free issue                                back issues                                                subscribe 

Athena Review:  Original Sources in Exploration

Expedition 2000: The Search for Paititi and the Lost Realm of the Incas

The Eyebrow of the Jungle

by Gregory Deyermenjian, Director, New England Chapter of The Explorers Club

Since 1984 my Peruvian, highland campesino, and Machiguenga Indian companions and I have been exploring unknown areas of mountain and jungle in southeast Peru, in our quest to determine the existence, form, and location of Paititi.

With the word "Paititi" one may refer to many things. The late Cusqueño anthropologist Oscar Núñez del Prado collected the tale of the culture-hero, Inkarí, who retired to the selva of Pantiacolla, after having founded both the extant "Inkan" village of Q´ero, and their capital city of Cusco, to live out his days at his oasis of Paititi.

To the Incas, the land of Paititi was associated with the hacha hacha, the exotic yet terrible jungle, perhaps as far away as the Río Tambopata and the plains of the Mojos in Bolivia. The mysterious jungles of Cosñipata, to the northeast of Cusco, were the target of great military campaigns by the Inca Pachakuti Yupanki, and his son Topa Yupanki, and Incan roads were built heading north along the ridge of the Paucartambo range overlooking the selva to the east, and from Pisac to Paucartambo and then over the puna, the highland tundra, and down into the lowlands of Pilcopata. This was the Antisuyo, the forested eastern quarter of the Incan world, the concept of which was just as important to the Incan psyche as its jungle products were to Incan sumptiousness.

Fig.1: “Incan Chaca,” which means “Incan Bridge,” a portion of the Incan trail that traverses the crests and ridges of the Cordillera de Paucartambo.

To Spanish Conquistadores such as Gómez de Tordoya and Juan Alvarez Maldonado, Paititi was that rich land beyond the Río Madre de Dios, which lured most of those they led to their deaths, as it did, later, to men of the Republican period such as Colonels Faustino Maldonado, who drowned in the rapids of Bolivia´s Río Beni in 1861, and Baltasar la Torre--the Prefect of Cusco, no less--who was skewered by dozens of Sirineri Indians´ arrows on "The Island of Death" in the upper Madre de Dios in 1873.

To followers of the great 18th Century insurrectionists Juan Santos Atahualpa and Tupac Amaru the Second, Paititi was the mysterious realm to the east of the Andes over which these leaders ruled and into which they would retire to escape death.  And to Peruvian and gringo adventurers--as well as to the many Inca aficionados who see Pizarro's entry into Cusco in 1533 as that of a feared and despised conquering force, Paititi means another Machu Picchu, waiting to be found in some hidden corner of mountain or jungle: a ruined refuge city to which the Incans fled in the wake of the Spanish invasion, and a site which contained, most importantly, that which was most conspicuously lacking at Machu Picchu--gold and treasure.  

As Cusco's contemporary historian Victor Angles Vargas has emphasized in his 1992 El Paititi No Existe, the Incas of Cusco in 1533 did not view Pizarro's entourage as one to be feared as enslavers, but, rather, as liberators who had just killed the Cusco faction's most feared enemy, the Inca Atahualpa, leader of the Incas of what is now Ecuador, who had just vanquished the Cusqueño armies in a civil war of extreme cruelty. The Incas would thus have had no reason to flee en masse from Cusco, and, as well, it would not have been in their mindset to hide gold and treasure, which for them had a spiritual and ritual and artistic--but not a financial-- significance.

Thus, the historian posits, there is not a lost site yet to be found, there is no Paititi. But our own investigations into the question of Paititi have led us out into the actual mist-enshrouded lands beyond the eastern ridges of the Andes, into the remote and nearly inaccessible selva alta, the high altitude jungle. There, we have ourselves in fact seen a multitude of antique remains of a past Incan presence that has been largely undocumented and ignored by the mapmakers and historians. And so, our quest has been to uncover and map these lost sites within the jungle, and so to document the furthest reach of the Incas into the lowlands to the northeast of Cusco. And, in doing so, we are as well seeking Paititi...

