100% crusted with thumbprints galore. There was a phone number and I called it.
We talked for thirty minutes and made an appointment to meet tomorrow at 10am in Aguas Zarcas. I would be introduced to the scientists I had emailed. He said he was looking forward to learning about meteorites.
I packed for three hotel nights, and included a few meteorites I keep in a grand display case. I didn’t know how much had fallen, and showing people examples would help them in their search.
On-line photos showed that one stone had celestial blue, effervescent surface areas that reminded me of the copper tones on some SAU 001’s, an L4/5. I stowed my one-kilo example, figuring it might enhance my limited academic credentials with the volcanologists.
I included my Riker of a 2.5-gram slice of Costa Rica’s first meteorite, Heredia H5, (tkw = 1 kg) which fell in 1857. All of it went to museums around the world. American dealer Russ Kempton sold the University of Costa Rica the country’s only specimen of two grams.
To preserve national patrimony, unlike 1857, I hoped that CR university volcanologists would prioritize acquiring specimens through hunting or purchase.
I continued to pack, and loaded a gnarly specimen of Sikhote-Alin to represent Irons, my Haag slice of PAL Esquel, and representative slices/frags of the Moon and Mars’ Black Beauty, itself a great story. I enjoy doing ‘show-and-tell’, and will talk to attentive audiences of one.
I grabbed what cash I had. I couldn’t find my ‘rare earth magnet’, which should have been stuck to my Campo. I remembered to retrieve the gram scale in case I got lucky, and went to bed.
I laid there pondering the driving route to Aguas Zarcas, one with no easy options. I was cognizant of the coincidence of buying the newspaper detailing the fall on the only day of my life that I could. I considered the pleasure of meeting hunters in the field, armed with eyes, not guns. I was restless with adrenalin.
I thought about my life.
I live on top of a mountain as the last house on a dirt road. I have land to re-forest, an agreeable climate, and a million-dollar view. I have electricity and things to use it, but Uber might arrive on horseback.
Had I skipped today’s trip to town and just waited for the Saturday Farmer’s Market – delighted by lettuce pulled from the ground an hour ago, and large globe radishes that glowed like Mars – I might still not know of the fall.
But truth be told, on this particular Thursday, more immediate than fancy radishes, necessity was positioning me to buy the newspaper reporting the fall. A powerful force compelled me to travel. I was going to town even if an earthquake opened an unpassable abyss blocked by landslides slithering with venomous snakes. There were no other options.
I was out of beer.
Aguas Zarcas, Alajuela, Costa Rica
At first light I was wakened by the persistent call of the Yiguirro, Turdis grayi, the ‘Clay-colored Robin’, Costa Rica’s national bird. “Tock, tock, tock….pup, pup, pup…keyooooo, keyooooo…”
Whistles, warbles, trills, trilly warbles, warbly whistles, piercing notes. He’s calling for rain, pleading for rain. And after five months of El Nino-enhanced drought, he’s frustrated.
I was on the road by 5:15 expecting to be a few minutes early for my 10am meeting with Allan.
As the Yiguirro flies the distance to Aguas Zarcas is only fifty kilometers, but there’s no north-south road between me and the meteorites. There are seven volcanos. I’ll first be driving forty kilometers east, up and over the Continental Divide, then fifty kilometers west skirting San Jose and surely to endure one or two areas of morning rush hour. Then fifty kilometers north and uphill on a narrow, twisting road stuck behind oft-stopping public buses and slow-motion semi-trucks carrying cabbages.
Once back in the country-side it’s a beautiful ride, bordered by highland farms resting on rolling green pasture. This bucolic scene is embedded within low-flying, ominous gray cloud fragments reminiscent of the chilly Scottish Moors.
I’ll then abruptly descend the steamy Caribbean slope. An hour later I’ll arrive at the small town of Aguas Zarcas.
After stopping for fuel, I arrived at 9:45 and pulled over across from the cemetery, certainly a can’t miss landmark now or in the hereafter. I parked in front of a hotel renting rooms by the hour, an odd juxtaposition to the ‘customers’ across the street that will be staying forever.
I called Allan. He was “fifteen minutes away” at the nearby cow town of San Carlos, aka Ciudad Quesada.
Allan arrived an hour later in his Hyundai SUV. Worried that we were late for our meeting with the volcanologists, he explained, “They were already here and left.” We drove separately and I followed him in the direction of the home of the lady and family who suffered minor roof damage Tuesday night. I recalled from the news story that the family wanted their identity and location kept secret.
After a few minutes we turned left and parked on a dirt road bordered by almendro trees and barbed wire. I saw him dialing his cellphone, so I climbed down and out of my Toyota Land Cruiser, ‘The Beast’.
I had never named a vehicle, but I have affection for this one, designed for high-clearance, rain-forest rambling. A 4×4 powered by a 3.0-liter diesel with a ‘torquey’ five-speed manual transmission, it can climb slippery slopes. A snorkel rises above the windshield in case I need to ford rivers. Sporting a roof rack with overhead lights, reinforced- steel skid plates and a cow chaser in the front, it’s never failed to bring me home.
I walked over to Allan. “No one is answering. We’ll go somewhere else.”
We drove back towards town. Suddenly, a stream of police cars came in our direction with sirens blaring and lights flashing. They were driving parallel, utilizing both lanes. We pulled completely off the road.
