“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien
We’ve all seen or at least heard of the legends surrounding El Dorado, a mysterious lost city of gold that lies somewhere inside the jungles of South America. It’s a story that had eluded so many conquistadors to search in vain for countless years, many of whom ultimately paid for the search with their own lives. For me it was indeed a story that had always captivated me growing up and over the years I began digging deeper and deeper into the subject. In Peru, the mysterious city is known as Paititi, the last of the Incan refuges with vast amounts of gold. It is a common conception that those who seek its fortune will never find the city but those with sincere motives will be allowed a glimpse inside. Will the city reveal itself to me? Or will I succumb to its power and parish along the wayside?
My life changed forever on July 10th of this year when my son, Luciano, was born. Nothing could have prepared me for the greatest adventure of my life, fatherhood. I had heard all the clichés before but the overwhelming happiness and joy that I experienced at that moment when I first saw my son was beyond words. I sat there carefully holding him in the hospital inspecting his every feature like a precious relic bestowed upon me from some divine intelligence; he was truly a gift from the Gods. In the darkness of the hospital room, I began to think to myself of the wonderful adventures we would go on in the future exploring far distant lands in search of mythical forgotten cities. A little more than two weeks passed and I now find myself in the extremely cold high Andes where my only source of warmth comes from the thoughts of my family I left behind. It’s my third time back in Peru and this time it’s been incredibly difficult trying set aside the thoughts and feelings of leaving behind my wife and son.
We had spent over seven hours on the road. As we began our ascent, I glanced over at my GPS, it read 15,111 feet (above sea level). I, along with members of my expedition team, had pulled over to watch an amazing red sunset over a mountain pass. As I walked over to take a few pictures, that’s when things took a turn for the worst. I began to collapse. My mind was unable to process any thought other than a sensation of panic. I felt like I was drowning and my mind began to overreact, my first real tangible thoughts were of my family and whether I would see them again. I fell helpless to what the locals call soroche, or altitude sickness. Had our journey come to an end before it even began? I couldn’t bring myself to quit now that I’ve gone this far. But what if it would kill me?
My obsession with the lost city of Paititi hit its peak in 2008 after a discussion I had with anthropologist Juan Núñez del Prado while in Cusco, Peru. At the time, I was there with my university studying the mystical practices of the Q’ero, an indigenous group of the Andes who are considered the ‘last’ practitioners of the original teachings dating back to the Inca. Juan’s father, Oscar Núñez del Prado, also an anthropologist, was among the first to record the myth surrounding the hero-god Inkarrí held by the Q’eros during in 1950’s, who were prior to that time living in isolation. The legend states that after Inkarrí created the Q’ero and the city of Cusco, he retreated eastwardly down into the jungles below to the refuge of Paititi, the hidden city. I shared with Juan a little regarding the research I was collecting on lost civilizations, emphasizing the importance of mythology which would later be the driving force behind my first book. It was also during this first visit that in talking with the Q’ero that I had learned about supposed Incan roads (known as Qhapaq Ñan) and structures scattered around the villages in Hatun Q’eros. It was these rumors along with the legends of Inkarrí that greatly fascinated me.
Five years later I returned back to Peru some years later this time in search of any additional clues relating to the lost city. That search led me to Pusharo, a large rock wall that is covered in petroglyphs located within the Restricted Zone inside of Manu National Park. Some people speculate that the mysterious symbols represent a map which, if deciphered, leads to the city of Paititi. Academic researchers speculate that they are mystical symbols relating to ceremonial or shamanic ritual. Accompanying me on the expedition was Fernando Rivera, guide and director of EcoManu Expedition in Peru who has gone on countless expeditions looking for clues of the lost city. His reputation for exploration and expertise on the jungle has caught the attention of many well-known adventurers who’ve dared venture into the depths of the inferno verde, or green inferno. During our Pusharo expedition Fernando began telling me about some of his recent discoveries within the Amarakaeri Reserve nearby after oil-company surveyors had come across Incan roads and a large stone face dubbed the Rostro Harakmbut (or Harakmbut Face). After returning back the second time I began collecting as much research possible and began talking with people who worked within the region which ultimately led me to Miguel.
