Life and Death in the Andes
When I was a boy, growing up in Nevada, during the long, hot summers I used to read a lot. On bright, burning days when the temperature outside hovered well over a hundred degrees and when if you tried to cross an asphalt street you’d singe your bare feet like a couple of grilled vegetables, I’d remain inside, would lie on my back on our floral-patterned couch, would open a book—and then would immediately find myself plunging across icy seas or tunneling deep into other worlds. One of my favorite authors growing up was a German-American sailor named William Willis, who wrote true-life accounts of his various adventures. Willis had sailed on square-rigged ships as a teenager and, later in life, eventually made his way to Peru, on the western coast of South America. There, he lashed together some balsa logs and sailed across the Pacific Ocean—for no other reason than adventure. Willis’s descriptions of being alone on his raft at night, peering down into the translucent blackness where he witnessed great luminescent creatures rising from the deep, still haunts my imagination. At around the same time, when I was about eight or nine years old, I stumbled across Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “hollow earth” series, which tells the tale of how a
man burrowed down through the Earth’s crust with a machine, only to discover an exotic, interior world called Pellucidar. Within the Earth’s interior, it turned out, existed a world full of half-naked tribes and powerful beasts (mostly dinosaurs), rich, luxuriant vegetation, beautiful women, and so much adventure that I remember spending an entire summer there, immersed in a world as far removed from the deserts of Nevada as the Earth is from Mars.
Many years later, after eventually becoming a writer and documentary filmmaker, I was touring with a film I’d recently made on a certain Amazonian tribe when a magazine writer asked me what had motivated me to spend so much time in South America. Without even thinking, I blurted out “Edgar Rice Burroughs.” The journalist, it turned out, had gone to public school with Burroughs’s grandson and, about a month later, a package arrived at my door. Inside was an original edition of Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core, published in 1914, the first in the “hollow earth” series. Burroughs’s grandson had signed the book, saying that his grandfather would have been pleased to know that his work had propelled me to the far reaches of the Amazon. It was while fingering through its pages, however, that I suddenly realized a certain truth: that some of the worlds we visit in books when we’re children become so buried within our minds that, even though they may remain deeply submerged, they may still prompt us to later subconsciously search for them—much as adoptees might search for their biological parents, or as adults might search for long-lost childhood friends.
While motivations remain mysterious, I do credit Burroughs with having created a vision that eventually took me to South America, a continent that, in many ways, contains everything that the best of Burroughs’s writing ever did: a massive mountain chain, epic in its proportions; colossal continental plates that continually collide, thrusting up volcanoes and even lifting entire lakes twelve thousand feet into the air; and a cloud-wreathed rain forest that stretches more than halfway across a continent—a jungle so replete with sloths, giant snakes, bizarre animals, and uncontacted tribes that you’d think you had somehow left the modern world and stumbled instead into a world as primeval as Pellucidar.
My own journey to South America began in the late 1980s, to Peru, at the height of the Shining Path guerrilla war. Within a few months, amid Lima’s curfew-ridden city, I began entering high-security prisons as a journalist and interviewing members of the Shining Path. I then began traveling in the Andes through some of the Shining Path’s “liberated” zones, where red flags with hammers and sickles fluttered alongside dirt roads—roads whose bridges had recently been blasted into ruined hulks and where guerrillas routinely pulled anyone who worked for the government off buses and shot them in the head. One day, while busy doing graduate work in anthropology at the Universidad Católica, I read a small notice in the paper about a reed raft, called the Uru, which was about to depart on a voyage across the Pacific. With memories of William Willis in my mind, I quickly went down to the port, learned that the crew was exactly one member short, and promptly volunteered my services. It was a Spanish expedition, however, and the captain wanted an all-Spanish crew. The day the Uru departed from the port of Callao, I met there the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame, who later invited me to spend some time with him while he excavated ancient Moche pyramids in northern Peru.
