The Rivers Ran East

Explorations into the Peruvian Amazon

    In 1947, former OSS agent, retired US Army Colonel, and explorer Leonard Clark, came into possession of a secret map that led him to 7 ancient cities of gold deep in the Amazon jungle of Peru. Despite being chronicled in his book, The Rivers Ran East, has anyone tried to confirm this historical discovery?

    Our Quest: To retrace Leonard Clark's route along the Maranon River in Northern Peru, confirm his claims, and find these ancient ruins.

  • Day 12,13,14,15: Downriver and Upriver

    Posted By on November 19, 2013

    Our quest, centered along the Maranon river, is drawing to an end.  Our private boats take us down past ever-increasing signs of civilization to the town of Saramarisa which is nothing more than a rough trading port.  We also pass larger and more numerous gold operations along every gravelly section of the river.  Banana plantations emerge from the jungle and are soon quite frequent.

    a lancia-P1130597 copyOur next transport is just what they said is was; a cargo barge or “Lancia.”

    The upper deck is the size of a tennis court and is covered by a 6 foot high steel roof.  I’m 6’2”.  Therefore, the next three days are punctuated with intermittent cursing.  We hang hammocks from the posts, our lodging for the night, and another 5 or 6 locals do the same.a hammocks-P1130674 copy

    We also stock up on snacks before the boat takes us farther downstream.  This large barge stops every hour or two to pick up cargo, which is usually bananas, and lumber, but we also watch them load a Tuk-Tuk, or three wheeled moto-taxi, along with cases of beer.  We also add passengers, lots of them.  Before long, our hammock space is dozens of bodies string like spider’s catches, and the slightest swing bangs us against each other like those steel balls suspended from strings on the physics’ professor’s desk.  There is no room to walk, almost nowhere to sit, and it’s still hot and humid.   And to top it off, the beer is warm.

    A day and a night of this bring us to the confluence of the Huallaga river where we turn upstream for two more days of slow going.  By the time we reach Tarapoto, I am filthy from sleeping on the steel deck, sore from the low ceiling and being stooped over, hungry for a real meal, and tired of travel.  Along the way, a dog bites one of our team and another team member gets his bag stolen.  We survived the “hostile” natives, snakes, spiders, rapids and the unknown to receive our only real troubles in the midst of “civilization.”  It’s kind of a let down.  We’ve had a lot of time to ponder the results of our adventure, the information we’ve learned and the sights we’ve seen.  We aren’t clear on what we actually proved.  We’ve made new friends, experienced an incredible culture and environment very far away from just about anything we know.  We’ve found ruins, very old roads and many stories.  Clark’s grand-nephew, Alex, has been diligent in recording our retrospectives and observations, and the questioning always returns to “What next?”  It’s the hardest question to answer.

    a boats-P1130657 copyA short flight takes us back to Lima and the group begins to disperse down their own paths.  Alex vows to continue the search for definitive proof of Clark’s grand claims.  We have the coordinates of the most promising search sight for the church at Santiago De Las Montanas, the tantalizing leads to other sights, and proof of the abundant gold in the Maranon river.  Was Clark here 70 years ago?  We are certain he was.  Were the conquistadors here 500 years ago?  The ancient road we saw and the stories we’ve heard suggest they certainly were.  Did they find the source of all the Inca gold?  We have left the door open for the next adventure, the next research project to try to answer these questions.  Alex will endeavor to find his journals of this time in Clark’s life, and we will create a video journal of our accomplishments here, but the next phase is up to the next leader to step up and take the reins.

    Day 10: to Borja

    Posted By on October 27, 2013

    We depart in the morning, our San Marjin hosts who are now our friends, all helping with our expedition bags and gear.  We are told over and over that we are welcome to return any time and they will help us some more.

