Field Notes: Fool's Gold

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1998

Field Notes: Fool's Gold

In the diaphanous mists of the Ecuadoran Andes, a king's ransom lies buried. Or does it?
By Melik Kaylan

You want to hear about the treasure's secrets?" said Andrës Fernžndez-Salvador the day I met him at his hacienda. "I'll tell you those later. First, let's drink, and I'll tell you stories. You know that I broke Jesse Owens's sprint record?"

Off he went, plunging midstream into the Homeric epic of his life. Andrës believes, as have centuries of chroniclers before him, that a fabulous Inca treasure lies buried in the Llanganatis Mountains, an Andean outcrop in central Ecuador with 15,000-foot peaks and violent weather year-round. At 73, Andrës is the keeper of the tablets on the legend, and its chief storyteller.

"Back in the fifties and sixties," he said, "we did large-scale expeditions with many Indians. Indians are extremely superstitious about the treasure. They won't even say the name Llanganatis: They think it means instant death. One trip we all had to jump across a crevasse, and this one Indian, who'd been crazy from the start, wouldn't jump. Finally he did, with a scream, and I caught him when he landed near the edge. He wouldn't let go of me — he kept whispering, 'Come with me, come with me, we both die.' Just as we were about to slip over the edge together, I had to push him off. He wanted to die."

Like most fabled treasures in remote places, this one has spawned its share of cautionary tales. Here, though, the casualties appear to be discomfitingly real, the superstitions quite current. Before my trip I'd been warned not to go, somewhat hysterically, by a deceptively normal-seeming Ecuadoran I met in a New York cafë. She was a kind of trust-fund Cassandra who was well acquainted with Andrës.

"Don't you know the Llanganatis curse?" she asked me. "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you go absolutely mad. And if you find the Incan treasure, or even get close to it, then you die — with a stab in the heart!"

I went to Ecuador not to find the gold exactly — that seemed wildly unlikely — but to examine its cult: the true believers like Andrës, their superstitions, their obsessive faith. In fact, the legend is based on some truth. The existence of the treasure has been documented by several reputable sources. A Spanish historian, writing soon after the conquest, tells of the fortune's origins: The story goes that when Pizarro captured the Inca chief Atahualpa in 1532, the two leaders made a deal. Pizarro would release his captive for a huge ransom of gold, silver, and emeralds. Shipments of ornate pottery and beautiful handcrafted gold artifacts began to pour in from around the Inca empire, filling a vast stateroom in Atahualpa's palace. But then Pizarro, in a treacherous turnaround, decided to execute his captive anyway.

Atahualpa's half-brother Rumi˜aui happened to be escorting the last and largest shipment of the ransom when he received news of the murder. In response, Rumi˜aui immediately had the vast treasure hauled up to the Llanganatis by a series of secret trails and then ordered it to be buried. (Even Pizarro's cousin, who was present at the Spanish conquest, wrote of the undelivered treasure in his journals.) Rumi˜aui died with his secret, as did numerous natives whom the Spanish interrogated and brutally tortured. One account tells that a group of Incas amassed an enormous pile of maize, from which they removed one grain to show the Spaniards. The single kernel was supposed to represent the loot the Incas had given up; the pile represented what remained hidden.

Decades later, the story goes, an impoverished Spanish adventurer named Valverde married an Inca princess from the area. She is said to have led him to the treasure, because he became unaccountably wealthy and returned to Spain, supposedly having removed only small amounts from the hoard. At his death he left a written itinerary known as the Derrotero de Valverde, Valverde's Path, which functions as the primary document in a centuries-long accretion of texts. The itinerary lays out and describes various Llanganatis landmarks precisely. Most treasure hunters still depend on it today, as, in a way, did I.

"Like all forms of superstition," Andrës had told me, "the curse only affects you if you believe in it." Yet on my first night in the Llanganatis, I had reason to consider unseen forces that jealously protect forbidden places. I developed fevers and vicious stomach cramps. Arriving at our camp, I discovered that my money belt — with passport, cash, and airline tickets — had vanished. Streams of clouds darted into our valley like fast snakes. The temperature dropped, and the sun fogged out, enveloping us in an eerie, paranoia-inducing whiteness. Was all this mere happenstance? Or was it a warning?