I began sharing research and collaborating on an expedition with Manuel Roque Prada, an ex-oil company employee who was in charge of logistics while on contract for Hunt Oil. Manuel was also among the first to come across the same large stone face as Fernando two years prior in 2010, while taking a shortcut in between the seismic lines. This discovery, along with other archaeological sites he had come across, had led Manuel to begin collecting the locations of previously ‘unexplored’ archaeological sites within an area known as Lot 76, a vast territory licensed to Hunt Oil for oil exploration. He had become frustrated with the approved ‘on-site archaeologist’ who would continue to dismiss archaeologically important sites that he and his team would come across. Lot 76, which covers most of the native Amarakaeri Reserve, was deemed to not have any archaeological sites and many locals feared that the company would destroy the sites in order to prevent further government restrictions. “I saw a map that Hunt Oil had marked with all the archaeological sites,” an activist had told me back in 2014, “they knew there where sites were!” After his contract was up he began compiling stories and the locations of potential archaeological sites not just the people he worked with but from previous oil exploration groups in the past.
Manuel, who now works as an animal nutritionist for the Institute of Investigations for the Peruvian Amazon, has had his home ransacked twice in the last few years and in both instances, they stole his maps. Fortunately for him, he always hid his original carefully marked maps in a secure location. In this part of the world words travel fast and rumors travel faster, any mention of gold or a lost city immediately ignites a furry. Within the Madre de Dios region of Peru, illegal gold mining and deforestation are the main sources of economy. Over the last few years the environment has taken a dramatic toll and the government has slowly begun to crackdown on these illegal mining operations (which has increased by 540 percent between 2006 and 2015). However, out of desperation they continue with little regard to the impact that they have on the environment. Likewise, as a result of these recent crackdowns many miners have been left without work and with rumors of lost cities nearby, they have nothing to lose and they begin encroaching deeper into the unknown reaches of the jungle. This desperation is precisely why Manuel had gone to several institutions in hopes of funding a full-fledged expedition to locate these archaeological sites before they became looted.
He took his research and expedition proposal to various institutions such as the University of Puerto Maldonado, Ministry of Culture and lastly, the Amarakaeri Reserve. The only one who listened was Luis Tayori, from the Amarakaeri Reserve, to whom Manuel shared some of his findings, including the location of the Rostro Harakmbut, on the condition that he be taken along for the expedition to further his research. Shortly thereafter, Luis Tayori travelled to the site without Manuel leaving him very distrustful towards other people. Over time word got back around regarding other smaller groups of non-local investigators that were moving in deeper and deeper into these uncharted and isolated regions leading Manuel to believe the very people who had turned his expedition down were the very same who were turning over the information to other well-funded institutions (presumably from the United States).
The original plan was to head deep into the region with a well-manned team of explorers including indigenous representatives whom he trusted from FENAMAD (Native Federation of the Madre de Dios). I originally planned on joining Manuel and his expedition team to explore the sites he had be planning to travel to. However, people slowly began backing out and with lack of proper funds all that remained was a bare bones team with limited gear. Many of the locals who were planning on going greatly feared the region, even to them it was extremely dangerous and they had heard stories of what may lay hidden inside. At this point, even I had to back out. With the anticipated arrival of my son I knew the risks involved and I wanted to do everything in my power to come back alive. Over the next few weeks I began putting together the perfect expedition team for something new. I knew if I couldn’t venture into the area, I would at least try and validate rumors of this city by matching corresponding sites and more importantly, the ancient route used for entering the jungle. I began talking to professors and other valuable sources that testified finding Incan tools within the Amarakeri Reserve and my own map began to take shape. The question still remained, how did the Inca reach so deep inside the Amazon? All the other previously speculated entry points, such as into Mameria, Paucartambo and Quince Mil, were all so far away there had to been a more direct route to these archaeological sites. And that’s when I remembered what the Q’ero had told me about the Incan roads in the remote area of the high Andes.
