Athena Review:  Original Sources in Exploration

Discovery of Inca ruins at the headwaters of the Río Timpía

by Gregory Deyermenjian, The Explorers Club

[The following account documents the 1999 Paititi/Pantiacolla Expedition in Peru led by Gregory Deyermenjian, veteran of several Andean expeditions as a member of the Explorers Club, who sponsored the project. The 1999 Expedition found and documented the furthest signs of an ancient Incan presence directly north of the Incan capital city of Cuzco, Peru. Related discoveries by Deyermenjian and his colleagues from previous expeditions will be featured in The Petroglyphs of Pusharo in Athena Review, Vol.2, no. 3 (Spring, 2000).]

Our goal was to pick up where we had left off in 1993. In that year we had gone beyond the Incan barracks-like ruins at the Meseta (plateau) of Toporake, following the lone Incan trail--that we had encountered upon our reaching Toporake in 1989, and that had been previously, and independently, sighted from the air by Peru´s foremost living explorer, Dr. Carlos Neuenschwander--that headed off from there toward the vast and largely unexplored Meseta de  Pantiacolla. We had reached a point--after weeks of being set upon by rain almost every day--from whence, because of the vast distance from Cusco, we had to turn back: we had used up our time, energy, and supplies in just reaching that area in the southern reaches of the Meseta. We documented by GPS our ultimate point reached, a point just beyond a fine Incan retaining wall just above the trail. At that moment we realized that it may be futile to try again to reach and penetrate this distant region without a helicopter to at least transport us to that point, from which we could begin fresh.

[Fig.1: Uppermost beginning of the Río Timpía, in highlands leading down into cloud forest (Gregory Deyermenjian).]

In 1994 we began our official association with Dr. Neuenschwander, joining forces in the organization "Asociación Cultural Exploraciones Pantiacolla"; but, in that year and 1995 and 1996 we failed to raise enough to rent a helicopter ($2000 per hour!), and so, each of those years we explored other adjacent areas on foot. Finally, this year, Heinz von Matthey, a German film maker, supplied enough money for five helicopter hours.

And so we set off from Cusco,--campesinos and mountain and jungle experts Paulino and Ignacio Mamani, Heinz von Matthey, Lima cameraman Pedro Neira, Cusco transportation entrepreneur and Paititi aficionado Marco Rozas, cook "Ide", and a five man helicopter crew from HeliSur. We overflew various exploration zones, getting an exceptional feel for these largely uncharted areas. The helicopter crew had by now picked up on our enthusiasm, and had read the "Paititi" books we had with us--especially those of Dr. Neuenschwander, who had identified one zone in particular that, from his examination of his superbly clear aerial photographs, he believed may contain important and large structures--and the crew themselves acted like Paititi aficionados, excitedly pointing out from the cockpit various natural features famous in the Paititi legend, such as "¡el Cerro de Cinco Puntos!" ("the Mountain with Five Peaks!) and "¡la Laguna Cuadrada!" ("the Rectangular Lake!"). It had developed into as perfect a team situation in the field as we could have possibly desired. (And we had been extremely lucky that this HeliSur helicopter, usually based in Lima or Iquitos, had made an unrelated trip to our Cusco just as we arrived there, desirous of finding a helicopter on which to spend the $10,000 cash I had brought from Boston.)

After gathering very useful geographical/topographical intelligence for three days, Paulino and Ignacio and myself were dropped off at the headwaters of the Río Timpía (figs.1,2). What followed was 15 continuous days of nonstop walking, slipping, and sliding. Before our descent on foot from the highlands to the cloud forest and swift-flowing river below us, intending to go beyond our furthest point reached in ´93, however, we documented that retaining wall, the last "fine" Incan structure furthest from the Incas' ancient capital city of Cusco. It overlooks a portion of the long, appearing- and- then- disappearing Incan trail that we had been following for many years, that begins way down south in the Cordillera (long chain of mountains and highland) de Paucartambo, and that appears to then dip down into cloud forest and "selva" (jungle), heading toward some as yet unknown site. (For some reason, none of the photos I had excitedly taken of this retaining wall in 1993 ever came out in the developing of the film.)

[Fig.2: The Río Timpía, location of the Inca stone retaining wall first seen in 1993, and Laguna de Angel with further evidence of Inca stonework (Gregory Deyermenjian).]

We began our descent, following the trail along the side of an increasingly heavily cloud-forested hillside. Soon we had to abandon our attempt to follow the trail itself, as the 500 years of accumulated debris, vegetation, fallen logs, landslides, and "maleza" (thick undergrowth) made it more difficult to try and cut our way along the trail than to descend to the river directly below and to then walk and jump from one slippery rock or log to another, and to wade repeatedly through the icy cold water of the headwaters of the Río Timpía. It was like a days-long obstacle course, and the mental concentration that had to be constantly maintained to avoid a nasty fall seemed to put one into a kind of trance, just living from one rock, one foot placement, to another, over and over.

There were three "pongos", impassible deep gorges, which separate even this, the upper Timpía, from the outside world, --(never mind those pongos further downriver which could even be more formidable obstacles, allowing the Machiguenga and KugaPacori there, some of whose "chozas" [huts] we saw while flying over in helicopter, to live in a truly isolated and unreachable part of the world into and beyond 1999, and us with no chance of ever landing in such precipitous  territory)-- which (the pongos) we had to climb up over and around using ropes. It was too much for me, but, as I had no choice, somehow I did it.  