My guide on this expedition was Diego Arias, a 50-year-old Ecuadoran who is Andrës's ex-son-in-law and protëgë. As a septuagenarian, Andrës doesn't do much stumbling around in the mountains anymore, but he keeps a close eye on Diego's efforts. Between the two of them, Diego and Andrës have amassed the largest collection of primary documents from treasure hunters of the past, and they've survived more than 70 Llanganatis trips. Spry and sinewy, Diego had long white hair tied back in a ponytail. Gin blossoms across bony cheeks betrayed an embattled liver, and aging skin folds hooded his eyes. He coughed a lot and cackle-laughed through appalling teeth. He limped painfully, the result, he said, of a bone-crunching fall during a recent Llanganatis outing.

"Only Indians believe the curse," Diego said. "They think a gnome walks around up there and kills you. Actually, what kills you is carelessness and stupidity."

Diego came from a wealthy family that dates back to the conquest. The money was gone, but he didn't appear to care. He seemed to be insulated by the single-mindedness of his quest, even though it cost him his wife. "I suppose she saw her father's obsession repeated in me and didn't want to go through that again," he told me. His wife left him and took the children 20 years ago, and he still seemed quietly tortured by it. "For years, Diego's main activity has been to work on Andrës's ranch and climb the Llanganatis," a friend told me. "Some people say, 'A great life.' Others say, 'What a waste.' His children don't understand his life at all. It makes them ashamed."

One could regard Diego as the last great chronicler of the treasure's lore — and of its curse. He could relate all the history in fine detail. After the death of Valverde, Diego told me, the story remained mostly fallow until 1860, when a British botanist named Richard Spruce arrived in Ecuador. His research, published as Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, rekindled the treasure fever from centuries before. Spruce had found material in the archives of a town near the Llanganatis named Latacunga. He wrote that after Valverde died, King Charles V of Spain sent the Derrotero to provincial authorities in Latacunga. These officials then undertook an expedition and apparently stumbled onto something extremely promising. But their leader, a Franciscan called Father Longo, vanished one night: the first mysterious victim. Later, in the eighteenth century, a miner named Guzmžn who worked the old Inca mines in the Llanganatis managed to draft a detailed map of the area before he too disappeared in the mountains.

The accumulated weight of Guzmžn's map, Spruce's notes, and a translation of Valverde's guide into English in the 1850s set off a small stampede of English-speaking explorers. In 1887, a Nova Scotian explorer named Barth Blake made maps of the region and sent letters to a friend claiming to have found an immense treasure.

I asked Diego (who was a staunch believer in Blake's claims) why Blake didn't just go ahead and take the treasure out himself? Because, said Diego, Blake's most trusted friend perished in the Llanganatis on the way down, and Blake himself later vanished mysteriously while on a ship returning to Ecuador to claim his prize.

Then a Scotsman named Erskine Loch mounted two disastrous treasure hunts in the Llanganatis in the mid-1930s. During the first expedition, porters deserted Loch and violent rains dogged him for 37 out of 39 days. On his second trip, the party ran out of food and fell to hallucinations. "The country ahead," Loch wrote in his book, Fever, Famine, and Gold, "had spur after spur of precipitous rock faces descending into raging torrents below. Everything we stood upon, everything we clutched gave way under us."

Soon after the book's publication, Loch shot himself.

Yet others kept coming — and dying. In the 1920s, an American known in local accounts as "Colonel Brooks" established a bank in Ecuador and then got the treasure bug. On his first trip into the mountains his porters mutinied. Later Brooks decided to take his wife up for a "romantic" getaway, but they were promptly greeted by torrential rains. She died of pneumonia, and he ended up in a madhouse in New York — muttering wildly, one imagines, about gold and silver and emeralds.

So is there a curse? I asked Diego. "Only Indians believe that," he said, a bit too summarily, looking away to avoid my glance. "They think a gnome walks around up there and kills you. Actually, what kills you is carelessness or stupidity."