In 1955, archaeologist Luis Barreda Murillo from the Univeristy of Cusco, was the first to document the presence of Qhapaq Ñan (paved Incan roads) and tambos (checkpoints) within the communities of Q’eros. Barreda speculated that these roads that connected various villages at different altitudes were likely already established prior to the Inca. During the Incan expansion, they built upon these already pre-existing trails and roads in order to establish a direct route for valuable resources from the jungles below. This was the missing piece of information to validate a direct road into the Amazon below. Could this have been the same route taken by Inkarrí to the lost city of Paititi? If so, was Q’eros the gateway?
This would be a two-leg expedition; first we would explore these routes and possibly validate a direct path into the Amarakaeri Reserve, and secondly, I would go into the jungles below travelling village to village collecting anything I could regarding the lost city. To explore the main Incan roads around Hatun Q’eros (the largest of villages within Q’eros) I got in touch with one the best guides/explorers who was familiar with the area, Charly Symond Pinares, an ex-military outdoors expert who more importantly was also fluent in Quechua, the language of the Inca that is still used today. For the second leg of my expedition I again entrusted my good friend Fernando Rivera, who had recently finished organizing an expedition back into the Amarakaeri Reserve for an exploration-based television show. As I began compiling more research, I shared with Manuel my plan to head up to Hatun Q’eros to which he was very skeptical…at first.
Upon arriving in Cusco I walked over to the main cathedral located in the Plaza de Armas and prayed, something I have not done in years. I asked that my family be protected and that I would be safe during my travels. The cathedral itself was built upon the ruins of an ancient Incan temple which was destroyed and later converted into a Catholic Church. The most important of the ancient Incan temple remnants can be near the door of the cathedral where traditionalists line up and place their hands upon the ‘egg-shaped’ stone which was symbolic of creation in Incan mythology and which originated within the sacred temple. Unfortunately, the Spaniards used the stones as a door stop for many years. This cathedral represented everything I wanted to help restore a balance to and bring back a sense of pride to the people who are slowly looking away from ancient traditions towards something ‘modern’.
Manuel and I finally met up in Cusco on a cold winter’s morning a day prior before we were scheduled to both go our separate ways. I again shared with him the research I had collected regarding the routes connecting Hatun Q’eros but more importantly a direct road leading back to Cusco! He was convinced and decided last minute to join Charly and I on our expedition to Q’eros. We began to make our final preparations for the following days. Manuel had his gear ready for the hot jungle and not for the freezing Andes, so he ran off to buy what he needed to stay warm. We bought the final food that we needed thanks to our amazing cook, Luis Delgado Huallapa, who also spoke Quechua and had years of experience trekking through the Sacred Valley and the jungles.
We had everything set for our pickup time, which we had confirmed with our driver a few days prior. However, after an hour and a half passed I began to worry. Apparently, the driver never showed to pick up Luis and we had to hop on a series of cars to finally get to Paucartambo where Charly was waiting for us with another driver who was going to drive us the rest of the way to Q’eros. It’s not an adventure until nothing goes as planned. We continued our ascent up the mountains higher and higher and it wasn’t until we reached 15,000 feet when the pressure inside my head became unbearable. It was a scary experience not knowing what to do. I knew the consequences of altitude sickness and dying was the first thing that kept popping into my head. Likewise, I had completely underestimated the temperature; I knew it was going to be cold, but not this cold! At the overlook, we stood around staring at a beautiful sunset and at the red hue reflecting the low moving clouds on the valley below. A cold mountain breeze hit us and we shivered for a second, and that’s when I began to collapse. Yuri, our driver, began to grow very concerned at the sight of me not being able to stand. He was to later tell me that he feared that the cold wind were actually the spirits from the cemetery just below where we were standing. Luckily for me, back in Cusco I had bought an emergency supply of Diamox which I believe ultimately helped me through the rest of the night.