The quest for this Paititi, for the furthest presence of the Incas into the selva beyond the ranges, began for me after having visited, in 1981, the site of Vilcabamba, the redoubt of Manco Inca--who did finally rebel against the Spaniards after enduring nearly three years of their increasingly harsh rule--at Espíritu Pampa in the forested plains of La Convención province to the northwest of Machu Picchu. It was then that I began to hear about a site which lay hidden somewhere off to the east, where the Andes and the Amazonian rain forests meet in a riot of  hills, ravines, and isolated peaks, all covered in jungle and crisscrossed by unnavigable boulder-strewn rivers and streams. And in 1984 I began traveling there, to the north and northeast of Cusco, first in the company of Cusqueño hunters who had made forays well past their holdings in Paucartambo, and then with the Quechua-speaking highland campesinos of Challabamba and Calca that I had met through them.

Fig.2: Author’s map of exploration region in Peru.

Some years we´d travel up from Calca, then down to Amparaes, then cross the ranges to the northeast to attain the ridge of the Cordillera de Paucartambo . And other years we'd go by way of Paucartambo and Challabamba, climbing from there directly onto the ridge. North we would go, following our mules and packhorses along the remnants of that road of stone built by the expansionist Incas of the 15th Century. We would pass Incan sites such as that of "Collatambo," shadowed by the peak called "Huascar," then leaving behind us the last lonely campesino hut. At an altitude of 12,500 feet we'd examine the petroglyph site called Demarcación." Soon thereafter, at a spot known as San Martín, the puna dipped into a flea-infested bog, the edge of which would afford a portal into the jungles. We´d leave the animals, and over the eastern edge of the Andes we would go, descending for over three hours through the cloud forest, and then punch through the layer of cloud that enveloped eastern slopes and the entire western Amazon basin we were entering. We´d finally reach the bottom, where a little stream ran through a narrow valley of the selva alta.

There were no trails, and so we would follow the course of the fast-flowing, boulder strewn rivers, until we came, days later, to an area known as Mameria. Here, scattered over a broad expanse of rugged hills, lived a small population of Machiguenga, one of the ethnic groups referred to by the Incas as "Antis." The women still wore the long cushma and nose ring, and both sexes the cotton shoulder bag, most likely stemming from long-ago contact with the Incas. Traveling with the Machis, we found the selva alta, here at an altitude of 4,000 feet, to be honeycombed with the remains of ancient Incan habitation in the form of stone walls, terraces, kilns, and ceramic and metal objects of tumbaga (an alloy of copper and gold), all in a "rustic" but nonetheless "Imperial Incan" style. (Subsequent carbon-14 analysis of the burnt wood of an apparently contemporaneous hearth gave a probable mid-1400's C.E. date.) And we found the Machiguenga here to regularly climb tall coca trees to collect the leaves for chewing, further evidence of the influence of a past Incan presence.

In later years, after crossing the Río Sarahuatu and following the Mameria downstream, we found the surrounding hills to be topped with stone platforms, and we uncovered a large stone structure of two levels. To the southeast we crossed the Río Niatene with its nearby ruinas of walls of tightly-fitted stone, and continued on to reach the peak of the isolated tropical peak, "Apu Catinti," said to have been one of the three sacred Apus, "Spirit Mountains," to the east of the highlands. From our perch atop the massif we could see the "Peak of Seven Points," which overlooked an area inhabited by Kuga Kapori, a tribal group of "rebel Machiguenga" who spoke a slightly different dialect than our hosts, and who not infrequently had raided the Machiguenga of Mameria. And we explored to the northwest as well, ascending to the headwaters of the Mameria, and from there to the high, windy grassland of the Plateau of Toporake which marks the northern extreme of the Paucartambo range. Here Incan trails from the southwest appeared to converge near a series of low-walled rectangular barracks-like structures, from which one lone trail continued on toward the high plain and cloud forest of the Meseta de Pantiacolla to the north. We returned from Toporake by heading directly west, and in a dizzy and endless descent toward the valley of the Río Ch´unchusmayo, we passed the ruins of "Miraflores," which, although within the province of Calca, were covered with a jungle vegetation that reminded us of Mameria.

