Respite in a mountain hut

by Jo Costello

It’s 30th November and the heavens are throwing every bit of rain they can find straight at us. I have been suffering altitude sickness and I’m frustrated there has been no improvement.

Milton, our Shuar guide

After some discussion the decision is made that I stay in the ruins of an old mountain dwelling and the team go ahead. I’m not alone, I have Angel, one of our guides, Milton, Jerry and Gabriel for company. They have no English an my Spanish consists of a six week course taken earlier in the year.
The hut is a haven for mosquitoes and many butterflies, certainly more welcome than the former.

The first day is spent with Gabriel and Jerry alternating English and Spanish words like schoolchildren, lots of pointing and flailing hands! Jerry cooks lunch over the open fire, simple rice, onions beans and tuna but so welcome after days of freeze dried fare.

Angel and Milton have gone fishing and return with seven trout. In the quiet of late afternoon, sun blazing and socks drying over the fire, Angel and I communicate over his book of birds of Ecuador.

Time for dinner and Milton flours and fries the trout. We continue our conversations and manage to understand Angel describing One thousand years of Solitude! I have to explain the trout being delicious and they are now all saying it.

My tent has been erected inside the hut over two huge holes in the wooden planks. To ensure I don’t fall through, I place my large bag over one hole and lay my socks out over the other so I know not to step there. I spend the night in my sleeping bag at a very odd angle, slightly concerned at falling through the floor.

There is hardly any intact floor space so the men are all in a row outside the tent covered in various clothes, blankets and a very large plastic sheet. Jerry coughs constantly, someone yells at him and the plastic rustles throughout the night.

1st December and there’s early morning noise, the water is boiling, Angel is chopping firewood and Milton is wrapped mummy style in a blanket. Breakfast is a slower affair today, Jerry has made a vat of pancake batter and Angel constructs a wooden tripod to hold the skillet.

The sun is starting to move around but is closely followed by the mountain mists. I’m writing this at the open broken side of the hut, swiping at anything buzzing and listening to my four new friends and work out we are all discussing Jerry coughing and Angel snoring, Milton likens it to a bull charging down the mountain. This is the fifth day in the same clothes, wet wipe washing but it’s “no problem”, Angel’s phrase.

Angel and Milton catch what looks to be a huge wasp. They take out the sting to show me and talk about intense pain and swelling, I start waving my hands around even more frantically! Milton saw a kingfisher down by the river this morning and is checking the book of birds, he was also incredibly lucky to spot a Harpy Eagle.

2nd December breakfast time. Jerry is feeling unwell, lack of sleep and dry clothing I would think. Jerry and Gabriel are cousins, they walked from their homes in Venezuela to Ecuador, they had no money and it took them fifteen days. Angel looks out for the younger guys in the team and there is great camaraderie, you don’t need to speak Spanish to see it.

This hut is definitely an oasis in the boggy marsh land. I don’t feel like walking as nothing is firm underfoot. It’s nice to sit and just listen to the river below and the bird, could do without the mosquitoes and waspy/stingy things!

I’m not worried or concerned about being here with the guys, they are enjoying the down time as well. I am wondering how the team are getting on and hoping the rain is staying off for a while at least.

More about the hut. Over half the floor, half of one side and some of the back panels are missing. The fireplace is just utilising space where floor planks are gone and the door is stuck half open. There is a lot of graffiti, mostly Spanish and the team have added our names in charcoal. Socks, jackets, bags and trousers are hanging from the rafters in the hope of some drying.

Tent companions and machetes

Today is fishing with Angel and Milton. They go to the same site as yesterday but decide the fish aren’t biting and tell me they’re going further upstream, leaving me on a sandy bank with two machetes, mosquitoes and the sound of the river. After a short time my imagination is working overtime, have they left me for a laugh, hoping I’ll find my way back to camp. Have they just abandoned me (don’t be crazy, they wouldn’t leave their machetes behind). What will I do if a puma appears for his morning drink, I decide run at it shouting. After what seems like an hour or more they appear with eight fish. The afternoon is spent in our makeshift English/Spanish lessons before Milton cooks for us again.

The evening comes in bitterly cold and the fire is blazing. I go to bed and it’s only 19.30, I drop off really quickly. I’m woken by noise and movement which is coming from under my sleeping mat. It’s then up by my head and the penny drops, rats. Running around the tent and I’m hoping they don’t get through the inner. The following morning and the men have slept through the rat visit. They find my mime of El Rato amusing. I get to spend two night with my new pal.

