“Paititi is there!” exclaimed Manuel, “We just need to continue following this trail!”

How I ended up half way around the world a few weeks after the birth of my first child, searching for a lost city is beyond me. I knew the dangers involved, but like any foolish man, the thought of discovering something that could potentially change history drove me to the limits.

A recently emerged Matsigenka woman and son from deep within Manu National Park

We had come together for an expedition to look for any clues to validate an Incan presence in the jungles east of Cusco, Peru. Manuel Roque Prada, a former oil company contractor, had compiled locations of previous undiscovered archaeological sites for years. Whenever a surveying crew would come across a potential archaeological site he would mark down its location. Together we begun exchanging research. With the help of Charly Symond Pinares, an ex-military guide fluent in Quechua, we embarked to Hatun Q’eros in the high Andes in search of evidence leading to a route from Cusco, the center of the Incan empire, down into the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve below. 

The lost city of Paititi eluded Spanish conquistadors after they began hearing rumors regarding a city of gold shortly after the conquest of the Incan Empire in the early 16th century. Many lost their lives in pursuit of this legend after they began exploring the jungles east of the Andes Mountains. Much like the stories from the California Gold Rush, these rumors became greatly exaggerated and distorted over time. Despite many claims of its location, Paititi was never found.

Some scholars believe that when the indigenous locals realized that the Spaniards were obsessed with gold, they began to tell them stories of a city of gold in order to encourage them to leave and venture into the deadly Amazonian jungles to the east. However, several newly uncovered documents, including a letter found within the Vatican archives, provide further support for those who claimed to have travelled to the lost city.

The discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, and the more recent discoveries along the Amazon basin, have proven that there are still large-scale archaeological sites that have yet to be discovered. In 2010, Manuel was among the first to come across the Rostro Harakmbut, a large natural rock outcrop carved into a face within the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, while working with Hunt Oil. Fernando Rivera, an expert guide and close friend, had also gone on numerous expeditions into the outermost reaches of the jungle and was probably the second to come across the rock face three years later. With the increasing interest, more people are beginning to travel to see the face in the middle of the jungle. According to the Harakmbut, there are supposedly two or three more similar stone faces that have yet to be discovered. Similarly, several additional archaeological sites along with Incan stone and bronze tools have been found nearby, furthering the case for an Inca presence within this isolated part of the jungle.

The ‘Rostro Harakmbut’

We began by using the geographical description given to us by a topographer who flew over what he claims was a large citadel while working on an oil exploration project. Based on that, we worked our way backwards to try and trace a possible route used by the Inca to enter the region. We speculate that this site was strategic due to the proximity of the Huaypetue gold mine, which still makes up 2% of world gold production today. Even though we did not reach Paititi, we now have a foundation for further work, including a possible ancient route that could lead directly to the lost city.

After we shared our research with the local Q’ero elders, they became optimistic at the thought that their village would be a gateway to a lost city, which could help renew touristic ventures in the region and which would also validate their myths surrounding the god-hero Inkarri, who retreated into the hidden city of Paititi inside the jungles below, after having created Cusco and the Q’ero.

Elder curandero from Q’eros

Many of the surrounding outside communities, both in the Andes as well as in the Amazon, are suffering a great deal due to lack of economic opportunities. Out of desperation some have turned to illegal activities such as gold mining and deforestation within the protected communal regions. With increased government crackdown on these illegal operations there are many stories of unemployed people with nothing to lose who have begun searching for and ransacking archaeological sites within the reserve. In a desperate attempt to protect these sites, many indigenous locals have begun trying to locate them. Some indigenous locals feel that several sites may already have been destroyed by Hunt Oil which announced earlier this year that they would be pulling out of the region.

Cultures here are dramatically changing and starting to take progressive steps to preserve their cultural identity and independence.  Fernando Rivera, who also runs and operates EcoManu Peru, believes that tourism is key for helping the local indigenous communities. “Tourism here won’t change, at least not for a while,” says Fernando, “but when it comes, it will be unprecedented.”

Choquequirao, which is reportedly larger than Machu Picchu has attracted only a very few tourists, and despite its amazing architecture, has only been about 30-40% excavated. Challenging access makes it difficult to bring tourists to the site. It will be up to adventurers, thrill-seekers, and archaeologists to begin drawing the attention of the outside world to Choquequirao. As with the Harakmbut face, the arduous access should not prevent many would-be explorers and adventurers from accessing this Inca marvel.

Yuri, a Harakmbut Shaman and tribal elder from the village of Shintuya along the Madre de Dios River.

Whether or not the lost city of Paititi is found within the next few years, or in twenty, or never, technological advancements along with new economic alternatives should become the focal point of these communities. For the people living in the region, Paititi is the symbol of an unattainable dream. It is not a matter of simple communal upgrades but rather lifelong viable alternatives that enable communal independence. Economic prospects are limited here, as they are within much of South America in general, but the uniqueness of each cultural and ecological landscape could prove to be beneficial in the long term.

Within this part of the Amazon, on one side of the Madre de Dios River lies Manú National Park, which UNESCO labeled as being one of the most biodiverse locations in the world. On the other side of the river is the Amarakaeri Reserve with amazing cultural and archaeological sites with unprecedented potential.

Having archaeological sites deep within in the Amazon—where such civilization was never thought possible—will spark interest for many visitors.  These discoveries will demonstrate human adaptability in places never before imagined. Likewise, the thought of visiting the final refuge of the Inca will appeal to many people who love esoteric history. More lost than Vilcabamba, and deeper in the jungle than ever imagined, there is a site more important than any that have already been discovered.  A site so sacred that the Inca kept it hidden even from themselves. And there the lost city of Paititi remains, just waiting to be found under the dense green vegetation that has kept it veiled from the outside world for centuries.