Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Pinar del Río.— With his bag on his back, machete in his belt, and the conviction that luck is finally on his side, Miguel García Ferro sets off once again into the mountains.
He has never kept count of how many times he has embarked on the same adventure, but is sure that it must be over 300.
The first time was 33 years ago. Miguel traveled to Sandino to visit some friends from his native Camagüey, when he learned of the legend of the treasure of Mérida.
Fascinated by the tale of the enormous fortune, which was said to be buried somewhere in the Guanahacabibes Peninsula during the mid-17th century, García traveled first to the town of Manuel Lazo, in search of those most familiar with the story.
He spent several weeks investigating, listening intently, before finally setting off, convinced of his own defeat, in search of the famous Cabo Corrientes gold mine.
“Close to the María La Gorda diving center, to the left, there’s a path which leads to a place with some really big rocks. If you’re looking, go there,” he was told. And that is exactly what he did.
Miguel awoke at 5am and set off for the peninsula, only retuning at nightfall.
Three days later, with new information from people who know the legend well, a little cooked rice, bread and ham in his bag, Miguel made his way back to the mountain, and despite having no luck this time either, decided he would continue searching until he found the treasure.
He never went back to his house in Altagracia, Camagüey province.
He got a job working on a tobacco farm in Sandino, and later, as a member of the maintenance team in a veterinary school.
At that time he could only visit Guanahacabibes during his month of vacation or on weekends, but since 2003, after suffering an accident at work in which he injured his eye and was advised to take early retirement by his doctor, Miguel began to dedicate all his time to finding the treasure, buried deep within the peninsula.
Although it is difficult to say how much of the legend of the riches of Catedral de Mérida is true or false, for inhabitants from Cuba’s westernmost province there are two indisputable truths: the story of Claro Lazo, and José Antonio Canga.
Both - the first at the end of the 19th century and the second around 1930 – returned from Cabo Corrientes with a fistful of gold, stating that they had found the fabled gold mine, as they call buried treasure here.
However, both died before they could return with the necessary means to extract it: Claro Lazo from untreated gangrene, which he contracted after stepping on a rusty nail; and José Antonio in a traffic accident.
For Miguel, who listened to stories of the two men told by close relations, there is no better proof that the treasure exists.
“How can it be a lie, if the people saw the coins?” he says.
Miguel got lost in the mountain once or twice at the beginning of his search, before he learned how to orient himself by the sun and the sound of the waves.
“Once I spent four days going round in circles, completely lost. I almost died of thirst, because finding fresh water in the cove is very difficult.”
All in all, Miguel (known to all by his nickname Tulupío), has spent up to a month and a half in the peninsula, sleeping in caves, and living off iguanas, bush rats, snakes.
Since 1984 he has searched for the fortune which was said to be buried in this remote land by buccaneers and pirates who stopped in the area to divide up their booty.
Many of Guanahacabibes’ geographical formations have been named after one or another of those feared thieves of the sea, and are believed to contain hidden treasures.
“I have looked in the Antonio and Resguardo beaches, the Perjuicio Cave, in the Noroña tombs. There is good money in all those places,” states Miguel, but notes that none compare to the treasure of Mérida, with its barrels of jewels and coins, and a massive life-size gold crucifix. This is why he has spent the majority of his life searching in the Cabo Corrientes area.
At 57 years of age, Miguel is a kind of living relic of the place where the lines between history and fiction blur, a place of “the marvelous real” a term coined by Alejo Carpentier.
Neither the construction of a highway which concluded in 2010 to facilitate access to the peninsula, the establishment of the first tourist facilities, cruise ship arrivals, or any other manifestation of modernity, has been able to change this. And although the pirates’ treasure has yet to appear, for the inhabitants of this 1,060 square kilometer area composed of dense forest and jagged rocks, this simply means that it’s still there, somewhere no one has looked yet.
Miguel García Ferro, the man who, for the last three decades has continued to scour the peninsula, agrees, “No one knows where it is, only that it exists, that it is real,” he states, setting off for the umpteenth time toward the mountain.
With hundreds of fruitless expeditions behind him and suffering from various aches after spending so many nights out in the open, Miguel must be the treasure hunter who has spent the longest time searching for the Cabo Corrientes gold mine, but not the only one.
With metal detectors and old maps written in Latin or ancient Spanish, there are many others who are also searching for the treasure, unconsciously feeding off the magic of one of the few places in the world where legends of pirates and hidden fortunes live on in people’s imaginations.