Fig.3: “Rustic” Incan ruins, structures with niches in the walls, that had long ago been three sided “Masma” style, in the selva alta of Mameria.

The 1990´s began with political problems that precluded our passing through the highlands, and so we journeyed, in ´91, to the lower altitude jungles of Manu, going by vehicle past the pre-Incan burial tower chullpas of Ninamarca, and then from Paucartambo up through puna, then own through cloud forest, to the lowlands of Pilcopata and Atalaya. We took a motorized canoe down the Alto Madre de Dios, then up the Palatoa, as far as the water allowed. There was a native community of Machiguenga, from which we continued on foot, until reaching the rock face covered with the enigmatic "Petroglyphs of Pusharo" [editor´s note: see Gregory Deyermenjian´s article on Pusharo in Vol. 2 No. 3 of Athena Review].

By 1993, however, we were able to resume our explorations to the north. We returned to Toporake and beyond, following that barely perceptible Incan trail until it disappeared into dense cloud forest within the unknown Plateau of Pantiacolla. We realized at that moment that the distance from Cusco to this point in the Pantiacolla was so vast and time-consuming, that only with a helicopter to whisk us here would my alloted three to three and a half weeks in the field be enough time to allow us a chance to follow this trail much further.

Beginning in 1994, we allied ourselves with Peru's foremost living explorer, Dr. Carlos Neuenschwander, who had been conducting his own investigation into Paititi and the significance of the Pantiacolla plateau since the 1950's. We were unable to raise funds sufficient for a helicopter, however, and so in 1994 and ´95 we found ourselves instead following branches of the main trail that traverses the Paucartambo mountains, down to the jungles of Callanga, southeast of Mameria, where we investigated potential sites spotted from the air by Dr. Neuenschwander years before; we found the very rough and decayed remains of an ancient Incan, as well as an apparently pre-Incan, habitation; and we made a first ascent of another legendary tropical peak, known as "Llaqtapata" (meaning, in Quechua, "the town above"). On our way back through the remote and dusty highlands of the Cordillera de Lares/Lacco that overlooks the Río Paucartambo/Mapacho, we passed through impressive and finely constructed Incan sites such as Tambocancha and Uncayoc, which must have at one time guarded these routes between selva and sierra.

Fig.4: Gregory Deyermenjian and Dr. Carlos Nuenschwander, Peru’s foremost living  explorer, at the doctor’s home in Arequipa.

 In 1996, still without helicopter, we again ensconced ourselves within the steamy lower jungles of Manu, in an area just to the south of Pusharo, to reach and make the first definitive examination of the "Pyramids of Paratoari," eight apparently evenly spaced and unnaturally symetrical hillocks which had caused a flurry of speculation as to their origin and relation to Paititi since having been spotted on a NASA satellite photograph twenty years before.

Finally, by 1999, we were in a position to take a helicopter from Cusco, destination north, to the Plateau of Pantiacolla, thanks to our additional alliance with German film maker Heinz von Matthey. We left the helicopter at the furthest point we had reached along that Incan trail that we had seen leave Toporake in 1989, and that we had followed as far as we could in 1993. We passed a relatively elaborate Incan retaining wall above the trail, then descended to the headwaters of the Río Timpía. Over the course of the next week we saw that the rough and totally overgrown trail continued ever downward, through the increasingly broken and precipitous territory of the valley of the Timpía. It was easier to follow the river itself, with its raging waters and huge slippery boulders and logs, than to try to directly follow the totally overgrown and uprooted remnant of a trail clinging to the valley wall a few hundred meters above. But our progress was extremely slow, nevertheless, because of a seemingly endless series of pongos, dangerous gorges where the canyon´s rock walls dropped directly down to the deep and roiling waters of the narrowed river, necessitating our laboriously climbing up and around using alpinista style ropes. At the end of our endurance, we documented the rough retaining walls that appeared whenever we ascended the valley wall and cut away the vegetation, and then began our escape from the perpetually dark and wet and uninhabitable dungeon, beneath overhanging vegetation, that was the course of the upper Timpía.

