I read an article last month that reminded me of something that I found amusing a few years ago. I have a weird sense of humour so forgive me if you don’t find this story funny!
As a traveller, pretty well since birth (I was born in Libya and had lived in three countries by the time I was three years old), I have been a not just a regular visitor to all continents (apart from Antarctica which may be ice-free by the time I get to see it!) but also have had the privilege to have lived in each.
While I was based in the south of Brazil a friend and neighbour, the Brazilian writer Alcione Giacomitti, invited me to participate in a trek in Peru. I had already visited Machu Picchu with him on another occasion. The plan, this time, was centred on a visit to an old Inca site that had been “discovered” just a couple or so years earlier.
I was keen. The explorer in me was very keen. So I did some research.
Just after the “discovery” of the Cota Coca site by a US archeologist and a British “explorer” in 2002 a number of articles were published that I guess were intended to impress the world, or at least some academics or bored journalists interested in such stories.
The Telegraph newspaper’s Science Editor, Roger Highfield, wrote:
“Acting on a rumour from a previous trip, they made the difficult journey into some of the most remote territory in this part of the Andes, where the mountains slope down towards the Amazon cloud-forest.
“We did not know what we would find. It could have been a 20-year-old corrugated shack,” said Mr Thomson.
Instead, what emerged was a substantial and completely unknown site, covered by dense forestation.
“It was an amazing feeling to cut our way through the cloud-forest to suddenly see this site,” said Mr Thomson.”
On my trip to Cota Coca we had flown to Cusco from Curitiba in the south of Brazil via Sao Paulo and La Paz. A bus had been hired to take us to a small village near the Vilcabamba Inca palace complex from where we would begin the 110 km trek. It was a long drive along roads and tracks with interesting views. We arrived late, owing to a puncture en route, camped overnight, had breakfast, then trekked to the Vilcabamba site.
A team had been hired to carry tents, food etc and deal with the mules.
From there we continued on what would be an 8 day walk across some fairly difficult terrain, between 1800 and 4000 metres above sea level, through heat, mist, rain and snow at the highest point of the trek. I wouldn’t call this a really difficult trek as the only real issue was dealing with the altitude.
Cota Coca was about half-way through the journey. I was honoured to be the only professional photographer in a group that had been invited to visit the site. I had planned the photography in some detail, bringing with me two heavy-duty cameras and a selection of lenses.
Eight days is quite a long time in the company of a few people. In that time I was able to talk to a couple of local guides, and the “wrangler” as some North Americans refer to the guys that look after the mules. He, who was also the cook and lived close by the Cota Coca site, had this insane ability to pack up the camp after we left each day and arrive at the next site with lunch ready for our arrival. These guys can run up and down steep hillsides with the effortlessness of mountain goats while we struggled with level paths at high altitude. I digress.
I managed to piece together, from these various conversations, some information that might cause those who had trumpeted the “discovery” of the Cota Coca site to wish they had taken up a less noisy instrument.
Any writer will want to be descriptive and perhaps even melodramatic in creating captivating prose that attracts a reader’s fancy. But sometimes it is best to wait until the creative juices have settled down before hitting the “send” button.
It seems that the “discovery” site had been well-known in the area for many years. A local farmer who lived close by had been appointed as the unofficial guardian to keep an eye on the ruins in case, however unlikely, someone ventured into the area and caused damage. Thoughts of the last remaining Inca hiding at this location with a small army to defend against either the invading Spaniards or the Inca’s brother, or both, quickly evaporate on seeing the site.
Cota Coca lies on a small piece of level ground bordered by steep hillside, rocky escarpments and, a short distance away, the fast flowing Yanama river. It was certainly a peaceful place, though the icy water of the river in which we bathed was swarming with tiny black sandflies.
When I reached the site, having been cleared in 2002 for the benefit of survey by those intrepid explorers from afar, it had already reverted to its overgrown state. It was in a somewhat sheltered spot with impenetrable rain-forest on the opposite side of the river and a steep hill protecting two sides of the area. The path from our camp was easily negotiated through, at first, high grasses and, later, tangles of small trees.
This is the main building in the Cota Coca complex, overgrown by small trees and brush.
By the time we arrived at Cota Coca we were a day later than scheduled so my plan to systematically photography the site over a full day had to be scrapped in favour of a quick couple of hours rushing around with two cameras before continuing our journey to Choquequirao, another famous Inca site. Nevertheless I came away with quite a number of images (some of which are with my agency Alamy) together with memories of an unforgetable experience.
Hugh Thomson’s comment about a 20 year-old corrugated shack was possibly not far off reality. During the time of the Incas it was common to have runners going from the centre of the empire to its extremities (no doubt at insane speeds). The Inca trails would be used for communication and the transportation of food eg fish from the coast, vegetables from the hillsides etc, so staging posts would be needed at certain points for overnight or strategic storage.
The authorities responsible for overseeing historical sites are of the opinion that Cota Coca is merely one such site and has no historical importance. By no means could it be described as a city, though possibly it was a small village with quite a number of small houses, permanently inhabited for stragegic purposes.
So where does my sense of humour apply to this story. The idea that anyone visiting an area where people have lived for decades, if not centuries, saying that they discovered something is as bonkers as saying Christopher Columbus discovered America. The Americas were already inhabited. It is truer to say that the inhabitants of the Americas discovered the invading trespassers arriving on their land.
So what we mean to say is that a group of people with the means of travel came across a place that they hadn’t previously visited, had no knowledge of, and were able to tell the folks back home about what they saw.
I’ve done that! Stretching the truth a bit I have discovered about 60 countries on 5 continents each time I stepped iff an aircraft, boat or bus. In fact I probably did discover an area of interest that no-one else was aware of, but that secret stays with me in the interest of preserving nature.
In the case of Cota Coca, a group of “explorers” went to look at a known site of ruined buildings with a view to identifying what it may have been used for. To be fair they did a simple archeological study of the site, something the Peruvian authorities had not done and had little inclination of doing.
But in my view the resulting news was over-exaggerated.
Apologies for the images. I shall swap these and add more once I get access to my archive in my studio in Brazil. I am currently in Edinburgh, for a while, working on projects.
Picture of the shaman/guide Mario El Puma at Cota Coca