The morning arrives with blazing sunshine and it is the day we begin the return journey to our river camp. I forgot how boggy and arduous this walk had been and I can’t wait to get to the river. The crossing is particularly hairy, two long trees have been felled but the height means you are bent double holding onto the top one, not an easy task with your back pack on. Sitting on the river bank washing muddy clothes and I hear some very odd animal sounds. Looking up I see Luis followed by everybody! The team is back together.

The Inca, The Conquistadores and Valverde’s Derrotero

“Placed in the town of Píllaro, ask for the farm of Moya, and sleep (the first night) a good distance above it; and ask there for the mountain of Guapa, from whose top, if the day be fine, look to the east, so that thy back be toward the town of Ambato, and from thence thou shalt perceive the three Cerros Llanganati, in the form of a triangle, on whose declivity there is a lake, made by hand, into which the ancients threw the gold they had prepared for the ransom of the Inca when they heard of his death.” [Steven J Charbonneau, Valverde’s Gold: the Royal Geographical Society Llanganati Paper, 2017, p 51]

So goes the Derrotero – the course or guide handed to the King of Spain by one Valverde. Although few details of Valverde are available (even his Christian name evades us), it is said that, a poor Spanish man of Sixteenth Century Spain (again, we have no exact dates), he had married a native Peruvian woman, whose father led him to the Llanganates, an inhospitable land in the Andes of modern-day Ecuador, and towards a helping of the precious content of the lake there that would make him very wealthy. On his deathbed, Valverde is said to have bequeathed the Derrotero, instructions for how to find the path to access the treasure, to the King of Spain. It is for this trail highlighted in the Derrotero that our expeditionary team is searching, rather than for the seemingly cursed Incan gold. 

But how did the treasure get to the depths of the Llanganates in the first place?

When Extremaduran Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, and his band of fame and wealth seeking Spaniards arrived in the Incan heartland in 1532, they found a local people who lived a simple peasant life – farmers with a good understanding of agriculture, terraces and canals, living in thatched huts. Ruled by the Inca, the natives were in the throes of civil war, being fought out by two sons of the great Huayna Capac, the king of the Inca Empire, who had died in 1527. The Empire had been split in two and, while legitimate heir Huascar concentrated on the area around the capital Cusco, his brother, Atahaulpa, ruled from Quito. This was a tumultuous time for the Inca, with Atahualpa eventually killing Huascar and his family, thus laying claim to the ravaged Empire. How could Atahualpa have foreseen that his rule would be cut woefully short and that he would go down in history as the Last Emperor of the Incan Empire?

Much has been made of the might of Pizarro and his conquest of Peru. With barely more than a gross of men, his army managed to execute around 7,000 unarmed natives and capture their leader, Atahualpa. Preoccupied with the civil war and being naively trusting of the newly arrived Spanish, Atahualpa underestimated his foe and invited Pizarro to meet him at Cajamarca, where he was promptly seized and placed under guard at the Temple of the Sun, leaving his Empire without a free leader. In a bid to secure his release, Atahualpa negotiated a ransom with his incarcerators – he would arrange for unimaginable riches to be carried across the Empire to Cajamarca, where he promised he could fill a room of 22 long by 17 feet wide and 8 feet high once over with gold and twice with silver [John Hemingway, The Conquest of the Incas, Macmillan, 1993, p49]. In a formal pledge, the Spanish agreed to release their valuable prisoner on receipt of the treasure. Precious metals were stripped from Incan temples and hoards of artefacts, including jewellery and ornaments, were added to the collection and hauled across the land on the orders of Atahualpa, to be smelted down by the Conquistadores, stamped with the royal mark of Spain and distributed among the Crown, its army and officials. 

But still the Inca leader remained in captivity, the Spanish nervous of a native plot to launch an offensive upon them and to release the most valuable asset of all, Atahualpa. That nervousness grew, along with the rumours of an imminent attack by the locals, coupled by the desire of some Conquistadores to push further into the country and expand their conquest of this faraway and mineral rich land; Atahualpa, who had until then enjoyed a certain hospitality and camaraderie at the hands of his captors, was now put in chains and, eight months after being captured, was sentenced to a public death by execution in a Plaza at Cajamarca. On hearing the news of his leader’s killing, the Inca general Rumiñahui ordered that the treasure once bound for the Spanish in Cajamarca be instead taken east and buried deep in the difficult to navigate and dangerous to cross area now known as the Llanganates. Legend has it that the mummified body of Atahualpa himself is also sequestered there.