After having climbed now upriver, up and out of the cloud forest, to emerge back at the high alturas where we had begun, we soon ran into some wandering vaqueros, cowboys, who had driven the cattle in their care up to these lonely grasslands for unlimited grazing. From them we learned of an enchanted lake shaped like a figure "8", astride ancient ruins, in a perpetually rainy and cold area to the northwest. It was said that Pachamama, the earth mother, showed her displeasure at anyone entering the area by assailing interlopers with meteorological difficulties. The tale reminded us of a similar story told us by a Machiguenga Indian, called "Angel," when we reached the peak of Apu Catinti thirteen years before. He had said that while escaping slavery at the hands of settlers who had moved into the Machiguenga territory along a tributary of the Río Yavero, he and his Machi brethren had first passed by such a lake, where they saw remains of the Inca and where they almost died of cold and starvation, on their long migration to Mameria. So, we set off for the northwest. We soon found ourselves likewise suffering greatly from cold, with our boots, which were still wet from the ceaseless wading through the Timpía the week before, now taking us through snow and hail. But, before long, thanks to the preternatural sense of direction of my long-term expedition partner, Paulino Mamani, as well as my GPS (Global positioning System) and an aerial photography generated map which showed such an unnamed lake in the area we approached, we found it. And here--at the lake we named "Laguna de Angel," --were a series of low Incan platforms and retaining walls, which, along with the remnants of Incan trail and retaining wall closer to the Timpía, constitute the furthest Incan remains yet found directly north of the Incan capital of Cusco.

[Go here for further details on the the 1999 Paititi/Pantiacolla Expedition in Peru.]

What is next in this continuing quest to identify Paititi? This year, during the dry season (June through September, 2000), will be the next expedition. We do not anticipate having a helicopter this time, and so we will not return to the Timpía. We will, however, be reentering the jungles of Manu, to investigate an area that could be at least as interesting and potentially important. There is an unnamed mountain range that overlooks the Río Yungaria, a tributary of the Callanga, in thetangled jungles between the zone of Mameria to the north and that of Callanga to the south. I saw the beginnings of this isolated tropical range in 1994, when, from the confluence of the RíoYungaria and the Río Callanga, where Paulino and I were searching for some gigantic terraces that Dr. Neuenschwander had spotted years before from the air, I marveled at how precipitously the territory behind the Yungaria soared upward and away from the river, beyond sight. Then in 1995, from a high perch on the eastern edge of the Andes, as we were ascending from the valley of the headwaters of the Callanga to the highlands to the west, I caught a glimpse of the mighty peaks of this strange massif, which seemed to reach to a height quite uncommon for tropical mountains out beyond the Andes: while the entire range was enveloped in what appeared to be a thick mantle of green vegetation, the actual peaks were shrouded in what appeared to be perpetual cloud around the summits. Adjacent areas, as described in local legend as well as in a current book by another long-time Paititi seeker, Padre Juan Carlos Polentini, are said to harbor extensive ancient stone ruins that could be identified as the legendary Paititi. We aim to reach our mountain range, to climb and traverse its length, and to explore and to determine what actually--there and in adjacent areas where we may need to establish friendly relations with nomadic Machiguenga or Kuga Kapori--is to be found and documented through photograph and film.

Thus will we be brought ever closer to an answer to the question of the existence, form, and location of the much sought-after stone city in the jungle, the fabled Paititi...

Athena Review Image Archive™   | Guide to Archaeology on the Internet   |   free trial issue |  subscribe  |  back issues

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

Copyright  ©  1996-2003    Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).