    Our route takes us through the mighty Pongos de Menseriche, where for 9 months of the year, the route is impassible, blocked by enormous rapids that flip any boats that dare to try it.  Clark estimated the speed of the high river through here at 50 MPH!    It is the only real exit from the valley where we have been exploring these past 10 days.  70,000 Aguarunas reside in this valley, economically, and nearly physically trapped between the high Andes and this one treacherous river outlet.  But today, the river is even lower than when we came through here five years ago and while the passage is dramatic, it is relatively easy.  Giant boulders, polished like marble from the sediment-laden flows, glisten in the sun.  Part way down through this slot a small stream pours into the river.  We stop here and explore upstream for fossils.  We find numerous ammonites, scallops and other ancient seafloor remnants, lots more bullet ants and a beautiful swimming hole.  We jump in for a cool swim, but one of our guides is missing.  It turns out he recalls this place as the site of many jaguar sightings and one actual attack.  He’d rather remain near the boats.  It’s disconcerting for sure, but we’re a good size group so my personal odds of being eaten are no worse than 1 in 13.  Besides, Ashton is tastier.

    a P1130549 cobbled roadWe get to Borja, the most upstream town reachable year round, around lunchtime.  We expected to spend the next day and a half exploring a site across the river rumored to contain old Spanish church ruins, but we never get there.  Instead, we interview locals to hear what they know about the history of this place.  Clark was stuck here nearly a month searching for a way upstream, but no one seems to recall this event.  However, our main interview subject can’t even remember how old he is, so we follow another lead and are guided to an amazing, really old, cobbled road, that runs through someone’s animal barn, their yard, across their neighbor’s field and disappears under the grass.  It is so primitive in construction yet so deep and oddly located, that I seriously think it may be many hundreds of years old.  No one has (yet) written a book on the road construction styles of the upper Maranon river, so I can’t yet confirm that it belongs to the Spanish of the 1500s, but it is not rubber Baron (they used concrete), nor Jesuit missionary (their settlement sight was quite a distance from here).  By the time we get back from exploring this, the locals are lining up to tell us everything they know (and some things they don’t know) about Borja.  At first, we are heartened, but then we realize this is because we paid the old man 20 Soles for his time and now everyone wants a story teller’s fee.  However, many of the stories center on one curious theme;  An ancient golden bell that was stolen from the earliest Spanish settlers and dumped in the river by the Aguarunas in the hopes that would get the intruders to leave.  We wonder if this is the bell Clark spoke of, a portion of which had been found a hundred years ago, partly buried in the sand along the river. We’ll never know because our investigations have to be abruptly cut short by a day.  So few boats come up this far upriver that our downstream travel options are very limited.  We must leave now or wait another week.  One of the locals from Borja calls the boat operator and asks him if he will delay his departure by one day.  Since we’re the only paying customers in the region, he says, “yes.”  This gives us time to complete interviews, but not explore the hill across the river.  Everyone accepts this as that nature of remote river exploration and soon we are on our way downstream once again.

    Day 9: Surveying and side notes

    Posted By on October 21, 2013

    We get a much earlier start today and find the path to the search site is surprisingly close to the Santiago river.  Yesterday’s meanderings disoriented us, but the fact that this place is so easily accessible to the river is very encouraging.  It also allows us to save our energy for systematically crisscrossing the site, hacking down obstacles and probing the soil for hidden foundations.

    P1130233 copyWe encounter one poisonous snake, more spiders and a few domesticated pigs as we move along, their pink bodies resembling last night’s appetizers.  The locals brought us enormous, white, living, wiggling, crawling grubs.  These guys were as big as sausages and undulated like my digestive tract after a bad meal.  I did not have the courage to bite their little heads off and chew on their wiggling bodies, but Ashton and Meg did.  Yes, Ashton.  The kid who won’t eat his vegetables was perfectly comfortable eating a live, giant maggot.  He amazes me.

    The next night, another soccer game breaks out and Paco does well enough to be asked to create a few more future San Marjin soccer players with some of the village women.  He politely declines.

