I didn’t sleep much that night; my imagination was pre-occupied by visions of untold wealth awaiting my claim. Incredible riches of the ancient Inca Kingdom abide in hidden splendor beneath the ancient soil of the Andes Mountains.
Although some of the treasure has been removed by pillage, and some remains in private and public collections, there is still a great deal of archaeological wealth awaiting the keen eye and disciplined shovel of the adventurer.
Aided by modern scientific equipment, the explorer has a very real possibility of unearthing buried treasure from the historic Inca ruins. It was just such a conviction that inspired Allen Greer and me to flirt with lady luck.
News releases of elegant pottery being excavated near Pillaro, Ecuador, gave us our initial direction. Packing our suitcases with the bare necessities, we were ready to leave.
I had just developed a new metal detector circuit, and decided that this would be the place to give it a thorough field test! I built three unique, collapsible models which were easily packed in a suitcase. A quick double-check of our provisions, and we left for the airport.
The flight to Quito was uneventful and relaxing, accented only by a brief stopover in Panama. Arriving in Quito, Allen and I registered at the Hotel Majestic, reminiscent of Casablanca. I expected Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre to show us to our room.
The unpretentious living style was evident when I glanced at the front desk’s accounting of our registration. Instead of our names, there was hastily scrawled, "los dos Gringos" (The two foreigners).
It was here that we met the Andrade family, a warm, middle-class, professional family with deep roots in Ecuador. They offered to accompany us on an expedition to the ruins of San Antonio.
The enormous mound looked deceptively small from a distance. It is actually some 200 feet high, nearly a quarter-mile long, and was built centuries ago, calculated to within a brief walking distance of the actual equator!
The fortress was erected during a power struggle between two Inca brothers. The animosity resulted in outright tribal warfare. After the last devastating battle, the anguished survivors buried the fortress in a symbolic ritual, closing the final chapter of a tragic episode in Inca history.
The region is befitting its epic: Bleak, stark and barren. Eternal desert winds blow the shifting dust, driving it into nostrils and eyes, making excavation difficult. But the soil is dry, so metal detection and digging are easily accomplished. We decided to have a go at it.
A brief pass over the crest of the mound resulted in an immediate, distinct response from my metal locator. Allen and I looked at each other. We knew that unmistakable sound. It was metal. I lay down the detector, and frantically began to dig....several inches....a foot. Another pass with the metal detector was now even more responsive; we were getting closer.
I dug more cautiously now, careful not to scar any artifact that we might uncover. Then, we saw it. As I turned over another trowel of dry soil, a distinct yellow glint in the sunlight. Cautiously brushing away the remaining dust on its surface, I gently lifted it out. Allen and I both stared in disbelief at the irony -- a fragment from an artillery shell!
Further digging revealed more of these puzzling "artifacts" -- bullets, shrapnel, exploded shell casings. We heard the Andrades chuckling. It seems that the old mound had most recently been used as a target for artillery practice by a junta militia!
Impact from these shells, coupled with recent earthquakes in the area, had reduced the delicate pottery to rubble. But the fragments were ornate and made us yearn for the whole artifacts which must still be buried below.
We left San Antonio for a side trip to Ibarra, eighty perilous miles of stark terror! The cobblestone roads were minimal, replete with hairpin turns suspended above straight-walled gorges.
Everywhere we looked there were grim reminders that not all travelers would complete their journey safely/ There were remains of head-on collisions, crushed busses and autos abandoned at the bottoms of ravines, and drowned carcasses of animals which had fallen into the streams steeply below.
Inquisitively I asked Senor Andrade what this road was called. "Why, the Pan American Highway, of course!"
Re-entering Quito, we assessed the various damages to our rental car: Broken accelerator pedal, motor missing badly, bent door, broken horn, scratched paint, and rearranged muffler, bumpers, and tailpipe. We knew we would have an interesting time explaining those to the rental agency.
We had returned to Quito without further incident, but at the hotel, as I was checking in at the desk, I was being checked out by a well•endowed young girl who sidled up to me and started a conversation.
She was eighteen years old, or so she said, and volunteered further that she had learned English at the YWCA. But what she offered after that was definitely not learned at the YWCA.
Allen recognized my plight, and “rescued" me. He and I then attended a lousy movie, and I wondered if I had made the right choice.
After the movie, Allen and I decided to walk the scenic route back to the hotel through the heart of Quito. It didn't take long for us to be recognized for what we were, "Norte Americanos“ -- Gringos away from home.