Not chasing criminals, they were leading a cross country bike race, and ‘Tour de’ France’- garbed racers went streaming past at surprising speed. The support vehicles followed, all with spare bikes attached to their roofs. An important sport here, practice pelotons are commonly encountered as one drives around the country.
Allan turned into an area called ‘Marina’. Suburban-style, two-story colonial homes were on the right, a maximum-security penitentiary on the left.
Neither zoning nor code enforcement exist in Costa Rica. Instead, a perimeter wall around the home allegedly allows one to ignore what occurs on the other side, no matter how noisy or smelly. A wall surrounding a property is unquestionably inviolable. Barbed wire fences express the same theme. For all the good vibes the country projects, crime is both planned and opportunistic. Prudent persons stay wary and take protective measures.
We crossed a one-lane bridge and passed a couple of pulperias (convenience stores) serving the area’s residents, school kids and weekend futbol players. We turned onto a thick asphalt road and into a neighborhood of middle-class homes. As we got deeper into the development, the space between them grew. Residences sat in solitude among the cow pastures, shaded by the few remaining rain forest giants. We parked in front of what I’ll refer to as the “Yellow House.”
During the next few days this two- bedroom, one- bathroom home would be a place I returned to over and over as the neighbors congregated to offer specimens. Today it was crowded.
Allan received a hearty welcome. He introduced me as “…a journalist, researching a story about the meteorites. He wants to buy some, too.”
The volcanologists had been here. They mentioned that I would soon arrive, which seemed odd.
I was the first hunter in the fall zone, destined to be the first to make an offer and ‘set the market price’. I felt a responsibility to all who would soon arrive, professional hunters with experience, as well as to the sellers, that they receive a fair exchange for the winning lottery tickets that had floated down from space.
I had discussed this likely circumstance with the longest-tenured meteorite dealer in the world, Blaine Reed, and we had agreed on what was a fair ‘street price’ for a fresh fall without a known TKW or classification.
For purposes of this story, I’ll call it ‘1X/gram’.
I greeted the husband and wife (names withheld by request) who were on the porch with some children and neighbors. The woman produced a spectacular +kilo stone of black velvet.
“When the scientists were here, they told us not to sell anything”.
One of the University of Costa Rica volcanologists visiting the Yellow House had coined a phrase that soon echoed in the media. “The Aguas Zarcas event is an extraordinary find and of great scientific interest at a national and international level that transcends any possible economic value that may be assigned to the fragments.”
I was told that the volcanologists sought specimens, but didn’t have money to pay for them.
A young boy handed me a plastic bag containing treasure he had found next to the asphalt road in front of his home. He was thrilled to accept 1X per gram, more money than he had ever possessed.
His father smiled broadly after this transaction and presented a perfectly round, perfectly whole, and uniformly black stone. At his request I weighed it. I asked him if he would like to sell his 32.5 gram specimen.
He smiled and said nothing. We looked at each other.
Then he simply said, “Esperare’ ”.
Last time that I saw him he was still waiting for his price, although he hadn’t yet said what it was.
A car pulled up and the people hanging around the Yellow House walked down to greet the passengers. The driver, Danilo, had heard I was here and paying cash. He had two dried coconut shells full of stones.
Except for variations in size they were all about the same. Black and beautiful.
Danilo teased me about his assumption of my wealth, one that allowed me to pay outrageous amounts of money for ‘rocks’. Then he questioned the accuracy of my scale. But he wanted to sell.
Allan filmed my work as I examined the specimens, weighing some I believed I could afford.
I did not arrive with thousands of dollars. Danilo had a couple specimens that appeared to weigh close to a half-kilo each, for which payment I would need to make a bank run on Monday, an eternity to wait when I expected the hunting hordes to arrive any minute.
Anne Black had messaged me that Michael Farmer had enigmatically mentioned on his Facebook that he was about to “take a trip.”
I selected two complete individuals, and we agreed on the price of 1X per gram. I counted out ‘Benjamins’ until I ran out, then continued paying the balance in ‘hummingbirds’, the creature featured on orange, twenty-thousand ($34) colone bills.
Allan’s video went viral and became a widely-viewed Costa Rican online news story that slanted toward avarice. Without examples, another news story claimed that “meteorites are worth millions of dollars.” This did not go unnoticed in a social-media addicted country.
The crowd around the car thinned out, and the children resumed hunting the ditches next to the road. I asked for Danilo’s contact information. I told him I’d have money enough Monday to purchase his remaining material. I kept in touch over the week-end.
Purchasing material was fun. Walking around the side of the road or in cow pastures was boring. In between, I felt it was important to take notes of witness accounts for this feature in the Meteorite Times. I collected phone numbers and email addresses to allow for follow-up interviews and future purchases.
I was excited by the possibilities of the stones in my possession, whose interiors revealed sparse, tiny chondrules within a black matrix.
Allan wanted me to see the largest specimen known to him, so we drove off through a secondary- growth forest on a highly-rutted cow trail that left me sucking dust raised by his car. He was driving recklessly, observing the Tico maxim that, “I am the Master of my car, it is not the Master of me.”
Later, we both ended up in the shop for screw tightening.
We emerged onto a dirt road. I followed him along a high ridge that gave inspiring views of the plains of San Carlos that continue north into Nicaragua. The road narrowed to little more than a wide trail as we continued uphill. Normally, when I feel that by going further I will not be able to turn around without falling off a cliff, I park and walk. But we continued.