Despite my condition we pressed on driving along the dark winding roads until we came to the village of Challmachimpana. There we were almost immediately greeted by Juan Apaza Soncco, a Q’ero and practitioner traditional Andean curanderismo (i.e., healer, shaman). Charly had explained to him in Quechua of our intentions and upon hearing about my condition he immediately walked over and without question tried everything to comfort me began to perform a healing. “Hampe, Hampe…” he kept repeating as he then began calling forth the various Apus (mountain spirit gods). Hampe, meaning ‘to remedy or cure.’ Juan offered us to stay inside two of his traditional stone houses. After we slowly got settled in in my dazed state I decided to walk over to the larger communal house where they were in the middle of a celebration. It was there that I met Ruben Machacca Flores and his grandfather Francisco Quispe Machacca, a respected Q’ero elder and curandero. Ruben Machacca, was a fearless 18-year-old, who, like many others his age, left Q’eros in search of gold mining work near Puerto Maldonado. There he found it difficult to live and decided to come back to Q’eros where he now is picking up the ancient Q’ero traditions.
Inside the communal house they were in the middle of celebrating having performed a traditional llama ear-piercing ceremony of their herd from earlier that day. The Q’ero were very inviting and open with us. And upon seeing me with my hands pressing up against my head they asked what was wrong, after Charly explained the situation a few began taking turns to try and help me. It was a beautiful thing to see, something we rarely see in our everyday modern society, communal festivity. People of the village gathering together to achieve a project or task during the day and then coming together at night around a warm fire to exchange stories over a drink of chicha, a traditional Andean corn brew.
The next morning, I had to make the decision if we should return back to a lower elevation or continue on. I ultimately decided to stay one more day in Challmachimpana to acclimate before descending to Hatun Q’eros roughly 11,500 feet which takes about four to five hours on foot. Walking outside in the morning was a peaceful majestic experience as the gentle snow fell around me and the clouds slowly cleared I could see mountain peaks in the distance. During the day I began to wonder where the rest of the people were. There seemed to be a lot more houses than there were people. They explained to me that almost everyone now lives in Cusco. Not many remain in the Q’ero villages due to inaccessibility to basic supplies. That, along with a new financial necessity for the access of goods made life very difficult and as a result many left behind the traditional alpaca and llama herding way of life in exchange for a city life.
As the sun set on the second day Manuel and I slept on opposite ends of the house while Charly and Luis slept in the other. Due to the coldness of the night Juan allowed us to use some of his thick blankets he had hanging up to help combat the cold. During the night Manuel’s blanket began creeping down. He pulled it back up and again it started slowly pulling down. It happened one more time before Manuel yelled to stop it. At this point, someone started calling his name. He was too tired to care and continued to ignore what was going on. After some time a light started shining on his face but he just dug his head inside his sleeping bag and went back to sleep. At the same time I had just woken up and could see a strange light shining through the inside of the house. I also, however, was too tired to care and fell back asleep.
We woke up early and began our hike down to Hatun Q’eros. It was a steep incline, but luckily for us we were heading downwards. After a few hours of hiking we had begun entering a dense thick fog until we successfully reached Hatun Q’eros in the mid-afternoon. We quickly came to the realization that there were only two families living in the entire village. It was a rather big village that I remember reading about having a lot of people. But alas, the people had moved up to the villages closer to the roads while the majority left for Cusco. It was rather depressing to see such a beautiful village without people and left almost abandoned. It was a haunting scene walking through the dense fog with ancient stone houses surrounding you.
Before we could get settled in he had to get up and go on top of a small mountain that overlooked the village in order to perform a despacho ceremony with Ruben, Francisco and Juan taking the lead. As we climbed up the slopes we passed by ancient Incan-style structures complete with stone A-frame and niches used for the adoration of idols. Some of the structures were so old that almost nothing remained but the piles of rocks that resembled the fountain. Once we reached the top we unpacked our things for the despacho and began sorting out the coca leaves. The despacho is an offering made to the Pachamama (mother earth) in order to receive something (e.g., good fortune, health, etc.). Our despacho, in this case, was made for the hope of a successful expedition. They carefully adorned a large sheet of paper with flowers, candies, confetti, colorful wool, and a llama fetus which symbolizes a vital life force. After the proper invocation of the Apus they began the process of burning the offering. If it was unable to be burned, that signified that the offering was not accepted by the earth. Fortunately for us, our offering was accepted and it was burned there among the ancient stone ruins.