Valverde believed he knew where the treasure could be found and though some have attempted to follow his instructions across the perilous ground of the Llanganates (and a crude map based on it, drawn by Don Antonio Guzman in 1820s), none have yet managed to locate it. Our mission is to find the trail of his Derrotero, echoes of the Inca all around us. 


  • by Becky Condron

The Natural Environment of The Llanganates

The Llanganates is located in central Ecuador and much of the land is untouched and unexplored and therefore unmapped. The terrain is extremely treacherous and strewn with swamps, lakes, razor grass and mud. The altitude ranges from between 1200m in the Amazonian rainforest and 4500m in the Andean mountains so altitude sickness is a possibility. Temperatures are extreme, between freezing to 24 degrees centigrade and it rains, sleets and snows so frequently that we will be walking through mud! The forest and mountains are almost always shrouded in dense fog. The jungle floor is home to snakes, spiders and ticks, amongst many other creatures, and because of the several ecosystems present in the area a wide variety of animals such as monkeys, toucans, deer, jaguars, moorland wolves, spectacled bears, Andean tapir and the condor. Leeches are also a possibility during raging river crossings.

How do we prepare for this fascinating expedition? The answer is in the word “prepare”, as with all extreme expeditions, attention to detail is so important and can be the difference between life and death.

Altitude sickness happens when people ascend too high too fast, and this does not give their bodies enough time to adjust to the lack of relative oxygen. For people who live most of their year at sea level, 4,400m can be quite a challenge. Mild signs of altitude sickness include headache and nausea, and can lead to vomiting, fluid in the lungs and swelling around the brain, which if not treated rapidly can be fatal. The best treatment is to descend immediately. Our team will be spending several days in Quito, the capital city of Equador, which lies at an altitude of 2900m, in order to acclimatise, and during our time in the Llanganates we will be keeping a slow pace to preserve our energy and maximise our acclimatisation.

In order to deal with the extreme climate conditions and terrain, our equipment and clothing has been meticulously prepared in order to anticipate conditions.  As the weather conditions are continually wet and we will be walking in mud and traversing rivers for the duration of the expedition, we have chosen to wear rubber boots. However these will not protect us from trench foot, a condition that affects the skin and develops when feet are wet for a long time. The utmost care will be taken to make sure our feet stay as dry as possible.

Spider bites, snake bites, stings and leeches are just a few of the other dangers that the team will face. We have been trained in mountain and wilderness first aid and will carry with us a complete First Aid kit, together with a GPS tracking device and 2 satellite phones in case of an emergency.

Despite all these potential hardships, nothing is more important than a positive mental attitude and team spirit, so that when the ‘going gets tough’ we are all there to support one another.

A Passion for Plants

Did you know that vanilla is an orchid? The Ecuadorean mother vanilla plants can reach five metres (sixteen feet in old money) and are pollinated by bats.

Today in Ecuador there are over 4000 identified species of orchid, fifty years ago that number was less than a thousand. Surprisingly the rose is the unofficial national flower of Ecuador and it’s possible to visit  large farms dotted around the country.

My particular passion and dream would be to discover a new species, after all it would be named after me and who doesn’t want that!

The Andean Cloud Forest is considered to be one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on Earth and we are privileged to be able to experience this natural richness.The area we will be walking in is a combination of paramo, (high tropical, montane vegetation above the continuous timberline) cloud forest and lowland forest. The tropical cloud forest is said to be Ecuador’s most enchanting habitat. We will be surrounded by the fine mist which drenches the dense vegetation and gives the environment it’s mysterious fairy-tale appearance.

The variety of plant life we will encounter as we walk will change day to day as we make our way ever higher through this highly inaccessible terrain. Herbal moorland gives way to dwarf bamboo, an evergreen forest, thriving in volcanic soil and dominated by trees, some reaching eight metres can be found at altitudes over 3000 metres.

The Llanganates National Park was created in 1996 and until recently, data regarding the abundance of the mammal community was scarce. Some 300 species of mammals have been recorded in Ecuador. Whilst we may not be lucky enough to glimpse the elusive Jaguar or Jacki’s newest pal, the Andean spectacled bear, we will most certainly hear Howler monkeys.

