Alice in Jungleland: How I Chased an Inca Legend
It sounds more like a plot for an Indiana Jones movie, than a viable technique employed by an ancient civilization. The Inca constructed cities of hand-cut stone that are now famous destinations for travelers from around the world. Machu Picchu is one of the most well known. We know the Inca had tools made from stone and rudimentary bronze and copper used to chisel and shape multi-sided blocks that interlocked like puzzle pieces. But the modern brain can't grasp how the Inca could have achieved the level of precision that they did with the tools we have found. What are we missing? I found clues that suggest there may validity to the notiion that ancient Inca used plants to soften granite for carving. Even to me it sounds like science fiction. Kind of up there with bending flatware with your mind. By tapping into my local connections, I was able to to pursue the clues. The secret, if there is one, has been hidden for hundreds of years. I hope this story sheds some light on a mystery that has been contemplated in many languages around the world.
Where It All Started
I accidentally stumbled on the legendary story in Bolivia, then fortuitously found a botanical expert in Peru, who gladly led me to a plant in the Amazon. For me, this project is the ongoing adventure of several years of making friends, visiting sites, exploring unknown ruins, and savoring the handiwork of the ancient architects of the world's best stonework. The Inca built stone temples, stone walls, stone agricultural terraces and even outlined figures with stones on the ground. How and why they did it remains a modern day cliffhanger.
From the bright hot sunlit dirt road, it was like ducking through green draperies when I stepped into the dimly lit shadows of the jungle to follow the "orchid" man. Once I passed through the curtain of heavy foliage it was like being in a room that was decorated by someone taking acid. The high canopy created a ceiling that allowed spikes of light to pierce the dimness. The path was barely visible and it took me a few minutes to visualize with my "third eye" where I should place my foot to hopefully be on the same course as the orchid man, by now several hundred meters ahead of me slashing the vegetation with his machete. Dark limbs, vines and leaves of every shape and shade of green imaginable, jutted in every conceivable direction. There was no time to prepare for this venture into "alice in jungleland." I didn't grab anything like water, sunscreen, or a machete. But I figured if the orchid man could do this without survival gear, I could too. Dare I compare my suburbanite self to a man who has lived his entire life in the rain forest in Peru? I may have been delirious. But I told myself it was a good kind of jungle fever.
Let me backup and tell you how I got here because it will help convince me that this is really my life.
My new life as a an adventure travel expert was born in 2007, on the day I took a group of high school kids on our first ever trip to South America. I returned to Peru again and again, always traveling with the same Qechua guide, Vidal Jaquehua, who eventually convinced me we could do this as a company. He and I, in business together. My little life in the suburbs was about to transmute. My family thought I was sitting in my little home office, organizing my little photos and typing my little emails to a few eccentric travelers who somehow found our little company, Adios Adventure Travel. One day I walked in to my husband's office and asked him how the $100,000 in annual sales would affect our taxes that year. (The look on his face? Priceless)
Mummy's little hobby exploded into a full-fledged licensed travel business. (I tried to tell them.) Finally I had everyone's whole-hog attention. Meanwhile, back in South America, Vidal and I found Gerardo in Bolivia, and went to visit him. And that's where this story starts to pickup. Bolivia is one of the coolest places I've been to. It's still kind of wild. And unpredictable. Like your hair on Sunday morning after some serious unrestrained partying on Saturday night. The Bolivian people are fiercely resilient and independent. They have this innate ability to figure things out. They don't rely on helping hands. Or governments. They just do it! Or they go without. Even the kids develop a tough survival instinct that has long been bred out of us well-behaved citizens of cozy suburbs.
This Is Where I Heard About The Legend
I organized a group of innocent, trusting friends (with money) to go with me, and after spending a couple of unimaginable weeks caravaning around Bolivia in 2 jeeps, Gerardo took us to the famous Tiahuanaco ruins not far from La Paz. After seeing Machu Picchu, these ruins are rather unimpressive. They're sitting on flat ground which does nothing to imply this might be the site of a majestic rarity in ancient construction. (Sorry Gerardo. Don't worry, I still love Bolivia the most!). Major sections of edifices are missing due to the fact that time has passed which is kind of what time does. Take its toll. But there were a couple of sections that grabbed my attention, one of which was a small pile of massive coffin-sized carved stones, where Gerardo told us a pretty amazing story.