Ultimately, I visited Heyerdahl, which I describe later in this book, and then later lived for half a year with a recently contacted tribe called the Yora, in Peru’s Upper Amazon. While with the Yora I participated in their ayahuasca ceremonies and also listened to their rather spellbinding stories of how they had previously perceived the outside world, which some believed to be the land of the dead. The Yora told me about their skirmishes with outsiders, how they’d shot six-foot arrows at invading oil workers, and how, at one point, they’d shot so many arrows into some hapless intruder that afterward he’d resembled a Huicungo tree—a type of palm whose spines resemble those of a porcupine. Later, fascinated by the discovery that the Incas had built a jungle capital not far from where the Yora lived and had fought on against the Spaniards for four decades after their conquest, I wrote a book about the collision of those two worlds called The Last Days of the Incas.
Throughout the four years I lived in Peru, however, there always lurked in the back of my mind the idea of one day traveling the full
length of the Andes, all 4,300 miles, from one end to the other. What could be a greater adventure? On the day I finally set out, my idea was not so much to travel from point A to point B, but rather to investigate some of the most interesting stories that South America had to offer. To travel down the Andes collecting stories the way others might fill a basket with ripe, exotic fruits. I wanted to explore stories and characters I’d always been fascinated with, but I was also looking for historical events that might help illuminate certain aspects of South America’s present and past. Where did the first inhabitants of South America come from—from across the isthmus to the north or from across the seas? And where had the continent’s first civilizations come from? Did they arise independently, or had they been imported by white, godlike emissaries from other continents, as Thor Heyerdahl had believed? How and why did the Andes float like icebergs on the Earth’s crust—and why did the Incas sacrifice their children on top of its peaks? And what relationship was there between the Spanish conquistadors’s desperate search for El Dorado—the mythical native king who possessed unlimited quantities of gold—and ruthless drug lords like Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel? These were some of the questions—questions that probed into the very heart of South America—that I set out to explore. Each of the stories, I soon discovered, was interwoven with the others, like some vast, intricate tapestry spread over a continent.
In Colombia, for example, I investigated the cocaine trade by searching for a certain police colonel who’d once turned down a $6 million bribe from Pablo Escobar. The colonel had not only refused the bribe, but afterward had actually tracked down Escobar. What kind of person, I wanted to find out—offered the choice between almost certain death or of becoming a multimillionaire—would choose the former? I traveled through Colombia, to Bogotá, Lake Guatavita, and Medellín to find out.
Off the coast of Ecuador, amid the Galapágos Islands, I went in pursuit of where and when, exactly, Charles Darwin had come up with his theory of evolution. Was it in the Galapágos? Or earlier, in Patagonia?
Or not until he’d returned to England? And was it true that Darwin had so bungled his famous bird collections on the Galapágos that he was never able to use them to support his theory of evolution?
Farther south along the Andes, in Peru, I went in pursuit of a story I’d heard that the leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement had eventually been captured not by the army but instead by a certain police colonel whose identity and methodology had remained a state secret for more than a decade. But was the story true? And who was the upper-class ballerina who had reportedly hidden the Shining Path leader—protecting a revolutionary dedicated to overturning the very class system from which she benefited?
On the border of Peru and Bolivia, fascinated by a series of high-altitude archaeological discoveries in the central Andes, I went in search of a young Inca girl who’d been sacrificed on top of a 20,700-foot volcano and who was recently discovered, still frozen after more than five hundred years. Who was this girl, why was she sacrificed—and how did she and other children end up on top of some of the highest mountains in the Andes, almost perfectly preserved?
Traveling farther southward, I next went in search of the extraordinary floating islands on Lake Titicaca, some 12,500 feet up in the Andes. I was curious to know why Thor Heyerdahl, who’d once crossed the Pacific on the raft Kon-Tiki, had later flown a trio of Aymara boatbuilders all the way from Lake Titicaca to Egypt, to the base of the ancient pyramids. What secret did Heyerdahl believe these three men possessed that he would later entrust his life to their creation? On the shores of Lake Titicaca, not far from the legendary ruined city of Tiahuanaco, I tracked down one of the men, who told me his surprising story.
Meanwhile, in eastern Bolivia, curious to know how worldviews can sometimes collide with reality, I went in search of where the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara had been captured—and how his dream of founding a communist utopia had foundered in an isolated area of the Andes. In the town of Vallegrande, I tracked down the schoolteacher who’d given the wounded revolutionary his final meal and had chatted with him on numerous occasions. The schoolteacher,
now sixty-three years old, told me the remarkable story of what had actually happened on the last day of Che Guevara’s life—and how those events had changed her life.
