Spirits of the "Old Ones"

Guardians of Lost City


     Even the word is exciting and mysterious.  It instantly conjures visions of ancient civilizations - the Empire of the Sun -   ancient wisdoms and knowledges that have been forever lost ... perhaps they died with the murder of the last Inca  ....  Perhaps they never really existed in fact, but only in lore, stories and dreams told by old men to young boys to be retold during many centuries.

No!   The ancient existed and when it passed, left behind many proofs of its birth, its development, its majesty and its decline.

     Today, the seeking and thoughtful visitor to Peru can find ample evidence of earlier civilizations.  Even now, new discoveries are being documented.   Excellent accounts exist which chronicle the conquests of the explorer, Fernando Pizarro and his small band of Spaniards, mounted on animals never before seen in the 'New World'.   Countless shiploads of pure golden artifacts were removed by the conquistadores and shipped to Spain to be reshaped into religious objects, or hammered into gold leaf.   Many of the records still exist in Spanish archives and museums.

     The  "Incas"  weren't a race of people - or a tribe.  The  "Inca"  was the ruling emperor and "Incas" would include only his closest family.  Legends say that the Incas were different people than the Amara or Quechua civilizations which they methodically conquered and authoritatively ruled.  History cannot tell us from whence they came.   Some people believe the first Inca and his sister just rose from the depths of Lake Titicaca and were Sun Gods.  Others say they must have come by space ship and were aliens.  Yet others think they came by rafts from Rapa Nui, or perhaps some more distant Polonysian Island.  They were different than the native people.  They were taller - with lighter skin and hair.  The  Quechuans and Amarans were mountain people and were remarkably dissimilar from those people living at, or near,   sea level in the fertile coastal valleys, or the other people who lived in the jungles on the eastern side of the Andes.  The mountain  people could not live in the warm, heavily oxygenated and humid jungles,  nor could they survive near sea level on the coast.  Likewise, coastal and jungle people could not long endure in the frigid cold and rare atmosphere of the high Andes.

     History reveals that the Inca, living in his mountain capital of Cuzco, would frequently dine on ocean fish.  Was it brought to him by space ship?   Likely not, although those mysterious and inexplicable lines and patterns traced into the Nazca desert sands,  appear to be directional signals pointing a seeking space craft directly towards Cuzco.  But most likely, a race of human runners evolved whose male adults could run at incredible speeds for a short time and only at a certain elevation.  So like the pony express of the early western U.S.A., these runners carrying freshly caught seafood in a creel,  would run relays from seaside to mountain top.  Naturally, along its two hundred kilometer route, the road rapidly increased in altitude and the marathoners and their replacements, would spend their useful lifetimes running within the same very limited elevation and distance.

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     In the early years of the 1960's,  I often traveled between Lima and Cuzco - but not running.  I made the trips either in the relative comfort of a Toyota Land Cruiser or by quick flights on Faucett Airlines.  Cuzco was, and still remains, a marvelous city.  Lying at only  3,400 meters elevation, it enjoyed a fantastic climate.  The commercial center was a melange of colonial and modern architecture  with frequent remains of Inca construction still visible. The Spaniards essentially destroyed most Incan structures as the Catholic priests considered them to be of Pagan origin.  The carefully carved and fitted stones were torn down by the conquerors and used for foundations of colonial buildings.

     Overlooking Cuzco on a broad plateau are the remains of the Incan fortress, Sacsayhuaman.  Some of its structures are partially intact and allow the astute visitor a better glimpse into the unbelievable capability of the ancient people to cut, move and accurately fit huge stones together so tightly that one cannot insert a thin knife blade between them.  Modern masonry could not possibly duplicate the capabilities of these ancient people and their Inca masters.

     From Cuzco, one either walks along the strenuous "Inca Trail" or takes a train to visit the "Lost City" of Machu Picchu.  This is not a normal railroad.  The tracks zig-zag up the side of a steep mountain as the train alternately goes forward, then reverses as a switchman manually operates the controls.  The train's momentum carries it about twenty-five meter higher with each consecutive switch.  Laboriously, it snakes up to a higher plateau on the  Alto Plano.  Sturdy buses carry passengers the last few kilometers to the site of the ruins.

     Actually the ruins may not be ruins at all.  Some modern archeologists believe the structures were simply never finished.  The Inca wanted a safe retreat where he could hide from the Spaniards, but when Cuzco was conquered, Machu Picchu must not have appeared to be a haven at all.  Dissidents amongst the indians seemed all too willing to lead the intruders to Inca strongholds and treasures.  So likely, the site at Machu Picchu was abandoned before the various buildings were completed.  Tradition tells us that another - even more remote - fortress may have been built for the Inca and his retinue.  But Pizarro did not discover Machu Picchu and it remained a "lost City" until it was discovered by the American explorer,  Hiram Bingham, in 1911.    The other fortress remains hidden until today.