About 3-4 years before our visit, Gerardo observed a young gringo guy describing into a crappy tape recorder the actions of a local Aymara man who held a small bottle of green goopy substance. The man poured the oozing material onto the face of one of the rocks, which appeared to start fizzing. Gerardo said the Aymara man took out a putty knife and carved a simple shape into the surface of the now softened granite. And here in front of our very eyes was the completed carving. (see photo) Gerardo is well educated and not prone to misrepresent facts or inflate stories to make them seem better than they really are, in spite of the fact that he constantly chews coca leaves. I took a few photos and went home mulling his story over and over. I noticed that the shape carved in the stone was not the style of any other Inca carvings I have ever seen in Bolivia or Peru. And outlining the perimeter of the shape was a dark shadow. Another feature I had never seen before. The other carvings on the stones appeared much more worn. They looked older. This one looked newer.
Could an unknown plant be one of the secret tools used by the ancient Inca to carve stones? Not only are the Inca well-known for their exceptional stonework, they are also botanical experts. That's what the terraces are all about. Each terrace is a unique micro-climate and the Inca were experts at manipuating seeds to adapt to slight changes in temperature and moisture. For the Inca to discover how to use a plant to soften stone was not that farfetched.
My online research about plants that soften granite revealed a story about a species of woodpeckers in the Andes Mountains who used the leaves of a plant to peck the surface of granite walls to create holes for nesting. I thought if we could find the birds, we could find the plant. Finding the tape recorded story would be nice. But . That will never happen. We have a better chance with the birds. How crazy is that?
I called Gerardo and he said he would keep his eyes and ears open for evidence of birds who nest in granite holes. So while I was traveling in Peru, I asked guides and anyone who would stand still long enough to listen, if they had heard of the birds or the plant that softens granite. Several guides had heard the story from their elders, but had no real life experience with the birds or the secret plant. The story was merely a legend.
The Orchid Man
On the way back to Cusco from a trip to Manu Biosphere Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, we stopped in a small village to visit a sweet little orchid farm. A local man with a love for cultivating orchids had created an enchanted rest stop for tourists looking to stop for a stretch. On a whim, I asked our guide to inquire if the orchid man had heard of the legend of a plant that softened stone. Although I could not understand the man's words, his face told me. His eyes lit up and he immediately offered to take me to a place where the plant was growing. His name is Isac. Unfortunately, with hours of driving ahead of us, taking a side trip of unknown duration was not possible. I vowed to return.
It was an exciting breakthrough. All I had to do was go back to the suburbs and figure out how I was going to come back to South America, find Isac in the jungle and arrange a visit to see the hush-hush plant (whose name I still didn't know!) on my next trip. When the next scheduled trip to Cusco, Peru, came up, I added on a few extra days to be alone, hoping I could arrange a short jaunt to the jungle. Never mind that it took 8 hours of driving to get over the Andes.
Several months before my trip I asked Vidal to help me contact our guide from the expedition to Manu Biosphere Reserve to get contact info for Isac. It took several weeks to reach the guide who gave us a cell phone number. Vidal called Isac many times without any reply or message. I tried calling from the suburbs too, but without success. Without reaching Isac, my little excursion to the jungle was in jeopardy. When I finally arrived in Cusco, I had no idea if I would be able to get to the jungle, let alone arrange a meeting with Isac. Thinking like a Peruvian would help me stay focused and not worry. I'd seen Vidal organize last minute expeditions to lots of places. They always turned out great. (This happens when people book trips at the last minute. Not because we're negligent. We recommend that you book your trip before you get to the airport! Don't laugh. It has happened)
Finally. The Day We Begin Our Trip To The Jungle
The details of the trip actually came together the day before I left for the trip. A guide I knew from previous trips, was all set to go with his 4-wheel drive truck, but at the last minute his father decided to tag along. And wanted me to cover his expenses. That was a deal breaker for me. Fortunately, at the last minute, maybe it was luck, or maybe it was Pachamama, the Peruvian earth mama, who came to my rescue. One of our most experienced guides, and also my friend, Klever, offered to go with me in his 4-wheel drive car. By 5 pm on Friday night, I finally had the details of the weekend trip confirmed. Except for one little, kind of important, detail. None of us were able to make contact with the orchid man.
