Saturday, July 5, 2008


Historic caveats to the expedition
Before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1532, traditional inhabitants built a system of stone paved roads extending uninterrupted across the Andes Mountains. From Colombia in the north to Chile in the south, a smooth highway of rock and stone communicated all areas of the Inka Empire. From the vertebrae of this central highway a number of peripheral roads extended like ribs into the eastern rainforests.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

Over time the Spanish colonizers destroyed the central highland highway, but to this day many of the peripheral trails have survived. The intrepid British explorer, Colonel P. Fawcett, convinced that an ancient advanced civilization lived in the cloud forests of Bolivia or Brazil spent thirty years exploring the area. He eventually disappeared in 1935, leaving behind a manuscript that vaguely alluded to a trail descending down the valley of Challana. Fawcett, who did not visit Challana wrote that in the early 1900's locals found gold and extensive plantations of rubber in the region. They defied the Bolivian government by declaring Challana independent and prohibiting visitors from entering the valley. They were joined by outlaws and renegades and elected as chief an ex-captain of the Bolivian army. The "independent state" achieved transient fame after it held of an attack by the national army and was then lost to a history of indifference.

The decision to go

"…Yet deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling. At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew it was part of me forever…"

Col.P.C.Fawcett "Exploration Fawcett".

The wind kept beating at the walls of the tent, such that I felt I was caught inside a nylon beehive. It was close to midnight… I think. The light of the full moon and the delirium caused by severe altitude sickness was confusing and enchanting all at the same time. The slender thread that keeps the mind integral in its functions broke and two days passed in a chaotic flood of hallucinations, memories and physical discomfort. I was camped just beneath the towering mountains of Illampu and Ancohuma, in the northern reaches of the Andes mountain chain of Bolivia. The severe altitude sickness with fluid accumulation in the brain dictated an end to my climbing season. In that shadowy state of mind, under the mercury light of the moon, I made a dramatic decision to head into the eastern rainforests and jungles of the Bolivian Amazons. I planed a 1000 km. expedition, a journey in search of the outlawed state of Challana. I would follow stone paved "Inka" highways, as they ascended to and descended from high mountain passes into the little explored eastern reaches of the country. Fawcetts manuscript lured me on with legends of lost cities and of white tribes, with the promise of "...many dangers; virulent disease, cannibalistic Indians, and wild creatures such as are found in no other part of the world...".

In Fawcett's footsteps

Departing from the outskirts of the city of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world at 3640m.a.s.l. I ascended up to the highland desert plateau known as the Altiplano. Before moving on I looked back for one final glance at the firmament of electric lights which twinkled life into the valley of La Paz. I tried to imagine the excitement Fawcett experienced departing toward the "voice of the wild places". My own excitement was tempered by the weight on my shoulders. I was carrying equipment to keep me warm over passes higher than 5000m. and all the equipment required to survive a month in the tropical rainforests. I carried local staples as food, and a sufficient supply of coca leaves and cigarettes to exchange for food along the way.

Before reaching the upper shoulders of the valley of Challana I had to cross 200 km. over multiple highland valleys of the Altiplano. This desert lies on the western side of the Andes Mountains, known locally as the "Cordillera Real", or Royal Mountain chain. The weeklong journey at average altitudes of 4200m. was highlighted by snowstorms and freezing temperatures. The expanse of rolling white valleys broken by ribbons of frozen streams, nearby mountains over 6000m and the blue waters of Lake Titikaka (the highest navigable lake on the planet and home to frogs over 1m. long) was surreal, all the more bizarre as I was heading to the jungle. Locals I met along the way worried about the machete strapped to my pack, at times they fled when they saw me approach. Finally I reached the village Janko Kota (4400m.a.s.l.) at the foot of a pass which led to eastern side of the Royal Mountains and the valley of Challana. I took a rest day with the only family staying in the village over the winter.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

Food in this isolated region was becoming a serious problem and as I had already lost over 5 kg. it was important to make up fat stores wherever possible. I feasted on the local trout, potatoes and eggs. Jorge, the local shepherd, warned that the eastern valley populations were not accustomed to seeing Europeans and that even Spanish (the official language) was seldom spoken. He advised me to carry as much food as possible and so the next morning loaded with a pack half full of potatoes Jorge accompanied me to the Mollo pass at 5100m. At the glaciated pass an emotional Jorge gave me a hug, cautioned me about the dark perils of the jungle and wished me luck for the journey.

