It was the Canadian ambassador’s idea.
During the business portion of my trip to Uruguay, I met Joanne Frappier twice: once at the signing of a memorandum of understanding between my university and the Universidad Tecnologica, Uruguay’s newest university; and once with my colleagues at the Canadian Embassy in Montevideo. Her friendly, down-to-earth personality made me like her right away.
It was at the second, less formal meeting, that she told us she is a geographer by trade, rather than a career diplomat. When I told her that my husband was also a geography major, and would be vacationing with me in Uruguay for two weeks, her eyes lit up. “I bet he’d enjoy seeing an amethyst mine. It’s out of the way- all the way up in Artigas- but it’s a totally unique experience.”
Which is how we ended up on a supposedly-8-hour-actually- 9.5-hour bus ride from Montevideo to Artigas, which is just about as far as you can go from south to north and still be in Uruguay. (More to come on the bus ride there and back, which was an adventure in itself.)
The Safari Minero runs out of the Hotel Casino, a plain Jane hotel which somehow bills itself as worthy of 4-stars. Their website photos of the buffet breakfast and dinner they claim to serve didn’t look anything like the cafeteria-style food and ambience we experienced. Also, someone should tell them that having a street kid greeting taxis arriving at the hotel and offering to help visitors with their bags up the hotel steps is not exactly standard practice for a 4-star hotel.
But I digress.
At 9 a.m., our tour guide Antonio, a young guy in army fatigues and sporting a day’s growth of dark beard, bounded into the hotel lobby, shook my husband’s hand, and kissed me on the cheek in typical Uruguayan greeting. Immediately, he apologized for his limited English, which was not as limited as he thought. We hopped into a minivan, met a couple from Montevideo in the centre of town, and headed out to our first stop, the workshop where the amethyst geodes are brought in their raw form to be cut, cleaned, and stored for shipment.
Maybe it’s my Canadian sense of mining and other industry that made me expect a much larger operation. Instead, we pulled into a yard with a few outbuildings, a few dogs wanderimg around, and a few men working near a dump truck and a couple of front end loaders, no one wearing the kind of safety equipment that would be required on a Canadian worksite.
The equipment and work areas themselves were also surprisingly low tech.
But one building quite literally dazzled me- the area where the geodes were stored as they awaited shipment. The size and brilliance of the purple crystals, some of them interspersed with contrasting milky-white calcite, produced snowflake-unique designs unlike any I’ve ever seen.
One gigantic geode came with a particularly interesting story. It was awaiting shipment to China, purchased for $100000 by someone who wanted to sit inside it and meditate.
Our oohing and aahing and photo snapping was interrupted only once by the front end loader boys who asked us to move aside so they could load a geode bound for a festival in Artigas that evening.
A few minutes later, we left the workshop and got back on the now-gravel main road for a trip to what Antonio called a gallery to see a geode in its natural state. We bounced along in a cloud of orange dust as the road stones pinged and thudded against the van’s undercarriage and the driver swerved to avoid potholes. Finally, we swung into what initially looked like pasture land and Antonio led us to the edge of a cliff where we could see the openings to the gallery below. He scrambled down and we followed.
Inside, we followed the beam of Antonio’s flashlight, picking our way over stones, avoiding mud puddles, and following a makeshift walkway of two by fours until we reached the massive geode. Antonio said crews had been working to extract it for 5 months and had at least that many more months left to complete the job. But with the market for amethysts currently low, the geode may have to stay below ground for much longer than that.