Lost in the Clouds
by Robert Anasi ’89
Photography by Robert Anasi ’89.
Archaeological site photos published by permission of the American Explorers Foundation & Ocean Sailing Club.
Between seven and nine thousand feet, we’d reach the hilltops and catch our breath. The trees there clustered thickly, limbs swathed in lichen and moss. Inside the clouds the forest seemed only half real;we’d climbed out of a bright day and it was hard to make sense of the shifting gray-green haze. The ruins would appear suddenly, out of nothing.
A steep ridge beside the trail would waver and turn into a wall, an overgrown wall, 20 feet high, running as far into the woods as I could see. Mounds of dirt would become stone houses. Meadows would become plazas. After piling their packs on a tarpaulin, the porters would start clearing the structures. The machetes chopped and scraped, thudding against wood and ringing faintly when they glanced off stone. We’d photograph everything, porters grinning in frame with tooth-deficient smiles. Now we could see the order underneath the dirt and leaves, like a hand swiping across a foggy mirror. I’d walked right into the town without knowing it was there. The oversight was understandable: No one had lived in these particular towns for at least 600 years, and the rainforest grew quickly.
On July 14th, I flew from New York to Peru to join the last romantic expedition, a monthlong trek in the Andean cloud forest to search for ancient cities, cities abandoned and lost before Columbus reached the New World. Leading the expedition was Sean Savoy, the son of Gene Savoy, the greatest explorer of the 20th century and the real-life model for Indiana Jones. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but that was exactly the point. Expeditions like ours didn’t happen anymore, not outside Hollywood back lots. As soon as I left my hotel-room bubble for the bus, I was in a different world—I could tell by the military cops cradling AK-MK submachine guns, there to protect us from the bandits swarming over the Pan-American Highway. And that was only the first day, when the roads were still paved.
Leaving Lima for the Andes was time travel, every day moving us deeper into the past. Days two and three, we rattled across dirt and gravel in an old school bus with no shocks and a marshmallow suspension, staring down steep ravines at the wrecks of trucks and buses that looked disturbingly like ours. On the fourth day in the provincial town of Bolivar, our team—37 mules and horses, 25 porters and a crew of 11—assembled and headed into the mountains.
The trek over the 14,000-foot pass introduced me to the hazards of pre-industrial travel: Our baggage train got lost at night with no flashlights or lanterns. Two thousand feet below that pass, we tried to stay warm without firewood or blankets. An American caver we met at the campsite told us the limestone caves we’d seen on the trail had the deepest vertical drops of any in South America. “Those caves just look like little holes in the ground,” she said, “and there are hundreds of them. One wrong step ...” They were also filled with skeletons. “One cave we jumped yesterday had a horse and rider together,” the American told us. “It was an eight-second fall, so they had a chance to say goodbye.” Locals called the caves infiernitos, “little hells,” helping explain why the Incas lost more than 400 men crossing the same pass in their 15th-century invasion of the Chachapoyas kingdoms.
Such hazards added to the sense of unreality. After all, we had come to search for El Dorado (a city that had never existed) in an ecosystem (the cloud forest) that in a few years would cease to exist. Yet the Andean Explorers Foundation & Ocean Sailing Club (A.E.F. & O.S.C.) had been looking for El Dorado in the eastern Andes for more than 40 years, finding lost cities, ancient civilizations and thousand-year-old stones carved with symbols no one could interpret. From the early 1960’s until 2001, Gene Savoy had led every A.E.F. expedition, including the discovery of Vilcabamba, the last Inca capital, in 1964. Now, 77 years old, he has passed on his legacy to his son in the hope that Sean could bring the A.E.F. into the new millennium.
The east slope of the Andes was central to Savoy’s quest. He claimed that the cities he discovered there were the historical locus for the El Dorado legend. They contained almost everything that was known about the Chachapoyas, a culture of tall, bearded, blue-eyed Indians whom the Incas conquered and dispersed just before the Spanish arrived in the Americas. The Chachapoyas built their towns on hilltops, making them difficult to reach—for invaders like the Incas, and for us. In the Inca language, Quechua, “Chachapoyas” means “cloud dwellers,” and from our base camp on the Huabayacu River we could see why. Although the sun might be shining in our valley, the forested slopes above were wreathed in gray, fingers of cloud stretching down the ravines. Finding Chachapoyas cities meant hiking into the clouds.