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     I was not in the Andes as a tourist and certainly not as an explorer.  I was an Agricultural Engineer and Agronomist employed by a New York City based engineering consulting firm - Hydrotechnic Corporation - to participate in preliminary surveys and feasibility reports on forty-five small irrigation and hydroelectric studies scattered throughout the Peruvian Highlands.  USAID financed these studies and they were designed to improve upon the economic status of isolated Indian villages in remote under-populated areas of the high sierra.  If some of these impoverished villages could be supplied with low-cost electricity and an irrigation system which would allow for year around farming, the lives of the people living there would be greatly improved and fewer of them would migrate to the coastal cities where many highlanders soon died from tuberculosis.

     My senior Peruvian agronomist, Enrique Garcia and I had been selected to undertake field studies in one particularly remote and almost inaccessible area.  It was located in the Province of Ayacucho and within the geographic zone of my responsibility.  Neither the Engineering, nor the Hydrology teams had the time to find and examine this isolated region.  Bob Barr, the ex-West Point engineer, gave us instructions regarding the engineering aspects - possible dam and canal locations, possible location for a small hydroelectric plant, need for improved roads, etc. etc.  Nick Zawadowski, a former Polish count turned hydrologist/meteorologist, advised us what he required in terms of water flow measurements in all nearby streams, any information regarding frequency and intensity of floods and samples of water for quality testing. 

     "Bill, do not overlook any possible source of water, regardless of how insignificant it may seem." Nick had instructed.

     With Enrique driving, we left the Hotel Tourista in Ayacucho before daybreak and drove in a southwestern direction.  Following our maps and a compass, we turned off the highway onto a narrow gravel road which soon became a seldom used dirt track as we climbed upwards into the Alto Plano.  Within a few hours, this track ended at the entrance to a large hacienda.  Fortunately, Enrique spoke some Quechuan and could ask directions to our village from a group of hacienda employees loitering near the gate.  They all knew where the village was but had trouble in agreeing how we could get there in our Land Cruiser.  Finally, it was decided that one young teenage boy could go with us to show the way if we gave him a small propina.

     The dirt road had ended and there were no signs of vehicular traffic beyond the entrance to the hacienda, so the boy directed us to follow llama and sheep trails - always continuing in a southwesterly direction.  Our US Geodetic Survey maps of Peru indicated a large river between our location and the village, but the boy assured us he knew of a bridge although none were indicated on our map.   The river soon came into view and we snaked the Toyota down a steep incline to where the animal paths did, indeed, lead to a narrow bridge of ancient Incan construction - how strange!  We barely fit about half the tire's treads on the bridge as we inched the vehicle and Enrique across to safety.

     The boy told us the village was just  over the next rise and demanded his propina but we said he must take us all the way.  Of course, the village was another five or six kilometers distance and we would have never found it as animal tracks led in all directions.   We crossed another ancient bridge over a small stream and followed broad trails up the hillside to enter the neat little village.   Our Toyota created a minor disturbance as we drove into the village center - the school kids poured out of the "Primaria" to see us and examine the vehicle.   A poorly dressed policeman greeted us and inquired  as to who we were, where we had come from and why we were there.  He was pleased with our answers and   led us to the village's "community house" where we were offered lodging and food.  We were told that a small pick-up came there once every two months from the hacienda bringing mail and supplies for the village.  The driver traded these things for animal skins, grains and potatoes produced by the indians.  Some of them had ridden the pick-up back to the ranch for seasonal employment and a few people annually took home spun cloth to the indian market in Ayacucho.  There was no other contact with the outside world.

     The school teacher was the only Spanish-speaking person we could find and we employed him to be my guide during our five day stay in this village - I suppose the school children were given an unexpected holiday.  As Enrique was relatively fluent in Quechuan, he could work with anyone.  We immediately began our surveys and were not too surprised to discover remnants of an ancient Incan irrigation system with lined canals and a proper intake structure at higher elevation on the small   stream.  We had seen these ancient systems in other areas.  Obviously with the death of the last Inca, all authority and control had ended and fabulous buildings and structures were allowed to deteriorate with misuse.  Most of the old canals were completely covered as the hillsides in the Andes are unstable and landslides are normal during or following frequent earthquakes.

     Our work had gone smoothly and was nearly finished when I asked the teacher to show me a small lake clearly shown on our topographical maps.   It was on the other side of the small stream and on a large ledge about halfway up the next mountainside.  The teacher obviously didn't want to to lead me there .   "It is nothing,"  he insisted.  "It is shallow and is of no consequence to your study."

     But I insisted.  "I can't return to Lima and report to the hydrologist that I failed to investigate that lake.  If you won't lead me there, I must go alone.  Can you get me a burro to ride?"