    This evening also teaches me that I really don’t like crapping in the jungle in the dark, but bathing naked in a cool jungle stream as sun filters down through steaming trees is wonderful.

    But here up on the search site, as the sun reaches its zenith, we end our search with no convincing discoveries.  If there was an ancient church here with a stone floor, under which were two vaults for storing riches, we can’t find it., but if we were scared Spanish settles, surrounded by hostile Aguarunas 500 years ago, this is where we would have built.   It will take ground penetrating radar or blind luck to go any farther here.  GPS readings are recorded, pictures taken and we head back to San Marjin.

    Day 8. Santiago de Las Montanas

    Posted By on October 19, 2013

    We get a late start and are ferried across the river to the search site, which is ten times larger than I expected.  It is densely vegetated throughout and involves steep climbing through vines and up and down narrow ravines.  Huge Ciba trees loom overhead.  Our local guides wield our new machetes like pros, widening the trail admirably, but leaving the whole route at about a 5 foot height.  My hat is soon an insect raft and when I take my turn carrying Ash, his hair works like fly paper.  My clothes are drenched with sweat and my pure white, Michael Jackson-esque boots are caked with mud, but up we climb.  Here you try not to use tree branches to help you up the slopes because they are frequently crawling with Bullet ants. These big, black ants wander everywhere with no fear.  They can deliver a bite and a sting so loaded with formic acid that the pain, which lasts for 24 hours, is said to resemble being shot with a bullet.  After a few hours, the team splits into two groups; one heads to the plateau where on Thomas’ satellite maps there is a clearing of sorts, the other to the site where the locals have seen stone foundations.  I go with that group.

    a P1130273 carrying ashAfter another hour of hiking, a very promising place is revealed to us.  This area is unusually flat compared to the rest of this undulating jungle and the whole site is about the size of a small baseball field.  It is split into two levels, the rear one about 15 ft higher than the front.  We discover many man-made scraps of metal here, too modern for our objectives, but also we find old cement foundations.  However, my experience with old houses in Seattle suggest these too are no more than a hundred years old at most.  This is one of many times we feel like we are finding old rubber Baron operations left over from around the turn of the 20th century.  It has already been a long day and we are too exhausted to explore this place properly, so we head down to the river to meet the rest of our team and head back to San Marjin.

    That evening, by the light of flickering candles and the sounds of the jungle and Aguarunas voices behind our bamboo slat walls, we plot and scheme tomorrow’s objectives.  Mostly because often, in the jungle, people re-build in places built on before, we agree that we will return to the rubber Baron site in the morning and explore it thoroughly.

    Day 7: San Marjin.

    Posted By on October 16, 2013

    It takes us 1 hour and 20 minutes to complete three hours of travel to our host community of San Marjin..  Must be jungle time.

    This community has never had outside visitors and since they will be cooking for us, our Aguarunas liaison will explain to them how to make sure we don’t get sick.  For more income, they offer to do laundry as well!  It’s oddly expensive, but perhaps they have no reference.  Any idea of haggling is squelched by our experience during the big “Town Hall” style community meeting that evening.  There, in the dark of a wooden schoolhouse lit only by a few weak flashlights, Aguarunas men with booming voices argue about us.  Kike assures us it has nothing to do with their skills at shrinking heads., but we do learn that our welcome here is not universal.  Several men feel that we should pay more money for any secrets they know about our quest, or maybe they shouldn’t share any secrets at all.  This community is right across the river from the most famous site of all, Santiago de Las Montanas, where Clark tells of a church with s stone floor, under which are vaults that could still be holding the product of the Conquistador’s quest; the gold of the Incas.

    The fate of our adventure hangs in the balance.  Will the other voices of reason, including Kike’s and our liaison’s prevail?  And why am I so distracted by the two young Aguarunas boys there on the meeting hall floor, hiding under a desk, catching, corralling and snapping rubber bands at huge, weird looking jungle insects?    In the end, the village again formally welcomes us into their community and decides not to charge us for any knowledge, partially because they haven’t actually found anyone with any knowledge of the ancient site.  It’s a mixed verdict for us.