An overtly friendly chap strolled up and suggested that he could find us some female companionship. "Hi", he greeted us. "You like some girls? You like ’em fat? I can get them for you fat!" We didn't like 'em fat, or any other way. During our brief encounter, however, we did learn that he spoke fluent Spanish, English, German, French, and Dutch. We were impressed.
Exhausted, we finally made it back to the Majestic without further incident. The following morning, I suggested that we go on an artifact shopping spree. We discovered that if you want to get anywhere with the native shopkeepers, you must barter in Spanish, or you‘re at their mercy.
We returned with dozens of fine clay icons, hopefully authentic, and mostly dug from the Ecuadorian lowlands near Guayaquil. Very few expeditions venture into Oriente Province in the western jungle where the Auca Indians are very hostile toward white adventurers and missionaries. Many have been killed trying to approach these hostile primitives who are even feared by their neighboring Jivaro headhunters.
Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador which housed a fabulous collection of thousands of Inca artifacts of every description, including gilded copper adornments
Ironically, it was the technological ingenuity of the Inca which contributed largely to their ruthless oppression by Pizzaro's Conquistadores. The Incas had perfected the art of gold laminating. Much of the massive golden appearance of the Inca Empire was an illusion.
As with many of the myths of that era, the limitless golden trove of the Inca was exaggerated. Pizzaro, mortified, angry and vengeful, persisted in his bloody quest for imaginary wealth.
But the Incas were not all that benign. Their civilization was the epitome of agrarian communism in the strictest sense. Those who were not doing their share, or who violated the rigid Inca code, were put to death. Many ceremonial, bronze, executioner's axes adorn the extensive collection of the Central Bank Museum.
At its height, the Inca nation must have been a noisy one; whistles of every type are an integral part of clay effigies. One ingenious clay pot was so designed that when filled with water and tipped to pour, an attached clay bird chirps musically!
Nose and ear ornaments of gold, finger rings, amulets, necklaces of gold, copper, bronze, and silver, are carefully catalogued by the museum. ln the midst of all this archaeological splendor, we learned that the real treasures are kept in the bank vault!
Later that day, the Andrades suggested we try our metal detectors at a more mundane, but often overlooked, area: the ruins of early Spanish villas near Quito. Unfortunately, our pressed schedule permitted only one brief stop, but I was quickly rewarded with the discovery of an old iron key, broken off by a lock. What valuable charge is still concealed, I wondered? I wish we could have combed the ruins of that casa a little longer.
Investigating a little further, we discovered that treasure fever is widespread in Ecuador. Every house in Quito has money buried in it somewhere according to the residents. But young Leonardo Andrade and his friend Hector had a grander idea -- a trip to an ancient burial ground, and an encounter with dangers that none of us had expected.
Mount Cotapaxi is an imposing semi-active volcano, formerly worshipped by the ancient Incas, and now surrounded by countless burial mounds ("tombas"}.
The ride to Cotapaxi was an experience in itself; the sharp topography of the land dictates the use of jeep-like vehicles, although most of the natives drive the automobiles they don't care about, accompanied by driving habits that they don't seem to care about either.
Our adventure began with a car trip through Quito. The absence of traffic lights was conspicuous. The streets are cobble-paved, with no posted speed limits. The first "beep" at an intersection has the right of way; Quito thrives on honking horns!
Before crossing a street in Quito, make sure your insurance is paid up. At night, taxi drivers don't use their headlights; they think that something gets used up if they do. Unfortunately, the population gets used up when they don't!
The trip to Cotapaxi took three hours, mostly uphill. We went from 9500 feet above sea level at Quito to 15,000 feet at the base of Mount Cotapaxi. Our mode of transportation was an ancient Chevy station wagon which we had rented in Quito.
The thin air had necessitated the removal of the air filter so that the engine would continue running. We were in the clouds and our view of Mount Cotapaxi was awesome and inspiring. It loomed as an ominous sentinel, eternally protecting the legend below it. The blanket from a recent lava flow was evident and glacial snow highlighted its slopes.
We decided to stop and camp at a particularly-archaeologically-endowed location where fifty-seven Inca mounds dotted the immediate locale. Recent diggings had unearthed human sacrifices to Cotapaxi, as well as artifacts and ceremonial objects.
An empty grass hut used by Quechua caballeros provided an additional inducement to try our luck here. We carefully unpacked our gear and by noon we were ready for a preliminary survey.
The mounds varied in height from six to about forty feet. Our metal detectors revealed considerable mineralization in the soil, probably from the ferrous content of its volcanic origin, and spread in solution made by the constant drizzle at that altitude.