In a similar fashion, in the far south of Bolivia, I sought out how the legendary characters Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had met their ends. Did the duo really depart this world in a hail of bullets—as depicted in the Hollywood film—or were rumors of a murder-suicide pact closer to the truth? It wasn’t until I traveled to the dusty mining town of San Vicente, nine thousand feet up in the Andes, and met the son of a man who had lived there during the shootout, that I learned the answer.
Finally, at the southernmost tip of South America, I tracked down a woman who is the last speaker of the Yámana language and who now lives on a windswept island in Patagonia. Three of the woman’s ancestors had once shared a ship with Charles Darwin, had toured London, and had met the English king and queen. They’d then been transported back to Patagonia as part of a grand social experiment. But what had become of them? And what had become of the experiment? And who on Earth had ever come up with such a crazy idea in the first place?
The stories included in this book, then, investigations really, are all the result of my meandering voyage down the Andean spine of South America, stories that I have strung together geographically from north to south, much as the white peaks of the Andes lie along that vast mountain chain, like a glimmering set of pearls.
What ultimately links all of these stories together is that the characters within them lived at least a portion of their lives in South America and all of them struggled to control, adapt to, or explore the rugged landscape that exists along the westernmost rim of the continent. Most of them, in addition, were the kind of characters that T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would have called “dreamers of the day”—the most dangerous kind, he felt, because these types of people always put their dreams into action. Che Guevara, Thor Heyerdahl, Abimael Guzmán, Hiram Bingham, Nilda Callañaupa, Chris and Ed Franquemont, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Charles Darwin, Thomas
Bridges—even Pablo Escobar—all were dreamers who actively tried to convert their dreams into reality. And, whether they realized it or not, they also viewed South America through the lenses of their culture and time. In some cases, this proved fatal, for as the writer J. Solomon noted, “Worldviews act somewhat like eye glasses or contact lenses . . . in either example, an incorrect prescription can be dangerous.”
The revolutionaries Che Guevara and Abimael Guzmán, for example, intensely dissatisfied with social conditions in their native countries and convinced of the wisdom of Marx’s prescription for building a political utopia, tried to transform society at the points of guns. In doing so, however, they unleashed forces that ultimately overwhelmed them.
Charles Darwin also arrived in South America with his own set of cultural perceptions, which in certain cases prevented him from perceiving facts that now seem obvious. Somewhere during Darwin’s long journey, however, his ideas about the world shifted and he began peering at it freshly, from a different point of view. That shift ultimately led him to conceive of the theory of evolution.
The Incas, by contrast, saw not the Andes of modern science but a sacred landscape controlled by their gods. Confronted by an environment of erupting volcanoes, deadly earthquakes, and unpredictable droughts, the Incas offered up sacrifices, sometimes in the form of children. By doing so, they hoped to restore balance to their world.
Nearly five hundred years ago, a Spanish chronicler and soldier of fortune named Pedro Cieza de León spent eleven years traveling in South America, journeying southward through the recently conquered Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now Colombia into central Chile. In the preface to a book dedicated to the Spanish king, he wrote,
O most serene and gracious Lord . . . to describe the wonderful things of this great kingdom . . . would require one who could write like [the Roman] Titus Livius, or Valerius, or some other of the great writers that have appeared in the world, and that even they would find some difficulty in the task. For who can enumerate the mighty
things . . . the lofty mountains and profound valleys over which we went conquering and discovering? The numerous rivers of such size and depth? The variety of provinces, with so many different things in each? The tribes, with all their strange customs, rites and ceremonies? So many birds, animals, trees, fishes, all unknown[?] . . . Much that I have written I saw with my own eyes, and I travelled over many countries in order to learn more concerning them. Those things that I did not see, I took great pains to inform myself of, from persons of repute, both Christians and Indians. I pray to Almighty God that . . . He will leave you to live and reign for many happy years, with the increase of many other kingdoms.
Cieza de León died having never visited all of South America. I can attest, however, having traveled the length and breadth of the continent and having visited much of the same territory that he did, that many of the miracles and marvels he described still exist, and that the wonders of South America—a world I once half imagined as a child and was later fortunate enough to experience—still remain.
Café Les Deux Garçons