My own early impressions of the Llanganatis: A steam bath, only cold. Zero visibility, with the mist at times turning weirdly luminous. Underfoot, a lumpy carpet of lichens and succulents, miring you at every step. Swirling fog that would clear for several enticing seconds, only to reveal arthritic trees, silhouettes of wind-raked hills, and, sometimes, a perfectly silent lake suddenly at your feet.

One afternoon, as we waited with our porters for the rain to slacken, I prodded Diego again: Do you believe, as others do, that if you find the treasure you'll be fatally pierced through the heart? Diego stared resolutely into the mist.

I tried a different tack. What would you do if you found it? "I'd instantly tell the world," Diego replied. "That would give me protection. It's so big you can't hide it." Then he added sharply, "But I'd keep the uncut emeralds and, legally, half the treasure. In fact, I want to make a museum. It's the Indians' patrimony. I don't want some foreigner to find it and take it out or melt it." He held his gaze.

The next day we set out in more torrential rain, following circuitous paths left by mountain tapirs. Diego wore an old British Army pith helmet, carried a stick, and hobbled like an itinerant Buddhist monk. We clawed up steep, muddy trails, then crept along a knife-edged ridge, with sheer drop-offs on either side. Nothing remained waterproof, and the fierce mountain winds chilled us to our bones.

After I found my way to camp, the rain stopped, and Diego led me to a hill overlooking the camp. Beyond our valley we could see a riot of clouds miles away, lit up like a projector by the lateral rays of the late afternoon sun. For an hour or more, the sky performed a slow striptease, finally revealing glorious snowcaps. "That's Cerro Hermoso," Diego said. "That's where most people look for the treasure. That's where I used to look, too."

Diego studied Cerro Hermoso's jagged outlines for a moment, and then said, "In his guide, Valverde provides perfect instructions on how to progress and where to camp for the first four nights. Then on his fifth and final day, he tells you the exact location of the treasure: a certain cave near a waterfall in the area where Incas smelted gold. But there's something very weird about that description."


"Well, that whole area with caves is right over there" — he pointed to Cerro Hermoso — "which is a week's walk away. So, if you're following Valverde's guide, you walk perfectly for four days, following all of his landmarks, and then suddenly you must leap a whole week."

In his view, Andrés was no treasure hunter. "It's like the search for Fermat's Last Theorum," he said. "It's not important that I find it. I'm only a bridge in the quest."

Why, I asked, would Valverde suddenly mislead in his otherwise flawlessly accurate Derrotero?

"I don't think he did," Diego replied. "You see, no one's ever found the original in Spanish. I think somebody deliberately altered the guide after Valverde's death." Diego surmised that Spaniards in Latacunga made the changes after Father Longo's expedition failed. They didn't want anyone else to find the bounty until they could finance another effort — which they never did.

So, if the Derrotero had been corrupted by someone, how did Diego figure out where to look? "Well, we found a different map," he said. "This one was made by the Nova Scotian, Barth Blake. The man who found the treasure in the 1880s, then vanished coming back on a ship to get it. His map. You saw it back at Andrës's place."

Andrës Fernandez-Salvador's hacienda lies five hours southwest of Quito, in tropical lowlands near the Pacific. Before setting out for the mountains, Diego and I had gone there to pay the patriarch a visit. Andrës had bought his land cheaply in the fifties and turned 1,000 hectares of jungle into rolling pastureland when that was still considered a visionary task. In the middle of his holdings he'd built a lovely house raised on stilts and thatched with palm leaves.

Neatly dressed in pale denims topped with an ascot, Andrës spoke formal English and grandly escorted us around his place, showing off the polo field, the stables, the milking machines. He proudly reeled off stats: "Thirty-two families work here. I have 1,800 cattle."

Andrës had the physical self-assurance of a once-great athlete. He had unofficially broken Jesse Owens's sprint record, he insisted, and various weight-lifting records besides. His employees (and many other Ecuadorans) regarded him with palpable awe. He'd graduated from military school in California and served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a crack shot. Old photographs showed a dark-haired man of amazing good looks and sideburns, busting broncos in an immaculate white shirt.