We decided to dig a test hole in one mound in particular; it had provided an encouraging reading on our metal locators. That hole produced nothing but powdered pumice--volcanic ash! It was apparent that our best tack would be to trench or tunnel through the base of the mound.
But by now it was nearing evening. Dusk falls at about 6 p.m. the year around in Ecuador, named for its equatorial geography. the sun shines from directly overhead and seasons hardly change.
We began to tire. Allen started complaining of heart discomfort....double valving, he called it. I developed a severe nausea. The symptoms didn't go away when we rested, they got worse. Allen tried to sleep, and I began to vomit. Allen was hyperventilating, and we both began to wonder uneasily about the Inca curse. We learned later that what we had experienced was altitude sickness, known to the Indians as “soroche,“ and to the Spaniards as “mal de mont."
Images of Florida seemed so far away as we lay in the crude grass hut. The weather there had been balmy and sunny when we left. I thought of the surf on the beaches and palm trees waving lazily in warm sea breezes.
But here at the foot of Mount Cotapaxi the weather was always miserable, 45 degrees Fahrenheit and a persistent drizzle from being in the clouds. Tiny black frogs were the only visible ground fauna, and South American Condors gracefully, but menacingly, circled overhead.
Still plagued by vertigo and weakness from vomiting, I bedded down for the night. The only sounds outside were tiny field mice.
After a restless sleep, we awoke early the next morning. Hector and Leonardo were well-acclimated; they had no symptoms of the dreaded soroche. They volunteered to try to enlist Indian labor to help us dig. They returned a couple of hours later empty handed. Indians refused to dig in the sacred burial grounds of their ancestors, and had expressed strong resentment at our doing it. Little did we know that this was not the last we would be hearing from these Indians!
We began our second day of digging in the first mound, protected from the persistent cold by heavy clothes and gloves. It is little wonder that not much exploration has been done in this region.
We tunneled in at an angle, digging about six feet into the mound. Our shovels passed progressively through layers of sod, clay, silt, volcanic ash, and pumice, graded by centuries of rain wash. The exposure of larger rocks below was encouraging since we knew that heavier stones were often placed over the sacrifice.
Allen suddenly froze. "Hold it!" he shouted. Alarmed, we all looked up to see three Indian caballeros riding fast toward us! Quickly, we left the trench, hastily camouflaged our tools, and moved for the hut. Allen nervously loaded the 50.06 rifle he had brought just in case.
The three horsemen rode up to us. Their leathery faces, worn by the harsh climate, were expressionless. After a tense period of assessment by both sides, one of the three Quechuas dismounted and cautiously approached Leonardo. They began to converse in Spanish, Apparently, fifty-six more tribesman were going to be arriving within a half hour, and we were unwelcome!
Allen was holding the rifle where it could be easily seen; Indians were not allowed to possess firearms, so we had an edge for now.
To partially pacify their obvious displeasure at our squatting on their campsite, we gave them ball-point pens, candy, plastic sheet material, and gasoline. They were very impressed by the pens -- they wrote all over themselves. The plastic sheets would be shared with their fellow caballeros. They thought the candy was delicious, and so was the gasoline. I hope it was unleaded.
By now their understandable suspicion of our presence had mellowed somewhat and they became more talkative and curious. But to avoid any further confrontation, we decided to abandon our site.
Reluctantly, we began to load the station wagon. As Allen transported the rifle to the car, he raised it upward, pointing overhead. "Por los Condors" (for the condors), he explained to the three horsemen.
We were able to salvage all of our equipment and tools, and cautiously waved goodbye as we departed for Quito. Our departure was none too soon; we had hardly cleared the first turn on the narrow dirt road when we encountered an armed convoy of jeeps carrying police and the property owners!
We were soundly advised that we were trespassing on private property, that this was range land for horses and fighting bulls, and that our presence was not welcome. We profoundly apologized and continued on our way--a little faster. Hopefully, we would be well out of the area before those excavation holes would be discovered in the sacrificial mounds.
We learned later that the real reason for the police alert was that Communist insurrectionists were systematically inciting the Indians, telling them that government housing projects were a deception designed to confiscate their land. The Quechuas are normally a docile people, but they can be excited to kill.
We chattered nervously on that final return trip to Quito. Our emotions were mixed between elation at being on the brink of discovery, and yet disappointment with having to abandon that promising site so abruptly.
Finally at the hotel, Allen and I relaxed and examined those artifacts that we were able to salvage during our all-too-brief expeditions in Ecuador. Our appetites had been aroused, not satisfied.
They say that there is a virtually unexplored region in the Llenganades Mountains, rich in artifacts of every description. Perhaps next summer.