A peon and his wife suddenly appeared from inside the forest. We stopped. It could have been a scene from a Carlos Castaneda novel, the shaman emerging from the mist. Allan had found the owners of a large meteorite. Or they had found us.
They were Nicaraguans. I began an interview, the husband quiet, allowing his wife to speak.
She had heard a single explosion Tuesday night but didn’t think much of it. Wednesday morning, as she went about her work she saw a large rock lying on the vestiges of this ox-cart passage and picked it up. She had heard stories about meteorites, and knew she had one.
The woman pointed to a spot with a vague circular discoloration within which I thought were sub-gram fragments of a meteorite. “This is where I found it.”
I asked if I could have those pieces before the predicted rain washed them away, and the husband kindly and thoroughly collected them for me, placing them in a small jar I had brought.
I thanked him.
I asked if I could see the meteorite. The lady carried a cotton bag, and removed it from within.
She allowed me to photograph it as long as I did not include her face.
She gave it to me, and I saw for the first time – on any meteorite – an azure-blue glaze.
I learned later that researchers believe that this surface dis-coloration is caused by out-gassing as the stone tumbles through the atmosphere.
Here was another specimen for which I lacked funds to purchase, and I did not offer an estimate of value.
Once in my hands, I estimated its weight at two kilograms. Several fractures exposed a fresh interior lacking secondary crust, and was available for me to appraise.
The matrix was matte-gray/black. It had the texture of fine sandpaper, but was not friable. With my loupe I saw a few one millimeter-sized chondrules. I perceived a couple of CAI’s.
It was likely a CM2.
No, I knew it was a CM2, arriving five months’ shy of the fifty-year anniversary of the fall of Murchison.
According to NASA specialist Daniel Glavin, the DNA and RNA present in all life on earth have been found in that famous meteorite. Why would this one be different?
I was profoundly moved, because in times before antiquity, this Mother-ship from the Heavens I was holding could have been the catalyst for life on our planet.
And this rock was evidence that reinforcements are still arriving.
Only sixty hours before, hundreds of potential life-inducing fragments from this fireball had rained down from the sky, planting themselves in the manure-enriched, volcanic soil of Costa Rica. The cosmic Diaspora continues.
But now I wondered…where is the spring from which this flows? And why does it flow at all?
The couple were not selling. I was glad for the small fragments of road kill I was gifted, and the opportunity to be the first among Team Meteorite to examine such a spectacular planetary pollinator. The eventual sale of this specimen will dramatically change these two lives. For other reasons it changed mine.
Allan was hungry, so after severe issues with simply turning our vehicles around, wheels levitating in thin air, we stopped at a ‘soda’. It’s typically a two-table, family-run restaurant where you find Grandma cooking, using locally sourced, inexpensive ingredients. El plato del dia, the ‘plate of the day’ (really the same plate every day) consisted of an ice-cream scoop of white rice, some black beans, a portion of fried, sweet plantain, julienned cabbage and carrot with a lime slice for dressing, and your choice of fish (tilapia) or chicken (many ways) with a fresh-squeezed glass of juice (name your fruit). My $5 payment earned me a grateful smile from the proprietress.
First chore on the ‘Honey-do’ list – A Roof Repair
After entertaining the restaurant owner’s grandchildren with stories of Mars while enjoying their wide-eye views of a brand-new meteorite, Allan and I left to visit the small pueblo of La Caporal. There, a family wishing to maintain their anonymity had a hole in their tin roof, a busted up fiberglass table, and a CM2 meteorite weighing 1.07 kilograms liable for the damage.
As before, Allan pulled off the highway and onto a dirt road bordered by forest and barbed wire. He called and spoke for a few minutes, assuring the husband that I would not expose them. We loaded up in our separate vehicles and proceeded for a few hundred meters. The road ended where some homes clustered together, likely a family compound of several generations bonded by marriage. The surrounding area was pasture, and in the distance rose the triangular silhouette of Costa Rica’s iconic Volcan Arenal.
Allan introduced me to the forty-ish couple, both business people, and their two teenagers, a boy and girl. Sitting in their living room I began the interview, and we talked for thirty minutes. Their story had been widely published and I only wanted to fill in some ‘blanks’.
The wife had been home watching TV at the moment of impact, and thought the entire house was about to collapse. She investigated, and discovered the celestial-inspired damage. She removed the stone from where it had wedged between two halves of a folding table leaning against a wall, and reported that it was “very hot”. Afraid, she called for nearby family members, then the police. The Fuerzo Publico wanted the stone, but she resisted.
I pressed her to recall her burning sensation when she first touched the specimen, only seconds after it landed. Could it actually have been very, very cold? Not as cold as her look of displeasure at my question. She had not heard explosions or observed any brightening inside her living room.
I asked to see the damage, and she took Allan and I into a back storage area. Allan had been there and taken photographs, which he has posted on his Face Book blog. I took some more.
Everything related to the meteorite had been left alone, only the specimen had been moved. Fiberglass shards from the table mixed with meteorite frags on the floor. It reminded me of a TV crime scene.