The Llanganatis seemed a minor adjunct to Andrës's life of haute gambling, fighting, and building a fortune — merely one more excuse for drinking and storytelling. "I first read of the treasure as a kid in 1937 in the L. A. Examiner," he said. "My first trip up was in 1952 with a pair of American adventurers. One was a great Texan who loved Llanganatis. 'Up theyaar,' he'd say, 'it's so windy if you open yer mouth yer paants blow off.'"

Andrës had nearly died up in the mountains on two occasions, once crashing in a helicopter on a small island in the middle of a river and remaining stranded for weeks. A military plane finally found him.

As with everything else, Andrës's attitude toward the treasure was a vestige from another time. To his way of thinking, he was no treasure hunter, but an aristocratic scholar who pushed back the frontier for everyone's benefit. "It's not important that I find it," he said. "I'm a bridge in the quest. It's like the quest for Fermat's Last Theorem or the double helix."

Andrës and Diego both seemed to yearn for some official imprimatur certifying them as more than dreamers. A century ago, the globe abounded with explorers who came to be recognized as savants — Schliemann of Troy, Stanley of the Nile — but only after they'd found their grails. Diego and Andrës still hadn't found theirs.

It helped a little that Andrës was one of Ecuador's established millionaires. How much is he worth? I asked Diego at one point. "I don't know. Many millions. He owns another ranch with 5,000 cattle and Ecuador's main bottled-water company. But he's in trouble." The days I stayed there, Andrës drank even more heavily than Diego. He was in the midst of a bitter family feud too complex to unravel. His latest wife had stalked off, taking the maid and cook (a great perfidy). Most of his children were at war with him. So the houseboys ferried in whiskey all day. Andrës stayed lucid for an hour or two in the morning, but then turned boastful and thorny and then slowly incoherent, his eyes half-closed by midday.

One evening he insisted we watch Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times on the VCR in his bedroom. He lay atop the bed in his boots, taking long gulps of bourbon. Suddenly he sat up and reached into a closet, pulling out an ivory-handled Colt .45, which he began to spin on his finger two feet from my head. I got a glimpse of the cylinder: It was full of shiny brass bullets.

Later, Andrës told of a boozy fight he and Diego had had. "This guy," he said, "is the best street fighter I know, but I punched him so hard it nearly broke his jaw, blood everywhere." Diego, blinking stuporously, wasn't arguing. In their strange way, these two were utterly devoted to each other.

When Andrës finally began to talk about the treasure's "secrets," he brought out a thick file of maps and faded manuscripts. There were copies of copies of Barth Blake's notes and letters. Andrës had inherited impressive reams of both private and public research, and when sober he could quote chapter and verse with precision.

Blake was the last person to find the treasure, if the notes are to be believed. In one letter to a friend, he wrote, "It is impossible for me to describe the wealth that now lays in that cave marked on my map, but I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men....There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine, life-size human figures made out of beaten gold and silver, birds, animals, cornstalks, gold and silver flowers. Pots full of the most incredible jewelry. Golden vases full of emeralds," and so on. He found the treasure, he said, "by the merest chance."

Although no expert had ever evaluated these documents, Andrës and Diego believed in their authenticity. But if they were authentic, why hadn't they led Andrës and Diego to the treasure?

"Because," Diego answered, "it took us years and years to find out that the first map is wrong. Blake made two maps."

Two maps? My confusion mounted, as did my suspicions. "Maybe the first was to fool people," Diego reasoned. "In his letters, he wrote that he was surrounded by rogues. One letter also said, 'If something should happen to me, look for the reclining women,' and then spoke of a cave situated above an extinct lake."

I began to realize that Diego and Andrës, like Blake before them, might be deliberate in their vagueness, with omissions resulting from carelessness or calculation, one sometimes disguised as the other. At times Andrës and Diego seemed to enjoy stirring up mystery for its own sake. They'd spent a lifetime puzzling over all this; a novice shouldn't be able to breeze in and get it all in one fell swoop.

Before I left the hacienda, Andrës challenged me to a push-up duel. He did them on his fingertips.

Andrës made one final remark before we parted, a remark which I soon forgot in the welter of names and dates and deaths. He said, "I believe the treasure to be in the area where my old friend Bob Holt died last year."