Klever arrived at my hotel in Cusco at 5 am and with fingers crossed, we begin our journey over the Andes. It took us 3 hours to get to the village of Paurcartambo, famous for the festival of the Virgin of Carmen every July 15. The village has just enough infrastructure for tourists to make a pit stop on the way to the jungle.
The dirt road continued across the mountains to the point where we were above the Amazon cloud forest before beginning our descent. The view was spectacular. For the next several hours we would drive down slowly over winding rutted roads. A mudslide had washed away one spot in the road which had been shored up by someone. I could tell it wasn't an official repair job. I may have prayed a little as we slowly inched our way over the remnants of road.
By the time we got to the toasty lowlands, the windows were open and coats and hats were jumbled in the backseat. We kept driving to the village where I had first met Isac almost 9 months before. The first place we headed to find him was the community market. That's the ideal place to find anyone in a small town. The market was shut down by now, but Klever pulled up and talked to a man who was hanging around. The man immediately knew who we wanted, and sent us a few dusty blocks over to a small country store. Several people hanging around in the store may have all been related to Isac, but none knew where he was. A woman who may have been is daughter, thought he was nearby somewhere, but had no idea where.
I remembered how to get to the orchid farm, even without a map or GPS. So Klever and I headed off hoping Isac would be there. It took 15 or 20 minutes out of the village and then I recognized it right away. We got out of the car and by now the sun was high in the sky and combined with the steamy climate, made for a sultry setting. Before we barely made it out of the sun, Isac showed up wearing knee high mud boots and holding his trusty machete. He was pleasantly surprised to see me, and not surprising perhaps, he remembered me. A 6 ft tall gringa tends to stand out in South America.
The Plant That Softens Granite
Klever asked Isac if he could take us to see the plant that softened granite. Of course he would immediately. And told us the plant grew next to carvings in a boulder. It sounded very promising. All we had to do was hike down to the river where the plant grew. That's all he said, then disappeared into the greenness of the jungle! I guessed we were meant to follow. Meanwhile, I scurried about grabbing at least my long sleeves and bug spray before diving into the bushes to follow. This is where we pick up the story from above.
It took maybe 20-30 minutes to get to the river and sure enough there was a huge boulder next to a scrawny-legged bush, which was the sacred and holy plant that produces leaves that allegedly softens granite. Once we got to the river Isac showed us several small deep holes in the rocks. They looked like bedrock mortars, which I've seen before on archaeological digs. But these looked old and worn. They are created by ancient people grinding things in the same spot over and over. It creates a bowl in the stone. One was as large as a baby bathtub. He told us these were the only boulders along the river that had any signs of these depressions.
I asked him if Isac if could demonstrate how to use the plant. He took some leaves and with a small stone he muddled them on the surface of the boulder until they became a green "mash." Isac's theory is that the Inca mixed this plant with another plant, (which was not available at that spot) using the mortars we saw on the rocks. Being located on the river, provided the Incas access by canoe. They could have carried containers to transport the concoction back to their camps and quarries to use to soften the stone.
The surface of the rock now showed evidence of becoming soft right before our eyes. There was no fizzing or steaming, but if Isac was right, the concoction used by the Inca was made from more than one plant. Isac moved the stone in his hand to a clean section of rock to test the reaction there. It was quite different. The surface of the boulder was so hard, that the rock kind of slid off the surface. We all saw the changes to the rock surface and agreed that something happened. I'm not saying we're ready for Scientific Journal. But come on guys, don't you think our little experiment is worthy of followup?
The fact that I found a living, breathing human being who was able to corroborate the potential truthfulness of an Andean legend about a plant that softens granite, has been one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was like meeting the Wright Brothers before anyone knew that humans could fly.
Where Do We Go Now?
What needs to happen now is that it's time for ethno-botanists and real scientists to get involved and conduct real experiments. Vidal, Klever and I can get you down there. I suggest going down in the dry season from May through October. You need to fly to Lima, Peru and then another 1 hour / 20 minutes by air to Cusco. From Cusco, we can arrange travel overland for about 8 hours across the Andes and down into the Amazon lowlands. There's a biological station perched at the top of the Andes overlooking the Amazon. We can arrange accommodations there with access to WIFI and meals. Maybe on the way back. There's only one criteria. I get to tag along!
At the very least, this story reminds us that we don't know everything. And what we don't know may be useful to future generations. Besides that, life would be pretty boring without new places and people to discover and explore.