On the fourth day we began our expedition down the trails that led down into the jungle. We worked carefully with the Q’ero to map out and determine what trails led where. The particular trail we were mapping out led down towards the main river that swung back down into the Amazon. We were entering Kosñipata, or land of smoke. We could see various stages of the trail from crude dirt trails to well-formed stone paths. In some instances, the roads would split and recombine further down, a clear indication that some trails had been altered during different times. We walked carefully along the end of the valley hillsides following the river below. The Q’ero had used these trails up until recently. They would take their alpacas down these different trails down to the forested areas below to allow them to graze. Likewise, that climate was perfect for growing corn and they maintained fields of maize for their communities. But slowly, over time they stopped taking their alpacas down these trails and maintenance of the fields of maize became too difficult to take care of due to the main village being so far away. Ruben, was one of the few people who still utilized much of these roads as he would still use them to catch small fish along the river. He would trek for days at a time by himself. He told us that this particular trail comes to end at a riverbank, after which it is almost impossible to continue as the trail becomes nonvisible.
After our trek, we began speculating that Hatun Q’eros was the main village where all these ancient roads once intersected. This was the gateway for the ancient Inca to venture down into the forests below. Manuel was convinced that this was the true entrance to Paititi, the city of gold. With our maps we began connecting the dots. This was a search almost 500 years in the making! This was the city that Spanish conquistadors desperately wanted to find but never could. Over the years I had begun combing through countless manuscripts pertaining to Paititi and it was had separating the truth from rumors. Much like the California Gold Rush the core stories became over-exaggerated and rumors spread like wildfire. Hatun Q’eros had to have been where all the Inca retreated during the conquest of Cusco. It is incredibly difficult to find and access and if the Spaniards were travelling via horseback it would have been near impossible.
We began discussing our research in depth with the Q’ero elders who were indeed fascinated and believed that hopefully that it would bring a renewed interest in their communities. As modernization began to take hold of the Q’ero many left behind the hard life that once sustained them for countless generations. Hatun Q’eros and the city of Paititi would have been incredibly strategic for the Inca due to its proximity to an ancient gold mine (which today accounts for 2% of the entire world gold production). We speculated that the main source of gold for the Incas, came from the Huaypetue mine down below, from there they would transfer it to Paititi to process or store the gold before carrying it back to Cusco passing through Hatun Q’eros. The Q’ero elders stated that the walk back to Cusco takes about two weeks from Hatun Q’eros. Not far off from the 10-day walk mentioned in the document found within the Vatican archives.
We returned back to Challmachimpana the following day. It was incredibly more arduous travelling upwards that I could have imagined. Thankfully, Ruben had horses which we used to carry some of our gear back and that I used to ride most of the way. That final day Juan’s family had returned back home to greet him. His wife had travelled back from Cusco while his son and daughter-in-law had travelled back from Puerto Maldonado. We ended up sleeping our final night inside our tents and woke up to a beautiful cake that Luis had stayed up very late to prepare. As with all our food, we shared it with the Q’ero who very much enjoyed it. As we began to gather our gear they asked me if I wanted to become the godfather of Juan’s granddaughter, Alondra Valentina. Using a small cup with water I made the sign of the cross on her forehead and it was done, I was her godfather. The family was extremely happy and we took a lot of pictures to celebrate the occasion. It was a very beautiful and joyous experience for everyone there.
After our expedition we all split ways. In Paucartambo, Charly and Luis headed back to Cusco while I was going to wait overnight before heading down into the Amazon. After Q’eros, Manuel was extremely excited and wanted to make a run for the lost city knowing that everything we collected and saw only validated his research. He would go in solo if he had to, but hopefully he could convince some friends to go with him. We knew this wouldn’t be the end, but only the first step in uncovering the lost city. Everyone had their own invaluable expertise to bring to the table and only time will tell when we will reunite and go all the way.
From here my adventure was only half over. I would be travelling down into the jungles below visiting villages in hopes of collecting more research that would further validate the work we had compiled. Hopefully the second leg of my expedition wouldn’t be as difficult as my first…