I willed myself to be inspired, and full of Fawcett-like courage (or self-deception) thought no more of it as I began the steep descent to the Challana River. The remnants of an Inka stone trail zigzagged down. Steep sections had impressive stairways with drainage channels and supporting walls. The loss of altitude brought dramatic changes to the landscape. The dry frozen mountain air, thickened with the oxygen and humidity of lower altitudes, allowed the fecundity of nature to express herself. Shrub and bamboo forests draped over the valley. The trail undulated along the river's edge as the temperature continued to increase. Toward evening and within sight of the first human settlement, I saw distant figures skulking on the side of the trail. By the time I reached their location they had vanished, but on the ground they had carved the initials of a revolutionary/guerilla group, CNPZ. This group had recently kidnapped a North American Engineer and killed a policeman when a bomb under the Statue of J.F. Kennedy exploded in La Paz. The message was not subtle, but what exactly it meant I did not know.

My exultant mood gave way to a generalized sense of unease and paranoia. All of a sudden every shadow, sound and movement heightened my anxiety. I didn't make a conscious decision to continue, but perplexed descended as fast as I could until finally hiding behind some boulders waited for the anonymity of the night. I continued for several hours and well away from the trail collapsed in the cover of the forest. The night was long in passing, the sleep fitful, every sound immersed itself into the substance of my dreams and before long I imagined myself hostage to a band of terrorists. Well before dawn I moved on, driven by sleeplessness and fear. By sunrise however the greenness and immensity of the valley bathed in the morning light was reassuring.

The trail continued past abandoned ruined villages and before long I forgot about the guerillas as swarms of mosquitoes, horse flies, and the local sandflies, marihuisis, set upon me with vicious enthusiasm. They willed me on as I sucked on coca leaves for sustenance. Toward evening the trail climbed steeply away from the river, the rushing sound of the water faded and I concentrated on the rhythmic patterns of my strained breathing. Entranced I climbed on along exquisite staircases belonging to a lost civilization. By nightfall I stumbled into the village of Challana (2300m.a.s.l.). The first inhabitant to catch sight of me ran away, others did the same as I walked into the main square. Doors and windows in the adobe houses snapped shut as I sat alone beneath the bell towers of the colonial cathedral. From every corner I could see inquisitive, fearful eyes peering at me. I had not come all this way to be ignored by the superstitious populace. What would Fawcett make of this? I was hungry, tired and had had enough of eating potatoes. In a fit of inspiration I startled juggling. There in the square of Challana bright balls were tossed into the air and soon children started giggling. The first of them appeared and when they seemed convinced of my harmlessness others followed. They chased after stray balls and were delighted by the bright light of the flash when I started photographing. Eventually the Corregidor (local village authority) invited me stay at the abandoned school premises.

The once proud town of Challana had fallen into destitution. Remnants of colonial buildings lay forgotten and in ruins, as vegetation broke through the stone paved streets. The altar in the cathedral was over run by rats, the bell (dated 1828) was rusted and precariously balanced on the bell-tower and the religious frescoes were moth eaten and tangled in cobwebs. Most disturbing however was the health of the locals; most suffered from enlarged thyroid glands, goiter, as a consequence of long-term iodine deficiency and the rate of intellectual impairment from the condition was astounding.

A third of the population could not speak. Challana seemed a town of ghosts. The locals had no recollection of the Rebel State and were disinterested in the history of the town. They did however speak with pride of the stone roads built by their great grandfathers. The corregidor boasted that a ruined trail led all the way to the Amazon jungle, and others climbed back up to the mountains.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

Before leaving Challana I explored a trail that climbed steeply up a separate valley system to the village of Amaguaya (3800m.a.s.l.). The quality of the workmanship survived the test of time as an unbroken stairway climbed 1000m cutting its way through the verdant valleys. In Amaguaya I traded coca leaves and cigarettes for locally produced cheese and salt-dried llama meat.

Into the third week of the expedition I left Challana. The trail once again descended steeply past terraced citrus fruit plantations to join the river. I felt burdened by the apprehension that anticipates the unknown and liberated by the prospect of visiting uncharted country. There were no topographical maps of the region and so I had no certainty or clarity as to what lay ahead. Before long the trail thinned, and the jungle swallowed everything in its path. The tapestry of the vegetation was so thick that air sat stagnant amidst the trees.