     If he didn't want to lead me, he also didn't want me to go alone either, so he relented in order to earn another day's salary.  Enrique and I had created a cash economy in the village during our stay there.  We paid cash for meals and for a bare room with Llama skins on the floor for sleeping.  The villagers normally lived by barter.  Even the school teacher, the postmaster and the policeman depended upon barter to supplement their meager salaries from the provincial government.

     We zigzagged down the mountainside, crossed the ancient bridge and zig-zagged up the adjoining mountain.  It took three hours for us to reach the ledge where maps showed a small lake.  I can't clearly describe my emotions as our donkeys entered the area.  It was as if I had suddenly penetrated another dimension of time and space where I had never been before and possibly would never return.   Eerie?  Unearthly?  Unsatisfactory words.

     The Andes at this time of the year, and especially at higher elevations, were barren, dry, gray and dusty brown.  Even the coca bush's leaves were brittle and grayish.  But at this moment, I had entered into a verdant, green Garden of Eden.  The plateau was no larger than a football field - about half the area was occupied by a shallow lake of clear, cold water.  The soil, even away from the lake, was moist and peaty.  Grazing llamas and sheep kept the grass and weeds clipped to golf course fairway, or greens condition.  Wild flowers were blooming everywhere as the animals hadn't eaten them - no - they weren't wild flowers but carnations, daisies, cosmos and other cultivated flowers which had somehow survived and flourished in this spooky environment.

    "Where does the water come from,"  I stammered.

    "Springs.  Seepage from snow melt on high lands."  Then he motioned to me.  "Come," was all he said.   So I followed him around the edge of the lake to it's natural outlet.  A small trickle of water spilled into a crevasse and disappeared.  The teacher was pointing at something on the edge of the ledge and as my eyes began to focus,  I could discern the remains of what must have been a formidable rock dam built in the Incan fashion, and I could then appreciate the original size and depth of the artificial lake.

    "I wonder what happened to the dam?  Did it break in an earthquake?"

    "No earthquake.  Spaniards," he said with distaste and pointed to the distant ruins of a two-story rock house.  "The Jesuits took the rocks  to make that monastery.  Then they were all killed."  He said this as if he was clearly pleased.  "We make our houses of clay, but the Spaniards destroyed a sacred dam to build their house of rock."  Then proudly he added,  "But it did not protect them from the Old Ones."


     As I turned back to study the lake, he abruptly said, "Come."  I followed as he walked around the edge of the lake and approached the mountain side.  It was clear to even an inexperienced eye that the slopes above the elevation of the lake had, in recent geological time, been subjected to considerable sliding and erosion.  Rock rubble was strewn around the base of the escarpment and slide scars were still visible.  But - so strangely - ivy was covering the hillside above the water.  Ivy.  I was shocked.  This is not a plant native to the mountains - but is common in the jungle.

     The teacher strode to the ivy-covered slope and again beckoned me, "Come."  As I neared, he swept back the ivy tendrils with his hands and revealed an intact wall of perfect Incaic construction.  It took my breath away ... I could scarcely gasp for air as he exposed place after place where the wall could be seen.  Why the teacher had confided in me,  I had no idea, but now he wanted me to know it all.

     "Behind this wall is a small city ..... It is all still there .... It was covered before the Jesuits came.  It is the city of our Old People."  He stared at me for a long time as if reading my innermost thoughts.   "There is much gold here."

     "The people are now so poor.  Why don't they sell the gold in Lima?"  I couldn't help but ask.

     "We fear the spirits of the Old People.   Sometimes, at night we see fires here.  We can't disturb the Old spirits ....   You are a foreigner - you could take the gold and not be punished by the Old People.  You could help the village."


     My first wife was a Peruvian and we had come there so she could be near her family.  So upon my return to Lima,  I told my father-in-law about what I had seen and heard.  He considered himself an expert on Peruvian history and it was clear he didn't believe me.  

     "We know all the sites where the Incas constructed stone buildings and there has been nothing southwest of Ayacucho." he explained.   But, he agreed to take me to the nation's greatest expert - the curator of the National Archeological Museum.  This distinguished scientist patiently  listened to my description of the lake, the dam, the wall, the two bridges and the ancient irrigation system with its intake structure - but I omitted mentioning the gold.

     "Don Carlitos is right," he advised me studiously.  "There is absolutely nothing of interest in the area you describe.   Our Andes are tricky and can confuse the tourist with their unique rock formations.   Even at high elevations, travelers are subject to certain allusions and fantasies.   We call it "Siroche".  But I thank you for bringing me this story.   Perhaps if there are some later verifications we can send a group there to investigate - yes, it is a very interesting story."  He then dismissed me to spend some moments alone with my father-in-law.  I was sure he was recommending some sort of asylum for me and giving Carlos his condolences for having a gringo crack pot for a son-in-law.

      I never told anyone else - until now - about my lost city ... and, I smile when I think of the spirits of the Old People guarding their lands and treasure ... the city which is still "lost."


Bwana Bill's Stories