Don’t believe all you hear about lost cities. But then again, why not?

By Nicholas Asheshov

Sra. Nelly, who helps out on busy weekends, told me the other day when she heard me talking about a valley below Machu Picchu: “My cousin Alfredo knows where there’s this really big ruin. It’s on his own place, above Sta. Teresa.”

Nick's adventure as captured by Peruvian artist Carlos Christian Castellanos Casanova

I should have a double Scotch for every time someone has told me where to find buried treasure and secret ruins.

Nelly went on, looking round to see that no one else was listening. “It’s got these three lines of great walls, near the top of a hill. There’s a waterfall…”.

With lost cities and buried treasure there’s some common characteristics to the stories. One is that they are always second-hand.

The most consistently unreliable stories come from priests and protestant missionaries, invariably imprecise and gullible; perhaps it goes with the territory. The most famous in our area was a Padre Polentini, active for decades in the Lares Valley over a cold bare pass from Calca. According to everyone you meet in this attractive but little-visited area, Padre Polentini spent all his time -this would be the ’70s and ’80s– looking for lost cities and of course he built up, the same stories say, a hoard of gold and silver objects which one of the Cuzco archbishops sent off to the Vatican.

To add substance to the foggy world of lost cities and buried treasure, there’s a private museum in Lima crammed full of spectacular gold and silver objects that are all grave-robbed. It is much better than the tourist-trap Gold Museum, which is full of fakes.

A late-breaking version of the secret hoard syndrome is the story, first published in Caretas’ Country Notes in March this year, that Machu Picchu itself was looted in the 1880s by a German, August R. Berns, and all the huacos were sent off to the Berlin Museum.

The discoverer of this gem of lost city-ology, Paolo Greer, is much smarter and more persistent than the professional archaeologists and historians. One of Paolo’s specialties is locating old gold and silver mines, some of which are in production again over on the eastern slopes of the Carabaya between Cuzco and Puno. Today this is one of Peru’s toughest no-go regions, controlled by drug gangs and illegal gold panners.

Paolo has also been working on what he calls “Portuguese” silver mines to the East of Machu Picchu. He tried to get up there a few months ago but got turned back by impassable cliffs.

Others, led by Gary Ziegler, of Colorado, and Vince Lee, a couple of months ago held a symposium hosted by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of The Explorers Club. I’ve been out many times with Gary in the Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu and he thoughtfully combines GPS technology with ensuring that one of the mules is assigned to carry three crates of Stolychnaya with a few bottles of Martini for the women.

Technology doesn’t seem to have made the slightest difference to the rate of discovery of lost cities in the Andes.

The Instituto Geografico 100:000 maps, produced arm-in-arm with the Pentagon, are still dodgy, because they don’t do much footwork to back up the clever satellites.

However, things are a lot easier in the field today with the ferocious accuracy and handy cheapness of GPS machines the size of a telephone. This means that you can draw your own maps, as detailed or as sketchy as you like with spot-on accuracy.

But clear thinking is much more important than technology.

A few years ago a priest down in the Apurimac told me about a treasure-trove of dollars, quantities of camping equipment, a massive cache of canned food, a light bulldozer and shotguns up in the northern Vilcabamba. He added: “There’s a dozen late-model parachutes.”

I instantly realized he was talking about my own National Geographic expedition in 1963 Perú by Parachute – NGS 1964 (link to pdf of article) where, true, I’d had to abandon a couple of torn ‘chutes, a broken 16-bore shotgun and a pile of empty Coke bottles. I explained it all to the priest.

He didn’t believe a word of it.

Now I must get on with organizing a trip before the rains start to check on Sra. Nelly’s cousin Alfredo’s lost city above Sta. Teresa. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Sept. 12, 2008

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