On our fifth day in the mountains, after our heady glimpse of Cerro Hermoso's snowy peaks, we searched for the crop of ridges that Blake called "the reclining women."Getting there involved another harrowing ordeal, this time up a vertical cleft high in the mountain face, dense with stunted vegetation and quartzy rock. A "zumbador" — a preposterous-looking bird with a long, curved beak and markings like a quail, only much bigger — tore out of the mist on short wings. We made it to the ridges, and then came down again in a wall of fog, none the richer.

We trekked for days through what Diego tantalizingly called the treasure's "hot zone." We looked for extinct lakebeds and caves but found none. One day we spent hours hacking through wide-bladed grasses ten feet high and stumbled onto a silent clearing surrounded by marshland and bald hills. It was a spooky spot, an old campsite littered with candy wrappers and dozens of empty cans.

"This is where the Ecuadoran army commandos stayed," said Diego, "the ones who came to take out the body of my friend Bob Holt. They had such a hard time on that mission. They got a month's leave afterward."

Bob Holt was a strapping American geologist from Arizona who had worked with various oil and gold-mining companies in Ecuador during the 1960s. Andrës had known him for decades and in recent years had sponsored Holt's attempts to look for gold in the Amazon, with little success.

"It is impossible for me to describe the wealth that now lays in that cave," wrote one explorer. "I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men."

In the end, Andrës prevailed on him to try to find the Llanganatis treasure, difficult for a man over six feet weighing 250 pounds. On his first trip, at age 60, he'd died in one of the Llanganatis' many circles of hell, no doubt entombed by rain and fog.

Diego really didn't want to talk about the circumstances of Holt's death. "He slipped and fell," is all he'd say. "It was a stupid accident." Where did it happen? Had we passed the place? "No, I didn't take you there — it was too far," Diego said unconvincingly. "We didn't have time." A series of questions got no answers. That's a spot, I thought, I'm not going to see.

But by now, this was a relief. The stormy weather never let up, and we had all neared exhaustion. "We will go back along the path described by Valverde," Diego announced. "It's all downhill from here."

To leave the mountain meant descending through cloud forest, then rainforest. If you think of the Llanganatis foothills as a series of fingers, we had to cross over their knuckles through near vertical jungles. There were no trails along Valverde's route, Diego said, except one he'd hacked out, along with a trusty guide, two years ago. It was another senseless struggle: eight hours of jungle slashing. Up an hour, down an hour, everyone smeared in mud, looking dazed.

Conditions eased lower down the mountain, and the sun emerged at long last. We encountered a strange-looking fly the size of an M-80, with huge wire-mask eyes and foreboding markings etched on its wings.

On the fourth day of his Derrotero, Valverde writes of a mountain of pyrite and draws a loop around it. Evidently we had made the loop in reverse, and we began to see Valverde's landmarks. He mentions a forest trek — one with trails, no doubt — and various ravines. We walked past his Black Lake (known as Yana Cocha) in a dreary procession, unable to see each other through the mist. The lake below us was dark and eerily tranquil. All that was missing was the long boat with the figure cloaked in black extending a bony finger.

Slowly we made our way out across a final plain, dotted with lonely cactus-like plants. "This time we had a tough trip," Diego admitted, "but sometimes it's amazing up there. You remember Cerro Hermoso that day? Once, we stood on a peak with the sun behind us casting enormous shadows of our bodies onto the clouds. We danced like kids, drawing stick figures in the sky."

Diego had hobbled on his bum leg throughout, falling behind toward the end, often looking pained. His devotion to this life seemed to fray a little. It was hard to tell if he completely believed in the treasure's existence. But the mountain imposed a kind of discipline, expunged regrets. Coming out, I understood how one could become addicted.

I did have one regret, or so I thought: that we hadn't gone to the spot where Bob Holt had died. I had a gnawing sense that the treasure was around there, if anywhere.

One last time, I asked Diego about it: How did Bob Holt die? "He fell," Diego said, "on a sharp broken tree trunk. It stabbed him through the heart."

Melik Kaylan is a writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in New York and London. This is his first story for Outside.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web