Swarms of insects pushed me on. The horseflies, tabanos were the worst, their stings like injections. Howler monkeys squealed mockingly as they catapulted themselves from tree to tree. Into "The heart of darkness" (Joseph Conrad) I followed the ebbing trail. The rainforest's voracious appetite devoured and swallowed everything in its path and long sections of stone trail were missing. At times it was too dense to cut through with the machete and I had to crawl under the vegetation pulling and pushing my pack. My days had to be ritualistic in their precision. To avoid the onslaught of insects I set off before sunrise walked with only brief rests and often ate my meals submerged in the river.

I drew sustenance from coca leaves. In the evenings I obsessively examined every inch of my body, removing ticks and fleas, cleaning the wounds with alcohol. The insect bites were worse at night and I struggled not to scratch and expose myself to skin infections. In temperatures of 40 C and humidity over 90% I spent the days saturated in sweat and soon an angry heat rash developed between my legs. The pain was so severe that I covered the area with surgical tape. The challenges and discomforts of the region were balanced by the uniqueness of the landscape and the wildlife. Tropical flowers showered a kaleidoscope of colours, toucans, parrots and a multitude of bird life flew over head, and the world's largest butterfly, morpho fluttered by.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

Three days after leaving Challana I stumbled into a clearing in the bush with two pahuichis, local houses made from adobe, palm fronds and bamboo. In a flurry of excitement I approached the owner who simply ignored me. His slow deliberate movements betrayed no interest in our chance meeting. I spoke for some time before I realized he was profoundly intellectually impaired and mute. He was lost to another world; thick dreadlocks hung over his face, the occasional non-sensical grin revealed rotten teeth and his skin was covered in infected sores. The place was over run by decay as rats and cockroaches milled about a pile of corn in the corner of the house. Stunned I moved on and continued down the trail that soon led me to a much bigger clearing and an impressive collection of pahuichis. Out of the dwelling Mr. Mollineda appeared.

A local Aymara (traditional inhabitant) he was slight, lean and fit looking with strong muscular arms. The corners of his mouth and teeth were green from life long coca chewing. He examined me with quick and alert eyes. His attention quickly shifted to my backpack and as he tried to walk behind me we both moved in circles until finally he spoke in Spanish. What a relief, after days of intense solitude I was happy to find someone to communicate with. As we chatted our suspiciousness of each other abated. He explained that together with his wife, two sons and two daughters they were the only inhabitants of the valley beneath the town of Challana. With sadness he described how 30 years ago, following the outbreak of an epidemic illness, all surviving inhabitants had left. He moved uphill from the historical town of Inkallapo (dwelling place of the Inka) to set up his home. Tears welled in his eyes when he told me that as no settlers came to the valley the fate of the family was doomed. He foresaw that his sons and daughters would soon leave to marry and make their way in the world.

I stayed for two days with the Mollinedas and was privileged to experience their traditional way of life. I accompanied Mollineda on brief hunting excursions and helped with the rice harvest. On the wall of his house hung the hide of wild cats, snakes, wild boars and capybaras (the world's largest rodent). I took the opportunity to eat as much as I could, but finally took my cue to move on when Mollineda offered to build a pahuichi for me and invited me to marry his daughter!

The next morning I shuffled on; continuing to loose altitude the rainforest grew denser, more fascinating but increasingly oppressive. As I moved on I had images of Connan Doyle's novel "The lost world" with its mysterious animals, natural symphonies and endless deep valleys. The trail now followed the ridge of the valley and became increasingly difficult to follow. In the early afternoon electrical storms brought solid sheets of rainwater. Along the way I passed the abandoned town of Puri which was literally swallowed by the tropical fronds, ferns and trees. A cathedral, with a steeple over 8 m tall was barely discernible in the overgrowth, and the foundations of abandoned buildings stretched deep down the valley walls.

Three days after leaving the Mollineda's home I reached the bottom of the valley and felt certain that the next day I would join the road to the large town of Guanay, in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon basin. Pleased with myself I set up camp for the last night on the Challana River. After the nocturnal rituals I sat back by the log fire to muse over my adventures; I was overcome by a deep sense of achievement and relief, feeling the built-up pressure of three weeks effort and uncertainty dissipate into the night. Satisfied with my efforts I went into the tent and could not understand why it was full of moths and mosquitoes. Suddenly it all became obvious! Waves of nausea came over me as I shone the torch on the walls and floor of the tent. It was all a mass of moving red-black creatures with sharp incisors. The entire left wall was missing, cut to shreds by soldier ants that had followed me out of the bush. My backpack was half eaten, the padding oozed out of the torn shoulder straps like blood from a wound. My clothes and even shoes were in tatters and the little food I had left was full of the greedy visitors. What to do? How to deal with this? Where to go? It was far too dangerous to wander back into the bush. Besides my equipment was disappearing in front of my very eyes. I set to a frenzy of work emptying the tent of all contents and then put my clothes into river under heavy stones. Next I hung the sleeping bag and pack on a tree and slowly with a stone started killing ants. There was perverse pleasure in revenge; I muttered obscenities through the systematic slaughter. Late into the night the frenzy stopped. I wandered across the river to a small island convinced that as ants could not swim or fly I would be OK for the night. The next day I patched the equipment as best I could and headed on convinced that soon I would be indulging in ice-cold bear and barbecued pork.