The husband came in and I asked him when would he replace the single damaged ‘lamina’? He didn’t know, he would wait. I urged him to collect the table splinters and meteorite fragments from the floor and keep them separate. The stones would have more value than meteorites collected elsewhere in Aguas Zarcas. I pointed out that a 1”x2” wood slat that supported the zinc ceiling had been broken by the stone and should be retained as part of the story.
The woman brought out the meteorite. I noticed aligned regmaglypts that appeared as if four fingers had pressed into potting clay. She allowed me to photograph her fingers placed within the impressions. In playful cosmic serendipity, they fit perfectly.
The family, Allan and I returned to the living room, and I retrieved the meteorites I had brought from home. I passed around the specimens describing their historic context and place in science. The teenagers enjoyed the discussion, their father smiled when I photographed him holding both the Moon and Mars.
It was late twilight and time for me to leave. I asked the father if he knew of a hotel catering to businessmen, not tourists. The ‘Provincial’ was his excellent choice, with high ceilings, hot water, aircon, cable TV and a good restaurant. You’ll sleep comfortably at c17,000/$28 per night.
Solo, en el Campo del Cielo
Saturday morning, I left the hotel before their restaurant opened and drove back to Marina. I parked The Beast and began inspecting roadsides for black rocks. For the next few hours, I was alone in the planet’s newest ‘field of the sky’.
When I hike, I carry a walking stick. Not for support, but good for menacing the local dogs running about with teeth bared, guarding their domain. Now it was useful for pushing aside weeds and tall grasses which might be hiding meteorites …. and venomous snakes, of which there are twenty-three varieties in Costa Rica. Their bite ranges from ‘bad enough’ to ‘just sit down and relax, you’re about to be dead’.
You don’t get to pick your poison.
I came across a young man working in a barn. I called him over to the roadside, and asked him if he had found any meteorites.
Romel Jarquine Centano reached into his pants’ pocket and handed me a small specimen of about a gram. I offered to pay him 1x. “Just keep it”. I took his photo, promising that for the story I was writing he would be memorialized with a fourth name.
He described being outside when the fireball exploded, followed by a “whoosh”. Romel said that it was falling straight down from above his head, but then the fire went out, and no stones fell near him.
“It was falling straight down from above my head”…
Put yourself in those zapatos. Only the apocryphal Nakhla Dog has shared that experience and it ended badly, “like ashes in a moment.” (Note to meteorite newbies and dead dog advocates – There never was that dog, just a dog gone story.)
I thanked him for his generosity and continued to walk. And walk. And walk.
Some folks are good fishermen and could feed themselves for a lifetime. But if there were no fishmongers I would never taste a trout.
The same concept applies to recovering meteorites in the field, where I might be tripping over them, unseen.
I returned to The Beast for my water bottle, and decided that the hour was ripe enough to revisit the Yellow House.
As I drove there I noticed some small, black objects on a neighbor’s roof. A man was washing his car in the driveway. I stopped.
“Sir, did you find any meteorites on your property that you want to sell?”
No. But he had heard the fireball. “I was watching TV, and there was an explosion. Then I heard what sounded like rain on my roof. But I didn’t think anything of it.”
“While driving by I saw some black things on your roof. If you have a ladder, may I take a look?”
Conveniently, one was leaning against the garage wall. He wouldn’t let me climb up, but took a look himself. “There’s something up here.”
He climbed down and grabbed the first thing he saw, a garden hose. He climbed back up and tried to use it to snare the objects, predictably failing, and climbed down.
“Solo tornillos”. Only screws.
I returned on Monday after the rain had poured down the night before. The house lacked gutters and I could see from the road that the black objects were no longer there. The screws holding down the roof were light gray. The man’s wife was standing in the garage. I pulled over and parked. I explained that I had met her husband Saturday when we checked the roof for meteorites, but now the objects are no longer there. May I look next to the garage where they would have fallen from the rain?
“There’s nothing there. So don’t bother.”
I was three meters away from where they would have landed in trampled grass.
“Well thank you for your time. Pase un bien dia.”
Many people were hanging out at the Yellow House on a Saturday morning. A shy young boy was photographed holding his father’s stone (not for sale).
Another boy, Juan Samuel, age nine, had me weigh the contents of his plastic baggie and I quoted $17 as the offer to purchase this small amount. “Give him $20” his father insisted. I laughed as I did, calling the extra money mano de obra – “wages for his time searching”.
Johan, a quiet and respectful young man showed me his collection of beautiful specimens. “What do these weigh?”
They were large enough to weigh individually, and I wrote down each weight in my notes. At 1x, the total value was about $1,000. He said nothing, and I requested his phone number for future reference. Sunday, I saw him on the road driving, and stopped him to ask if he was ready to sell. “No”. But on Monday I learned that he had two partners involved, and one did not want to sell. I failed to pry away his 33% share, even when I offered 2X/gram.
At the Yellow House I was able to purchase some individuals of five to fifteen grams. After I paid for one stone, the woman requested I never mention the transaction to anyone. “I found it in the neighbor’s yard.”
I was walking back to The Beast to deposit these purchases when a tricked-out Willys Jeep pulled up. A man dressed for a part in an ‘Indiana Jones’ film walked over to speak to me, careful not to step uninvited onto the Yellow House private property.
Ticos are naturally friendly when meeting you, real hand shakers, often with nonchalant crushing force. This man opened the conversation by waving a blank sheet of paper, demanding that I register to export meteorites. “And you need to donate meteorites to the University of Costa Rica!”