[Fig.3: Inca stone retaining wall found in 1993, now partly cleared of vegetation (Gregory Deyermenjian).]

We would typically make camp by the river, then climb up the next day, without our backpacks, cutting our way into the thick "bosque de nubes" (cloud forest) to seek signs of the trail. Very often, at a certain consistent altitude above the river, we would finally uncover some "pirqas" (flat slate stones, piled one upon the other) indicating a roughly made ("muy rústico") retaining wall above what had been a trail.  We climbed finally to the top of the highest peak in the area, which, we saw, lay astride a "pampita", an atypically lat area, that would make a grand landing area for a helicopter at some future time. We noted that the trail appeared to continue on for an indeterminate distance downstream, ever downstream; and that we would probably need weeks and weeks more time to ever reach its end on foot. After over a week of being in that cold, wet, raging water and dense cloud-forested dungeon, we had to escape. We documented as many positions as we could with GPS (Global Positioning System), then began the days long climb back uppriver,  back over the pongos, until we finally reached the high "alturas" where the Río Timpía was nothing but a trickle below us.  

We headed south, walking with our packs at 3800 meters altitude, and stayed a night with a group of "vaqueros" (cowboys) tending their hardy half-wild cold weather cattle. Paulino became their best friend through working with them in corraling their cattle and pushing the recalcitrant and ornery horned beasts up over the peak above us, and sharing coca  leaf and "trago" (strong sugar cane liquor), and one of their loosened tongues told us of an enchanted lake, in an area of terrible meteorological difficulties, where there were Incan ruinas, in a higher area to the northwest. The last thing I wanted to do was head off in that direction, but I realized that if I didn´t follow this lead, I would wonder about it, and so regret it, all year. The tale coincided with that told us in 1986 by a Machiguenga forest Indian, "Angel," just as we reached the peak of the previously unclimbed "Apu Catinti," about how when his group had suddenly fled their valley along a tributary of the tropical Río Yavero in 1964, determined to once and for all  escape the slavery that had been imposed upon them by settlers who had come from outside the area, they first passed through an unbearably frigid region where they almost all died of hunger and cold astride a strange lake with a shape that, as it was described, seemed like a figure eight. The lake would be found north of Toporake, and was supposed to have Incan stones around it. On our topographical map, made from aerial reconnaisance, we saw a large lake in the area through which the Machiguenga would have passed, that appeared to be uniquely shaped.  

So, we headed there. And, in fact, as soon as we left the massif upon which the cattlemen were, and then climbed up onto the next massif to the northwest, the hailstones, rain, and snow began. For two full days we walked, having to huddle in shallow caves early each afternoon as the hail and rain hit us, waiting out the worst of it. I thought that my feet, perpetually  wet from boots that had never dried out since walking every day the previous week through the waters of the Río Timpía, were about to freeze right off. It was the most physically drained I´ve ever been, being there, trying to keep on putting one foot in front of the other to reach the lake.  

But, finally, using my GPS and an aerial survey map and Paulino´s seemingly preternatural instincts--and because I had no choice but to keep following Paulino and Ignacio before me-- we arrived, and everything fit. The lake was shaped like an "8", and had certain Incan remains in the form of pirqa retaining walls and "plataformas" (low stone raised areas from which to view the sun), and was subject to the hail and snow and rain that had nearly been the demise of the Machiguenga more than thirty years before. The evidence of an ancient Incan presence mark it as the furthest Incan site yet to be identified directly north of Cusco. It appeared to Paulino´s sharp eyes and well tuned senses that these types of remains would continue on further to the northwest, and that there was a certain lay-of-the-land that would indicate a very possible connection between this area and that of the peak and retaining walls and trail that we had earlierdocumented to the east and northeast, in the cloud forests lining the upper Río Timpía.

[Fig.4: Laguna de Angel, reached in 1999 in a high, cold area NW of Río Timpía headwaters (Gregory Deyermenjian).]

We named the lake "Laguna de Angel," then began the long way back. The going was sheer torture, with the distances being more vast than on the coming (since we had been brought by helicopter to that starting point above the headwaters of the Timpía), but with my energy and "ánimo" (spirit) having been all but totally spent in the explorations. But finally we arrived, four days later, at 2 A.M. And I was very happy to be there in Cusco, just as I am very happy to be in Massachusetts.

For future expeditions, our strategy shall be this: save a few hours of helicopter time, then, when the explorations are complete, when we´ve used up all our supplies and "fuerza" (strength) in the explorations, use the satellite phone we now have at our disposal to call our loyal, enthusiastic helicopter crew, give them our latitude and longitude, and ride back to Cusco in comfort and style...

[Updated information on Expedition 2000: The Search for Paititi and the Lost Realm of the Incas]

Gregory Deyermenjian,  The Explorers Club, Asociación Cultural Exploraciones Pantiacolla, 179 Common St., Watertown, MA 02472-3415, USA  (617) 926-5349.

Athena Review Image Archive   |  Vol.2, no.2 index |   Sources and Publishing  |  Free issue  |    

Main index of Athena Review    |   Subject Index   |  Travel Pages   |  Galleries and Museums   |  Ad rates

Copyright  ©  1996-2000  Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).