    P1130249 copyBack at our campsite, we discover that huge, poisonous spiders are invading our tents.  These guys are really big.  Some are tarantula sized.  Keeping tent zippers closed at all times is critical, the Aguarunas tell us.  My tent zipper promptly breaks.  It’s 20 years old.  I consider shacking up with Alex, but spiders have found their way into his tent despite a normal, functioning zipper.  It’s too damn hot to close my tent anyway.  I’d rather die a slow, poisonous death than be steamed to death in my rice-cooker of a tent.  It’s hard to be rational when you’re exhausted.  Later, in the middle of the night, I feel something really big crawling across my leg.  I regret my choice, but only for a few moments.  Once I locate my headlamp I discover it is only a huge, lunar moth.

    Day 6-7: Santa Maria de Nieva

    Posted By on October 13, 2013

    We leave very early for a 3 hour drive to Santa Maria de Nieva on a road that is supposed to be paved most of the way.  After two hours on nothing but pitted, washed out gravel and dirt, we ask, “How much farther to Nieva?”

    “Only about three hours now” is the cryptic reply.

    Two more hours later we ask, “When at least does the pavement begin?”

    “Soon,” our driver tells us.  Two more bone jarring hours later we reach Nieva.  The pavement began a hundred feet from town.

    Nieva is a rather big town in the middle of nowhere, with provisions, restaurants and a couple of hotels.  The one we stayed in was incomplete which meant every time we changed clothes, the entire village center plaza got a show.  Just another way to make friends… some you don’t really want.

    Our days here are filled with meetings with the mayor, his drunk (but polite) assistant, and his secretary (who asks us to leave Alex behind when we leave, “the one with the nice eyes.”  We also have a great gathering with the new National Park chief, his rangers, community liaisons and so on.

    P1130123 copyWe buy 4 machetes, 6 new sparkplugs, 3 bottles of motor oil and $1000 worth of fuel for our journey down river.  However, we are advised to buy food from the communities, to give them economic benefit from our expedition.  The park lets us use their boats, but sends two rangers and an Aguarunas village representative to accompany us for a daily fee.  They are great additions to our team that is now a really big team.  The air force base, army base, and all the villages along the way have been alerted to our presence and so far, all offer full support and assistance.  We are a really big deal down here.

    Ash is quick to make friends of the Aguarunas children who are very generous, but all tend to mercilessly laugh at anyone’s misfortune, including their own.  Ash’s fuzzy head is the talk of all the local women who endlessly tug on it to see if it is real.  Ash is not thrilled by this.

    Day 2-3-4-5 To Chiclayo, Bagua Chica, Imacita and San Rafael

    Posted By on October 12, 2013

    P1130046 copyFor the flight to Chiclayo, we are given first class seats.  Not the way to toughen up our team for the jungle, but no one complains.  The drive over the Andes to Bagua is long and winding.  The temperature and humidity steadily rise eventually resembling the inside of a dishwasher, (mid cycle).   The bugs seem to think my 100% Deet repellent formula is some sort of Tabasco sauce for my legs.  I have over 45 bites within the first few hours.  Another long drive to Imacita leaves us with our first conundrum; There are no available hotel rooms.  Actually, this whole town only has about 10 rooms anyway, and just when we are about to take over a small brothel, a local guy offers up use of his discothèque floor for our tents and gear.  A disco in Bagua?  It turns out to be a large concrete slab with a roof.  Perfect.  His dog, Comisario, (kitchen store room) claws his way through Tammy’s tent to get at some snacks that Ashton scattered around the tent floor.  Nothing a lot of duct tape can’t solve.  Good thing their pet giant tortoise is too shy to try the same tactics, because he tends to crap where he eats.  We take a day trip to our first Aguarunas village and are greeted by over 75 citizens who are dying to see my pictures from five years ago.  Picture if you can 75 people in a bamboo meeting room watching a slideshow on my 12” laptop.  They took turns and I showed it at least seven times. We eventually get around to telling the story of Leonard Clark’s visit down here and introduced them to Alex, our teammate and Clark’s grand nephew.  Did they know of the ancient ruins of Juan de Bracamorous?  No, not specifically, but do say the very building we are meeting in was built on top of an old Spanish church.  They don’t know how old.  Do they specifically remember Clark visiting?  No, they do not, but would we like to join them in a big soccer game?  Of course. Their’s is an odd game with odd rules  and when a hard shot isn’t saved, the ball sails off into the jungle to be retrieved  by some barefoot soul far braver than any of us.  But it allows us to catch our breath in the heat and humidity.   So with me and Ash anchoring the defense and Paco running circles around their team, we may not have found answers, but we made friends.  After a swim in the opaque Maranon River, we return to Imacita.