But life is seldom that simple, ask Fawcett! Who knows where he ended up, and how? Sure I had reached the bottom of the valley. Over the past 4 years I had descended many Inka trails, they all follow river systems out of the valley, generally it is a matter of finding the trail and following this to it's final destination. But! The Challana valley was different. At the end of the valley many smaller valleys spread out like fingers from a hand. And here was the problem; the trail just ran out, disappeared into a maze of side valleys. Like the maze that trapped Ikarus these had steep walls and ran in all directions. Desperation began to creep in as I searched valley after valley for the way out.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

I continuously reached dead ends. I spent two days ascending and descending the labyrinth walls… to no avail. I had not eaten for a day and convinced that the road to Guanay was nearby could feel my judgement weakening. In the end I accepted that I could not risk getting lost in the side valleys and had no choice but to back track to the Mollinedas. I was desperate for food, obsessed with the thought of a meal, however to continue on an unknown track was potentially fatal and so concentrating on the long climb I ascended back up the trail. I struggled, finding monotonous rhythm in the whirring sounds of crickets and cicadas. Two days later in the abandoned town of Puri I stumbled into the cathedral, hung my pack of the altar, arranged a sleeping platform from plantain fronds and dropped off to a torporous sleep.

Late into the night I startled awake to the battering of a storm against the cathedral. Realizing where I was I felt deeply unsettled and in disbelief saw waves of soldier ants marching over my sleeping bag. "Not again, puta que lo pario! ", I jumped out and found that the ants had eaten their way through the bag and into my clothes, they were crawling up my legs. The floor was covered in them. In the end I took down two logs from the roof rafters and placed them between the altar and a wall of the cathedral. I balanced a slab of wood between them and perched myself for the night. An extraordinary event then followed as a procession of animals arrived to ruminate on the walls of the cathedral. The limestone in the adobe must have attracted them. Wild pigs, capybaras, mountain cats and monkeys took their turn at chewing, their dark, inquisitive eyes peering into the altar.

By the next morning I had had enough. Driven by solitude, hunger and the darkness of the jungle I set off on the hardest marathon I have ever run/walked and by mid afternoon I reached Mollinedas. He smiled when he saw me, perhaps he thought I had accepted his offer and had come back to be his son in law. "Muy complicado" he muttered, "very complicated" was the way he described the trail. In the kitchen, happy to be in the company of others I dropped off to sleep.

After all the effort and four days without food I had lost over 10 kg. and clearly without rest and nourishment I could go no further. I needed meat and so decided to bargain for one of the family's chickens. The next morning sitting in the courtyard I salivated as the plump creatures wandered past. Mollinedas wife told me only her husband could decide the fate of the chickens. Finally the patriarch arrived home from the fields. Mine was not a buyers market as Mollineda protested that the chickens were precious. I attempted to dramatize my already pathetic state, but got little sympathy as Mollineda gave me a choice between an emaciated, sick looking, featherless chook and an duck with a lame leg. He remained intractable to all my supplications. Mmm… it would have to be the lame old duck. The creature must have had a sixth sense as before I voiced my decision he tried to run away. Being lame he ran in circles, wings flapping in despair, then Mollineda had him firmly under his arm. I was mortified as the duck, refusing to give up the ghost, kicked out with his only good leg against the executioner's chest. After an eternity, the poor thing hung its neck in defeat. To this day I carry the burden of guilt for the creatures death, but the feast of that fateful day was sufficient to provide me with determination to keep going.