Dismayed, I told him my name, now all four of them, and pulled out my Costa Rican ID showing him that I was a citizen, not a tourist. I explained that I was also journalist, and was not going to ‘export’ meteorites.
“I know who you are. I need you to register.”
Suffering from impatient old age, I fare poorly with people who tell me what I need to do. I hesitated before responding.
Signing a blank piece of paper is a terrible idea, a well-known scam utilized by corrupt notaries enabling all kinds of mischief. And why did my offer to help these volcanologists manifest such emotional aversion?
I carry around a clipboard to take notes, and handed him my pen. “Write down your contact information.” He did. I found him to be a Geology professor not empowered with the duties of a customs officer or university endowment acceptance.
I replied to his demand. “Costa Rica has no laws regarding meteorites, so there is no reason to register. Maybe you will find some if you look around.” In a common Tico act of intimidation, he photographed my license plate and drove away. I’ve not heard that he approached anyone else.
The next day I overheard people talking about a deputado (legislator) who wanted to retroactively make all meteorites ‘state property’. Later, I read an editorial about mining laws that could be ‘perverted’ (my word) to include meteorites as ‘commonly priced minerals’ for permitting (?) and tax purposes.
I decided to leave, and drove back to town wondering if I would be greeted by a police roadblock.
I wasn’t, and stopped at a Chinese restaurant for a late lunch, a better grade of Cantonese fried rice, enough to feed two people. I shouldn’t have eaten it all. While chowing down, a street dog walked into the restaurant, made his rounds, and came directly to my table. He sat down, intently staring at me with practiced indifference. Coiffed in a Mao haircut, the chubby Chinese chef who had rhythmically pounded my rice to a metal death inside the wok, left the kitchen, and sat at a table to stare at her phone. A radio blasted Colombian cumbia music, dialed up to overwhelm the television loudly playing a Mexican soap opera, two well-dressed women arguing over a man, one slaps the other’s face.
When I got up to pay, the dog beat me out the door.
Back at the hotel, I showed Diego the receptionist my largest meteorite. “You paid money for that?” The owner came in to check on a delivery. I introduced myself, and we hit it off. Oscar invited me on a tour of the large home he was building behind the hotel. We walked through primary forest next to a river. There was a toucan in a tree, and some river boulders were covered with blood.
“That’s probably where an Aguilucho killed something.” He described a large, stripe-tailed bird with a spikey-black crest, probably an Ornate Hawk-Eagle. It’s the less-extinct, economy model of the monkey-eating Harpy Eagle.
We walked back. He was not interested in meteorites. “Do you know what a ‘socio’ is?”
It’s a shareholder in a corporation. “Would you like to purchase shares in my company? I need to build a swimming pool.”
I thanked him for the honor of this opportunity, but needed all of my money to buy meteorites.
I took inventory of my two days of successful meteorite ‘hunting,’ then walked upstairs to the restaurant for some beer. I was standing at the counter as the only customer, chatting up the pretty waitresses when someone tapped my shoulder.
Bienvenidos a Costa Rica, Michael Farmer and Robert Ward.
A New Friend – A Friendship Restored
“I’m hungry, let’s sit down and order,” Michael declared. I’d been sitting in front of a TV watching a Champion’s League game being lost by Juventus, Ronaldo playing passively, but we needed a bigger table.
Michael and Robert ordered steaks and bien y frio bottles of Imperial, an excellent beer. Not eating cows these days and still full of rice, I ordered some Yucca frita in garlic butter, a good beer ‘sponge’ that turned out to be the best fried yucca I’d ever eaten. While we waited, Michael and I renewed a friendship begun during the last century. Robert and I had finally met. The tales told led to another and another and brought endless laughter.
I’ve bagged enough summits to pretend to being a ‘Mountain Man’, and by convoluting the concept, Michael is surely a ‘Man Mountain’. That topic came up.
It began when I said, “I figured that I would find you here. When I interviewed people I would ask them, “Have you seen a large Gringo who is wearing shorts and speaks perfect Spanish?”
Then I would ask about Robert. “And was that man with another, one who looks like an actor from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? You know, Robert Redford?”
And earlier this day, one woman had answered in the affirmative.
“We saw you walking around”, Michael confessed.
He explained why he favors a larger body size.
“When we were in jail in Oman, this extra weight kept me from starving. It’s a survival tactic. A skinny guy like you would have died. I’m always prepared for the next time.”
In another example of meteorites bringing people together under memorable circumstances, Robert described how he and his wife were on horseback in Viñales, Cuba, looking for meteorites. They saw a man further afield, hunched over and walking slowly, staring at the ground like a lost zombie. Robert told his wife, “He’s hunting meteorites.”
They rode closer. It was Greg Hupe.
We spoke of the utility of ‘riding horses in Cuba to search for meteorites’.
I wondered, “Isn’t that only slightly more practical than looking for Sutter’s Mill from a blimp?” I was alluding to the unusual transport provided researchers for an unsuccessful, taxpayer-funded field trip in search of a fresh-fallen carbonaceous chondrite. The average fragment size was under ten grams.
They were staying at an Air B&B where the owner had made chocolate from scratch that morning, cacao pods picked from trees growing on the property. We made plans to meet tomorrow, and hunt on a hill with a cell tower where four meteorites had been found.