The cloud forest was close trees wreathed in epiphytes and parasitic plants—tree ferns, stranglers, creeping vines and bromeliads, their long red leaves swaying down from their hosts. The cloud forest was spectacled bears and 300-year-old cedars with trunks as big around as sport utility vehicles. The cloud forest was luscious orchids bowed with dew, wild turkeys on nests of jade green eggs, rare wooly monkeys shrieking and shaking branches at intruders. After breakfast, we’d walk along the old Inca road until we reached a trailhead and then start climbing up slopes graded at 60 or 70 degrees, mud clutching our boots and branches swatting our faces. Although it was the dry season, rain fell constantly, downpours puncturing the gray mist and making the trail slick. We’d hoist ourselves by way of branches and lianas—very Tarzan—or on vast involuted root systems. The parasites sucked so much life out of the trees that a tug could snap a six-inch trunk in half.
Peruvians call the cloud forest the ceja de selva, the “eyebrow of the jungle,” a slender gray band above the huge expanse of the Amazon lowlands. On my return to the 21st century, I learned that the cloud forests serve a function far greater than their limited range would suggest. The mossy trees harvest water from clouds, water that would otherwise never fall, in some regions drawing up to 60 percent of the fresh water supply. The cloud forest is also home to many still-unidentified plant and animal species. Since the cloud forest is separated from range to range, each hilltop can hold species that exist nowhere else on earth. A cloud forest like the one around Macchu Picchu—where I watched 20 hummingbirds squabbling over the blossoms of a single tree—has more plant diversity than all of Europe.
When Gene Savoy first went to the region in the 1960’s, local men believed the forests were haunted and refused to enter them for fear of being cursed by malign spirits. Gazing up into the gloom, you could understand why: The cloud forest looked like the land that time forgot. This appearance, however, was deceiving because the future was turning the forest to mulch. The valley was steep—hell, all of Peru is built on a slant—but the most level expanses had been homesteaded with everything that entailed: the cows, the pigs, the goats and crops like potato, corn, yuca and coca.
The general rural M.O. is to fell a section of forest and then set it on fire. Our own camp was set in a field of stumps and rotting logs with a few trees left standing for future firewood. About 90 percent of the cloud forest of the northern Andes has already disappeared and the rest is on the way. An unintended benefit of the deforestation was that it brought many archaeological sites to light. It took our senior archaeologist about five minutes to realize that our camp just happened to be on top of a major Inca military post. Without knowing it, we’d built our latrine against a five hundred-year-old Inca wall.
After a month in the jungle, I yearned to be back to the land of hot showers. My arms and legs were swollen from bug bites, and I had second-degree burns from the sun (the equator was only six degrees away). Old hands on the expedition declared it a great success: We’d found five unknown cities that sprawled over 100 square kilometers of jungle. I’d stared into thousand-year-old tombs and seen mummies with dried skin still stretched across their skulls.
The most remarkable thing about the expedition, though, was that it happened at all. Exploring the Peruvian outback is difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with the rugged terrain. Permits are needed, a great number of them, which requires endless negotiations with a venal, impoverished civil service. In theory, the regulations help prevent the looting that has plagued Peru since Pizarro, but in practice, it goes on anyway. The era of the maverick explorer has long since passed. It’s hard to picture Indiana Jones filling out forms and sucking up to bureaucrats.
The real-life Indiana no longer has to; at 77, Gene Savoy will never see the cloud forest again. Archaeological research these days involves helicopters and satellite imaging, not mules and mud. Even in the 1960’s Gene Savoy was looked upon as an anachronism. Archaeologists never did trust the explorers. Yet, for all their shortcomings, it’s the mavericks whose names are remembered— Schliemann, Bingham, Heyerdahl—not the gravel-sifting Ph.D.s. Even if his dreams were completely wrong, Savoy had the courage to act on them.
For now, the eastern Andes still has room for dreamers. Guerrilla bands, narco-traffickers and lousy public transportation make sure of that. At night in the field, Sean Savoy would unroll his maps—the most detailed ever made of the region—on our camp table. In the light of an electric lamp and a citronella candle, he would trace out the places he hoped to explore. North, south and east, there were still broad swathes of white, blank space—enough for decades of expeditions. “We know there are more cities,” Sean said. “We just have to be able to get to them.”
Robert Anasi ’89 is the author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle and is currently working on a book about his travels in the Andean rain forest and the explorer Gene Savoy. He lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.