A KING’S RANSOM: The Llanganates National Park is a terra incognita, a land of seething volcanoes, fathomless ravines, impenetrable mists and quaking bogs – which is why we shall gaze at it from afar, despite the promise of great fortunes to be had. For centuries the Llanganates has been devouring unhinged gringos frothing at the mouth in their search for riches and glory, haunted by the obsession of Atahualpa’s gold. Seventy thousand Lama-loads of treasure, weighing two and a half thousand tonnes, is hidden in the Llanganates, in the waters of the “Lake Made by Hand” …or so the legend goes. And it’s sending the treasure hunters crazy. To help find the hoard there exists a derrotero, an ancient guide, lying amongst the millions of documents in the archives in Seville…if you can find it…if it still exists there…oh, and a faded map drawn by a Senor Guzman, which apparently causes gibbering men to wend their way in ever decreasing circles. The Indians claim this is a bewitched land; they say the treasure is cursed.
When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first arrived in northern Peru he discovered a people adorned in intricate jewellery crafted from gold and silver. Pizarro, little more than a cunning scrap merchant from Trujillo, got the whiff of El Dorado, the lost city of gold any adventurer worth his salt knew existed somewhere between the Andes and Timbuktu. Pizarro cajoled his men and their horses inland, marauding, mangling, melting, until a steady stream of gold bars, an ancient version of the European Union ‘soft loan’, began riding the waves east, to fill the coffers of a grateful King of Spain. In Cajamarca Pizarro’s small band of mercenaries made remarkably short work of the Inca Emperor’s army. Atahualpa, fresh from murdering his half-brother, was soon overwhelmed by the bearded warriors, with their metal tubes emitting fire and painful circular balls, and these curious, whinnying beasts on which they paraded. In the plaza at Cajamarca Pizarro gawked at the vast quantities of gold. And yet still it wasn’t enough. He made an offer to Atahualpa: if the emperor could fill his prison cell to bursting with his peoples’ garish baubles the Spaniard would resist disembowlling him and feeding his ‘bits’ to the savage dogs roaming the streets. Atahualpa agreed. Soon his cell filled with the most exquisite jewellery: masks, figurines, bracelets, rings and necklaces materialised from all corners of the continent. Pizarro rubbed his hands, seeing nothing more than a means to influence and power, and he stoked his fires accordingly. When news came to the conquistador’s ears of a gathering Inca army he reneged on his agreement. He wouldn’t burn the Inca alive, after all. He had him garrotted instead. When general Ruminahui, commander of the northern armies, heard of such treachery the seventy thousand lama-loads of treasure he hoped would finally release his master were diverted to the Llanganates, thereby creating one of the world’s greatest legends of lost treasure.
CHIMBORAZO VOLCANO: When passing close to a volcano, especially one of this magnitude, it’s always something of a relief to learn it’s inactive. But can the status of a volcano ever really be considered inactive. Much like stroking a grumpy dog, you can only hope it growls a minute or two before it bites. You see, according to the statistics, Chimborazo blows every one thousand years. It last took a bite out of the surrounding countryside in AD 550, so a view of its teeth is roughly five hundred years overdue. The German explorer Baron Alexander Von Humboldt ignored such statistics when he climbed the volcano in 1802, during his south American tour. In fact, he’d have probably relished the sight of a stream of bubbling magma severing his retreat – such was the nature of the man. The baron and his party reached a height of 5,897 metres before being forced to descend, due to the quantity of blood pouring from their noses. No doubt the German was in his element. He loved nothing better than self-experimentation, after which he made copious notes concerning the weeping pustules, the racing heart, the impaired sight or the aggravating rash. At 6,268 metres of altitude, for a long time Chimborazo was considered the highest mountain in the world, until they discovered Everest. Edward Whymper eventually cracked the summit of Chimborazo in 1886. Whymper always professed that high-altitude sickness was caused by a build up of gases within the body. Which leaves me wondering: did he ever have trouble sharing a tent?