Michael reflected on his time in Costa Rica, describing it as the most enjoyable of his professional meteorite-hunting career.
My room seemed unnaturally quiet when I returned. I walked out to the balcony in the darkness to stare at the forest. Something moved….
Los Tres, ahora Cuatro, Cazadores
Light poured through the flimsy, transparent drapes, waking me. I realized that under my equally flimsy comforter I was freezing from the air conditioning. I got up to turn it off. It was 5:15.
Breakfast wasn’t served on Sunday until 8am, so I made do with an apple and the rest of a liter of Wal-Mart cranberry juice. I turned on the TV. The only interesting program was on CNN-Latin America, where two reporters were talking over each other in Spanish, arguing the pros and cons of a Joe Biden presidency.
I dressed and drove The Beast back to Marina. For the next couple of hours, I walked along the side of several side roads as the Chief ditch inspector. The pay was poor, nothing. I called Robert’s cell, but he didn’t answer, and his voice mail was full, as usual.
But then he called me, and I drove back to the penitentiary to meet he and Michael. I parked across from the entry gate. I heard men screaming.
They arrived, and for the first time I met meteorite legend Achim Karl who had flown in from Germany. The three meteorite hunters were now four.
I followed their rental car to the home of Virginia Arguello and her husband Ronald. It was one of those homes surrounded by pasture, and they owned several hectares.
I had met the couple on Friday. She was the one I interviewed yesterday, who remembered seeing “a large man in shorts who spoke perfect Spanish”.
They had heard one loud, and one medium explosion. Meteorites had fallen all over their property. Their dog Chocolate had tried to hide in a rubber boot. One thirsty meteorite was recovered next to his water dish.
Their daughter lives nearby, and had searched the web for a dealer in meteorites. She found Michael Farmer on Facebook, and contacted him.
He replied that he was on his way, and would purchase whatever she had. She couldn’t/wouldn’t believe it. Michael called her from the airport in the United States, telling her he was on the plane. “Really?” When he arrived in the country, he sent a photo of himself standing next to a car with Costa Rican license plates. She was still unconvinced.
But soon he was at her home where he purchased “a hundred stones of various sizes”, from the extended family.
And for that reason, and because she is a kind, sharing person, Virginia served us a glorious Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo Pinto, the ‘spotted rooster’ of rice and beans.
As we finished our coffee, Michael and Robert began receiving text messages from their NASA and ASU friends. They were both excited by the preliminary examination of available video which had defined the orbital track as ‘cometary’, with a path that took it back to the Oort Cloud, past the orbit of Pluto.
“C’mon, let’s go find some meteorites!” Michael said enthusiastically, and we all piled into his car.
He drove uphill, and we came upon a plowed field tended by a family of squatters. They were living in a see-through shack with rotting planks for walls and floor, rusty zinc sheets for a roof. The kitchen burned wood for fuel and water came out of a garden hose. The matrimonial bed was raised and neatly made. A baby boy was in a crib, shaded by a tree. Mom sat guard, his sibling in her arms. Like everyone everywhere, the family has love and hope and struggle.
The plowed field was an easy place to search, and yielded two drought-dried toads.
Another car drove up and we met Roberto Vargas of Orlando, a young collector living out a dream. He showed us a fine specimen he had purchased, but now was on the hunt. We would share dinner with him that night.
We re-boarded Michael’s rental and continued uphill until we reached the cell tower. Some specimens had been found there the day before. We had gained enough altitude to note a drop in temperature and enjoy panoramic views. We stayed long enough to find nothing, and drove back to Virginia’s.
Every person I met who had found a meteorite had been urged to collect more before the rains came. The obvious incentive was that, “Once the meteorites get wet they will lose scientific value and begin to rust. No one will pay a lot of money for those.” Now the clouds were gathering.
When we returned, Russians Dima Sadilenko and two other country-mates were waiting. Their competitive presence bumped the street price of specimens to 2X.
I had one more lead, and drove off. Jorge had a 100-gram stone to sell. I called him, and received permission to cross his property where he was searching for specimens in the pasture.
I parked in front of a farmhouse that looked abandoned and yelled out “Oo-pay”, the customary greeting. No one responded. I kept yelling as I crawled over and under barbed wire to reach the pasture.
After crossing a swampy, spring-fed area, I climbed a small rise, and about 600 meters away saw three families in the bunched grass, searching separately for stones.
The first group I came upon, a young couple and their children, were kneeling on the ground, digging with hand trowels. They showed me some specimens they would sell. No one kept anything as souvenirs. I took out my scale and made several small purchases. Then I found Jorge and his wife. They had a large specimen, an impeccable black boomerang.
I thought it would be a matter of simply paying for it, but his wife balked at the offer. And when I counted my remaining cash, I didn’t have enough. I promised I would come back in an hour if I could borrow the money, but certainly tomorrow, after I went to the bank in San Carlos. I walked out of the field and drove back to Virginia’s.
Everyone was still there. I asked Michael if I could borrow some cash to be paid back tomorrow morning. He agreed, and we drove back together to see Jorge.
His wife was standing thirty meters away when we arrived. I introduced Michael, and he began talking to Jorge about his Costa Rican adventure. All was good. Except when Jorge asked his wife if she wanted to sell, she hesitated. Michael and I remained silent as the husband tried to cajole his wife to accept a healthy stack of cash. Michael grew impatient and told me, ”Let’s get out of here. There’s plenty of meteorites around, we don’t need this one.” Then he repeated this in Spanish to Jorge so that his wife could hear. Jorge looked at her. She nodded in agreement and the deal was done. The next day, after a quick trip to the bank, I repaid the loan.