Photography by Erik Monasterio

Mollinedas son, Dimitri, agreed to show me the way out of the valley and so after the duck feast we cut our way back into the trail. However, by now the familiar distances seemed longer, the ascents steeper and the rests too short. The "voice of the wild places" was taunting me. I walked in constant pain from shoulder tendon inflammations, I was feverish from skin infections, but most troubling of all was a painful lump that was growing bigger in my groin. Sleep was impossible with the throbbing pain. On the final night in the valley I panicked when I examined the lump and saw something move deep within my thigh; it was too much to bear, there was a wriggling, living creature inside my leg! Dimitri laughed when I pointed to the region of my genitals I and asked him if he knew what the lump was. "Boro!" he said. "Boro!?!" I asked, "Boro" he replied. I had a botfly larva in my leg! This is deposited under the skin by a fly, and it feeds on muscle- my muscle. Locals often suffer septic shock (blood poisoning) from the infection.

The sudden urgency to reach civilization gave new impetus to my weary body. Dimitri led the way and once again we reached the end of the valley. He descended to a stream and followed this as it curved around the maze of valleys and onto a side trail which thirty minutes later magically exited the labyrinth of the Challana valley. There, I was out, one week ago I had been so close. It was almost an anticlimax. Dimitri pointed ahead stating that Guanay was 50 km. away. In a matter of minutes he was gone, uncomfortable to be away from home and scared to walk on his own he hurried back. The mud road stretched out over cattle grazing country denuded of vegetation. Unimpeded by the forest the sun bounced along in heat waves. Brahman cattle introduced from India grazed nearby and multi-coloured macaws frequented by. After 20 km. I reached the small farming settlement of Santa Rosa where fascinated children gathered and followed me into the village. In their home Maria and Antonio offered a hammock, complete with mosquito net for the night.

Still deeply troubled by the lump in my leg I asked Antonio what the locals did about them. "Tenemos que operar", "we must operate…" he answered assertively. The local cure involved making a small incision into the wound and covering this with nicotine to draw the larvae out. Under no circumstance should the larvae be killed inside the wound, as it stays burrowed in the muscle causing an abscess and blood poisoning. Antonio's enthusiasm to "operate" on me was unsettling, but I had to get rid of the thing. Soon word was out that the Gringo (blond visitor) was going to be operated on. In the evening the few inhabitants of the village congregated at Antonio's and children were shooed away by solemn parents. I took my trousers off and lay on the kitchen table. I could see children peering through the cracks in the wall. The first step was to remove the surgical tape from my groins. Antonio ignored my pleas for gentleness and I heard the sound of Velcro ripping as the tape and most of my pubic hairs came off.

I cleansed the area with alcohol as Antonio sterilized the surgical knife over a naked flame. Next he lit a cigarette and after inhaling large lung fills of smoke blew the contents through tightly pursed lips onto the palm of his hand. After doing this several times he collected a small amount of tar and nicotine. He then picked up the jungle scalpel and purposely brought it toward my upper groin. Briefly time froze; panic does that to ones perception of time. My God, here was a virtual stranger, with no medical training, about to thrust a knife into a lump barely two inches to the left of my genitals! And I was letting him. Then in a flash of gentleness the knife made an incision and the wound was filled with the tobacco waste. "Now we wait," said the surgeon. The table shook from my panicked heartbeat, but within a couple of minutes to the approval of the audience a writhing creamy-white maggot popped out of the wound. Children giggled with nervous relief and I was told to put my pants back on. That night I had the first proper sleep in a week.

Almost a month after leaving La Paz I arrived in Guanay. As I wandered into town I was the centre of attraction as roadside workers put their tools down and simply stared at me, street merchants muttered to each other rudely pointing at me and everyone got out of my way. In the mirror of the hotel I could see why there had been so much attention. I had some trouble recognizing the reflection; deep lines from sunburn and weight loss ran down my face, my hair was matted with vegetation and sweat bees, my mouth and teeth tinted deep green from coca leaves, my neck rimmed by impetigo (heat rash) and my clothes hanging in tatters, caked in mud and sweat.

After a couple of day's rest I finished my journey by heading back up to the high altitude desert, Altiplano. I ascended the Inka Trail popularly known as the "Gold Diggers Way" to cross the Calzada pass (alt. 5000m.a.s.l.) and descend onto the shores of Lake Titikaka.

The expedition, which took forty days to complete, was like a voyage into a forgotten world. The magnificence and advancement of traditional civilizations that governed the Andes before the arrival of the Spaniards is reflected in the stone paved trails that are collectively known as Inka Trails. The Challana path is one of the remotest and most spectacular roads as it cuts it's way from sky scrapping Andean peaks to the depth of the Amazon basin. In the "dark world of the forest" I failed to find Fawcett's lost white tribe, but the challenges for survival, the geographical diversity, the rich wildlife and the historical villages encountere

Photographs and text by Dr. M.E.Monasterio

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