In August 1976, SAETA flight number 232, carrying twenty-two passengers and four crew, disappeared en-route from Quito to Cuenca. The mystery of the missing plane was solved in October 2002, twenty-four years later. The wrecked Vickers Viscount aircraft and its dead passengers were found on Chimborazo at an altitude of 5,400 metres by Ecuadorian climbers ascending the volcano on a little used route.
THE LUNGS OF THE WORLD: One of the problems I find with the Amazon is how elements of it linger after you’ve left. Barely had we regained four thousand metres altitude than a rather large, creatively-coloured spider scurried from our bedding, followed by an enormous beetle that bled green ooze (whoops, I hope it wasn’t rare) tottering from beneath the toilet. At least on the altiplano you’re unlikely to find a lama cowering in the fridge. I have to accept it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea this jungle lark – it’s just a bit too wet and sticky and buzzy. No matter how many times you take a shower you are left in no doubt: from the moment you arrive in the jungle you slowly decompose. These hardy souls at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station brave all sorts of discomfort in the hope their efforts might go some way to slowing the destruction of the planet. In the 2,200 hectare reserve they provide education to the locals on the tropical rainforest of the Upper Rio Napo region. The soil here is not good for growing crops…and yet they do. After a couple of harvests the ground is finished and another area must be cleared of trees. CHOP! CHOP!CHOP! And so the story goes on. And that’s before we discuss the illegal loggers. These jungles are the lungs of the world and they’re disappearing pretty quickly.
Christine and I go for a wander in the jungle whilst we still can. Jatun Sacha means ‘big jungle’ in Quechua, and it certainly feels very big, even after only fifteen minutes ambling. It’s full of spirits and curiously named plants. Our information sheet tells us to look out for ‘Moral Bobo’, Suru Panga’, ‘Hot lips’ and ‘Hens Blood’. We wade through the sultry atmosphere, brushing spiders from the trail and looking for snakes. I’m not really paranoid; I like to be prepared. Drawing breath is like sucking the air through a damp cloth. It rains heavily before we get back and giant palm leaves do their best to fend it off. At dusk, swinging in a damp hammock, I listen to the clicking and whirring and screeching emanating from the jungle. Fire flies stare, green-eyed, from the darkeness. It’s really very calming. And then a mosquito whines in my ear. SLAP!
RING OF FIRE: No, I’m not referring to the aftermath of a particularly violent curry. I’m talking about the beliefs of the ancients. In the old days the equator was thought to be a ring of fire populated by mythical creatures. They believed that even if such forces might be overcome, no man could survive beyond it, for how could he live upside down. Quite right, too. In Ecuador they make a bit of a thing about the equator and the strange phenomena concerning it. They’ve built a museum where they encourage people to balance an egg on a nail and flush the toilet. It all sounds jolly technical. We didn’t go there because for some reason they didn’t manage to build it exactly on the equator, which might just negate the results of these jolly technical experiments. On the road out to Cayambe, a place more famous for its roses than equatorial phenomena, there is a MIDDLE OF THE WORLD sign which, if my GPS is correct, is in fact on the equator. As the volume of water in a toilet is not sufficient to be influenced by the Coriolis force (something to do with centrifugal and inertial forces) I didn’t bother flushing it to observe which way the water whirled. I was preoccupied with another thought. For the past day or two I’d been ruminating on what happens to the seasons when we leave the spring of the southern hemisphere for the autumn of the northern hemisphere. For instance, how immediate would the changes be? In a matter of a few metres would the green leaves suddenly be curled and brown; would the vibrantly-coloured flowers fade and wilt? What would happen to the grasses? I was on to some ground-breaking thinking and I’d dug out my notebook. My instincts as a naturalist were coming to the fore; the Baron Von Humboldt would have been impressed. Over the next few kilometres I made these illuminating observations: the condition of the trees remains unchanged. Ditto the grasses and flowers. Uhm…I think I’ll stick to overlanding.