Se Vende – Meteoritos
We went to the home of Virginia’s daughter, where we reunited with Robert and Achim. Michael set up shop on a table under a carport, and about twenty friends and family gathered around, some with meteorites to sell.
Most of the material was offered by children and young adults. Michael entertained all with his running commentary. “This is not a meteorite! You have dirt mixed in! I will not pay money for dirt!” But his sentiments were gentle, and his words were kind, and there was no doubt his showmanship was welcome, and would never be forgotten.
There was enough material for everyone. Michael would weigh some specimens, and request Achim, Robert or I to pay the seller, and with that we all shared in the treasure.
It looked more and more like it would rain for the first time in months, and Michael and Robert were anxious to search. We returned to Virginia’s, where Michael had arranged permission for us to look around, paying half of the ‘normal price’ to her for anything we recovered. We crossed over or under several barriers of barbed wire that kept the cows from escaping, before reaching the search area.
A drizzle fell, and the horizon was dark with deep-purple storm clouds promising more. We walked in different directions.
I had my hiking stick, and poked into the clumped grass. My heart wasn’t in it, and I realized I was really looking for snakes. I should have warned the others.
Although only 4PM it was twilight, and I walked alone back to Virginia’s. Achim and Michael followed in pouring rain. Robert showed up last, smiling and very wet.
Another American hunter/buyer had arrived to this impossible-to-find place, except when your guide is Costa Rican reporter Allan Jara. He had realized an opportunity to profit from his connections, and had begun brokering meteorites to foreigners. Here he was speaking Spanish to someone poorly translating his thoughts to the American. Understandably, there was a disagreement.
Probably just a coincidence, but the price required to purchase material rose overnight to 7X.
Dream Stories from the ‘Poor Rican’
I drove back to the hotel. We were all meeting here for a last supper, but I had time to call Blaine and give him an update. We talked about the rains that were diminishing the value of what was still on the ground. CM2’S fare poorly from the very first drop, mud balls designed to ‘terrestrialize’.
I walked upstairs to the restaurant, where the tropically pelting rain on the tin roof made conversation difficult. But there were no misunderstanding Michael’s words, and he was furious.
“Look at this text I just got from that reporter. He’s trying to sell me a meteorite for 15X!”
Roberto Vargas had joined us. That night, and later in a message contributed to the Meteorite List, he recalled how he had become interested in collecting meteorites. Roberto held Michael and Robert as heroes. After reading on FB about the fall in Costa Rica, he could think of nothing else. His father helped him out with a loan and a plane ticket, and he came here to fulfill a dream. A dream to recover a meteorite in the field.
Because of his Latin-American island roots, he became fondly known to us as the ‘Poor Rican.”
Michael was headed to the US where he would distribute material to researchers, then possibly return here before going to China for the show. Robert and Roberto were leaving for home. Achim would remain. But we would all meet tomorrow for one last breakfast at Virginia’s, in the heart of the strewn field.
Last Call for Meteorites
Monday’s first chore was a drive west to San Carlos. I was second in line at Scotia Bank when it opened at 9am. I nearly drained the bank’s supply of dollars with my withdrawal. I was back at Virginia’s by ten, and learned that Michael had driven Robert to the hospital. He’d suffered a barbed wire ‘bite’ and it had become infected. They were back by eleven, although Robert was now limping and off the hunt.
I had funds, and wanted to visit with three persons I knew to have specimens, so I bid all adieu, and drove off into el campo. At the Yellow House, I was introduced to a neighbor with a fine individual. I took out my scale and discovered that the battery was dead.
At that moment of desperation, Roberto drove up to the house. I greeted him and asked him if he had a scale, which he did, and which he loaned me.
I paid 2X for the specimen.
I returned the scale to Roberto with sincere thanks. This day he was my hero. I returned to town to look for batteries.
After a quick lunch of mixed ceviche ($7), I drove to Cocaleca, a nearby pueblo and part of the fall zone. An extended family was home on the farm. Dima and his two co-patriots were negotiating with them. The owner still had all of his 185 grams of specimens. His price was now 30X, up from 10X yesterday morning. I left empty-handed.
I found Johan sitting on a porch. As mentioned earlier, he would not sell his 33% stake of 1,000 grams shared with two others. I left his home again, still with a pocket full of cash.
Out of leads, and not excited about hunting for wet rocks, I returned to the hotel. I called Danilo and we made a 7am appointment for the next day, after which I would drive home. He was not part of the neighborhood group asking ever-higher prices. This would be my last chance to purchase pre-rain material. He had about 900 grams and agreed to accept 2X, double what he would have received on Friday.
Sweet Home, Costa Rica
The next morning, I called Danilo at 6:30, not rudely early when daylight arrives at 5am, and work for many begins at six. There was no answer, so I texted a message, “Will I see you at seven?”
He wrote back in a few minutes. “I have another offer paying me 35X this morning. But if you match the price I will sell them to you.”
I wished him well, packed up The Beast, and began driving the long road home.