    A short diary of the 2013 Expedition

    Posted By on October 6, 2013

    Day 1 September 22, 2013 Lima:

    P1130003 copyThe Rivers Ran East team assembles; easygoing, experienced travelers. This project has been 7 years in the making, including Tammy and my first reconnaissance trip down here five years ago.  It’s hard to believe its finally happening now.  So much may go wrong.  The river may get too high, the military might close off the region due to violence, there are lethal snakes and spiders, the Aguarunas may turn against us, we are days from advanced medical facilities, we don’t even really know where we will be staying or who will be cooking for us.  We may get stranded, robbed or shunned.  We might learn nothing to support Clark’s claims.  So many obstacles, so much unknown.

    Update: In Lima, Peru

    Posted By on September 21, 2013

    Sept 21.  A long, marginally successful day of running errands in Peru.  Dodging taxis instead of snakes.  Everything takes forever.
    From our team, Tammy and I are here now, Alex Basaraba arrives late tonight, the others tomorrow eve.
    After a meeting with Kike, our Peruvian guide, we decided to depart Lima Monday afternoon to give ourselves one more day of flexibility on the river.  It seems the distance from Borja to the Huallaca River on up to Yurimaguas and on to Terapoto is much farther than it looks.  Must be an upstream issue.  We need several days to complete it but are undaunted.

    I’ve been told to beware of the fertile ants.  This left me confused.  I thought I prepared well for the hazards that await us, but never imagined fertile ants could be a problem.  Could I be that clueless?  What would fertile ants do anyway?  Are they like rutting Elk… only much smaller?

    So I let down my pride and just asked outright.  “I’ve never heard of the fertile ants of the Amazon.  Please elaborate.”

    My friend said, “What?”

    “The fertile ants you spoke of,” I repeated.

    “I said the Fer De Lance,”  she replied.

    “Oh, that!,  Thank God.  You had me worried about something horrible.”

    Fer De Lance; Definition. Also known as: jergón de la selva, macánchi (Alto Marañón), machacú, marashar and nashipkit (Aguaruna names)  “An aggressive, easily agitated, venomous pit viper common to the Maranon river basin.  Its bite can be lethal if not immediately treated.  Its neurotoxins also destroy short term memory.”

    Yeah, right.  Nothing to worry about……. At least I already know how to battle the second set of symptoms.

    Two Weeks From Heading Into the Jungle and…

    Posted By on September 8, 2013

    ruins…And the locals share a tantalizing secret!

    Kike, our Peruvian-Aguarunas connection, has spoken with some of his Aguarunas friends about our upcoming trip and goals.  Apparently, one of them said, “These guys want to see old ruins?  There are really old ruins in the jungle there up near the top of a hill.  The Spanish always built on hilltops when they could.  We’d be happy to guide them to the place”

    Our dream of proving Clark was right seems more likely every day.  And now seven of us, including a relative of Leonard Clark’s are heading down the Maranon to finally settle the debate.  We will be on the river by September 24.