Treasure Hunting in Panama

You probably are imagining older men wearing sagging khaki pants combing the sands of the nearest beach for quarters and misplaced wedding bands. You envision their metal detectors beeping like possessed crows as they then kneel down and dig up what can appropriately be described as a muddled tin can. In Panama though, treasure seekers deal with something much more impressive.

Pre-Columbian artifacts–be them textiles, ceramics, metal, bone, leather, and stone objects–are considered to be illegal if owned by anyone in Panama other than the government or government officials. Certain National Stolen Property Acts mandate that anything, if found, be turned into the government. However, there exist thousands and thousands of pieces floating around in Panama, owned simply, by people like you and me. They are treasures, illegal treasures at that, which are about as spine-chilling to hunt for, as they are to keep.

In the provinces of Panama’s interior, such as Cocle and Veraguas, there exist people who can help you find these artifacts, but the process is far from a metal detector on the beach. It basically consists of asking around enough until you find a local who’s willing–for a few hundred bucks albeit–to take you personally on the hunt. You’ll spend nights perched up in tents in Panama’s dense jungles trudging through coarse bush and thorny shrubs being that no path on this hunt has been cut.

You’ll eventually reach a point where your guide will recommend you sit and wait for nightfall. Once darkness sets, you are taught to watch for a variety of signals, most prominently lights that are shooting up from the ground. Lights that are shooting up from the ground?

This is because what you are essentially searching for are gravesites. If you weren’t aware, this trip that you are on is a grave-robbing tour–a trip to find ancient pre-Columbian burial sites laden , and ones in which the methane gas from the thousand-year old bodies still rises up through the earth and into the atmosphere. This gas can only be seen at night and produces a subtle detectable glow which marks the spot.

These civilizations, similar to Egyptians, buried their people with relics in an effort to ward off evil spirits or, come to think of it, people like you. You and your guide go about digging, carefully trying not do smash your shovel through any ancient skeleton’s ribs. This practice is highly illegal, extremely unethical, and not a typical tourist attraction. You are basically, in an effort to get a little gold statue to poise on your mantle, digging up dead Indians and stealing their stuff. This probably involves some sorts of spirits messing with you as they rightfully should.

The sad part is that the Panamanian government hasn’t yet taken this to heart and preserved these gravesites. They haven’t done much research themselves or, what could be cool, dug up the remains and created a giant museum for all the world to see. So, for the time being, the invitation is open to people like you. To head into the depths of Panama’s junglicious core, and rob some graves, all in the name of art.

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