An alternate route, behind and between the volcanoes, so narrow and steep in parts that there is no traffic at all, seemed like a better option. I had expected to enjoy this adventure and make new friends, but I felt vulnerable due to the odd behavior of the volcanologists, who seemed intent on inventing a crime, with me being Public Enemy #1.
Costa Rican laws are based on Napoleonic Codes, which lean to the presumption that the accused is guilty.
Police are free to seize what they wish. Checkpoints with invasive searches are utilized just to stop roadside ‘trafficking’ in orchids, harvested in the National Parks.
I was carrying a lot of United States dollars, a ‘suspicious activity’ in a country with an economy being warped under a blizzard of snow blowing north, leaving behind drifts of cash. I had a box full of meteorites, many just purchased, but others owned for decades. If I were subjected to the whims of a spurned geologist who demanded a police stop in a search for ‘patrimonial contraband’, all would be lost.
Once in the high valley between the Barva and Poas volcanoes, the scenery becomes ethereal. I hadn’t driven here since the January 8, 2009, Cinchona 6.1 earthquake cracked apart kilometers of mountainside-hugging road, and sent the El Angel salsa factory sliding down a cliff, killing thirty-two people.
Driving here again launched melancholy memories of a younger me. The country is urbanizing rapidly, at the speed of money, but now I was surrounded by reminders of a Costa Rica that remained wild.
Like then, I slid ‘Like a River’ (Yellowjackets) into the CD slot, the music reminding me of how much further downstream I had traveled since beginning this journey.
I reluctantly left this mellow coffee zone to endure city traffic. In Alajuela, then near the airport, then a break before entering the luxury of Range Rover gridlock in uber-suburban Santa Ana, I inched along. I was relieved to reach Ciudad Colon, where I would begin to climb into more mountains on the final lap of my nervous race home. But there was one last gamut to run.
As soon as I passed the compound of the Fuerzo Publico a police pick-up truck pulled out, following me.
My vehicle is singular in appearance. A license plate search would identify my pueblo and home, but I had no option except to pass this choke point. He turned on his overhead lights, which in most places means, ‘pull over’.
But here it does not.
There is no passing left of the double yellow lines in these treacherous mountains, where a fresh landslide full of broken trees could be around the next curve. After a few minutes of deep-breathing as the police lights flashed blue and red behind me, I realized that it was nothing but the fates playing with my mind.
In Puriscal he took a left where I took a right, and in a few minutes I was safely behind my wall.
I noticed that I had a text message from Danilo, he of the 900 grams at 35X.
He wondered if I could call him…
Rain, Rust, Science and Sunsets
Roberto Vargas soon posted a passionate journal entry on the Meteorite Central bulletin board. He wrote about his beginnings in meteorites, excited to read about adventures in the strewn field with a dream of someday having his own, now realized. He well represents the next generation of collectors.
He’d acquired some specimens that were picked up within twenty-four hours of the first rain. He has shared a photo, and the instant oxidation of the specimen, after billions of clean-living years tooling around the Solar System is remarkable.
I was anxious to know if this fireball’s origin actually was the Oort Cloud. Marc Fries of NASA responded.
He suggested that the meteor would have to arrive at no more than 20-25 km/second to survive passage through the atmosphere. An object from the Oort cloud might have a cosmic velocity of 90 km/second.
It was soon established that the orbit only went out to AU 2.7, constraining the object to routine encounters with asteroids, and not Planet X.
eBay presently has many specimens on offer. Some indicate ‘pre-rain’. While it’s all good, these specimens are the ones you want in your collection.
Roberto Vargas tells me that there were no hunters in the field on June 28, 2019. The street price of post-rain material is presently 6x/gram.
Researchers around the world perceive this fall as the Second Coming of Murchison, with more evidence regarding the origins of life certain to be uncovered.
Glad to be home, I walked down the mountainside, illuminated by fading twilight that painted the sky in swirly van Gogh colors. I recognized the beginnings of a bountiful harvest of chili peppers and avocados.
A juvenile Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot lacking tail rackets settled down in a tree I planted three years ago, a small victory for the planet. A hummingbird roared in, and momentarily hovered at arm’s-length in front of my face, attracted by my red baseball cap. These simple pleasures inform my motives for living here.
The curtain was closing on another day. The Sun had fallen into the ocean, behind islands that floated like boats in the sea…
Kevin Charles Kichinka Hahner
Nine Degrees North
The Meteorite Bulletin entry for Aguas Zarcas CM2 can be found here:
More information, photos and videos of the fall are available on this excellent website:
No animals were harmed when a meteorite slammed through the roof of Rocky’s dog house.
Spanish speakers will enjoy reading the news story, and watching a video of two CR university geologists describing the fall of Aguas Zarcas CM2, without displaying a single specimen:
In 2007, Paul Harris of the Meteorite Times prepared an exquisite website for my bed and breakfast, ‘La Quintana de Costa Rica’. Those who stayed there with me, and anyone seeking still useful information about touring the country will enjoy the view.
Listen to the inspirational soundtrack that accompanied my drives between the volcanoes. The ‘Jackets’ begin their songs with neo-classic introductions that turn to jazz-fusion, building to a driving, hauntingly emotional climax that inspires.
‘Man Facing North’ – the Yellowjackets
‘Greenhouse’ – the Yellowjackets
Could there still be anyone without this book? — ‘The Art of Collecting Meteorites’ (available on Amazon).