The variety of birds found in the cloud forest is a wonderful palette of colour. From the comical sight of the Toucan, the prehistoric looking ‘stink bird’ or the sheer magnificence of the Condor, this is heaven for the ornithologist or indeed hell for the ornithophobe. I think we will all be hoping and praying for the perfect photo opportunity.

by Jo Costello

Heading into the Unknown World of the Llanganates National Park in Ecuador

A map with a trail that was set 500 years ago, wild terrain where compass needles whiz round uncontrollably, spectacled bears sniffing around the tent at night, tapirs scuttling around in the bush and thick black squishy mud as far as the eye can see! Yes this is the Llanganates in the Andes of Ecuador, where literally, no one ever goes.

 So why am I going there with my team of three intrepid and enthusiastic ladies into this wild, wet and unexplored quagmire, a water-world in a vast and far-off land?

 Isabela Brookes may have been coerced or bullied into going there with her new husband, Colonel Edward Brookes, a mad keen treasure seeker in 1920 for their honeymoon.  We don’t have a photograph of the unfortunate woman but her story is fascinating and she trudged through the mud with a reluctant band of local men to show them the way into the heart of the park in search of Inca Gold. Was she wearing a long skirt, I wonder? Or had this local woman from the Andes succumbed to the new-fangled ‘trousers’ that were now almost acceptable clothing for a lady and would have added some sartorial comfort for her. 

 The Colonel had one thing on his mind – Gold: as they trekked closer to towards the Cerra Hermosa, in the heart of the wilderness, he may have begun to regret his lack of organisation in seeking out the fabled hoard, as Isabel stumbled along behind him. She was hoping that the sun would shine and dry her out and that the sharp cold winds would give way to a gentle breeze – but is wasn’t to be and she succumbed to pneumonia, probably caught from getting thoroughly soaked in her tent. After a couple of days, she sadly died. The men they had paid to go with them got scared and ran away and Colonel Brookes had to find his own way out, now a widower. Or was he? Legend has it that he already had a wife in America.

 There are orchids galore in this area of outstanding nature; many don’t have names yet and little gardens of succulent plants cling to rocks in picturesque clusters. Bright blue and orange birds fly close by, quite unafraid of humans, whom they have never seen.

 One of the lakes that emerges from the mist is called Isabela Brookes Lake. Her lake is small and the shallow water surface ripples and long grasses skirting it toss in the wind. Another lake is shaped like a heart, a cruel twist in Isabela’s story.

The terrain is rugged and mountainous but cloud forest grows thickly on the slopes, valleys seem to lead nowhere and, just when you have finished smoothing sunblock onto your face, the hot sun will give way  to snow or hail. Or the wind will blow up a storm. Off come the layers of clothing and on they go again, hoods up and hoods down, peel off the wet waterproof trousers and then back down to a t-shirt. It is a mad world for weather, a mad world for testing your survival skills but a fantastic world for beauty in nature and in the landscapes, for testing yourself against the elements when you are a mere speck in an unspoilt world that has never seen a combustion engine.

 That’s why we are going.  We will bring back our stories and share them. Stories of being in a mysterious wonderland of nature, recording and documenting it, like the first female explorers did.

 As for Isabela, we will pay our respects by her lake and commiserate with her, for the total lack of planning and equipment by her husband, Colonel Brookes, in his attempt to find Inca Gold there almost one hundred years ago.






Looking for a Lost Inca Trail – the excitement is mounting!

In the year that celebrates a century since women got the vote, let’s hope our pioneering expedition will help shout out that women, more than ever, are competing with the men at every level! Right now there are dozens of women cycling, walking, canoeing round the world, climbing mountains and all the other ways one can conquer the globe with spirit and courage and I love hearing about their exploits.

Our 2018 expedition is going to show that exploration is alive and well at all ages, levels of fitness and with a team from differing backgrounds; in fact, you could call us, the middle-aged bunch with three children between us. By entering the Llanganates Park in the Ecuadorian Andes we are going to a wilderness that would test the toughest army cadet, but it’s not a race; we will take our steps wisely and use the local knowledge to progress deeper into the mysterious park that is steeped in historical intrigue.

Our team is complete and I’m thrilled at who we have on board. This isn’t a team of ‘who can I get to come’ this is a group of women that I really want to spend time with and I know that everyday I will learn new things from them. Jo C is going to lead us on a botanical journey where each tiny orchid flower and strange plant is going to give the journey a sense of wonder and we will consult with the orchid expert Lou Jost who lives on the side of the mountain about our finds. The story of King Atualpha’s lost Inca treasure will be Becky’s domain as we close in on the area where it was supposedly hidden amongst very challenging  terrain, closely resembling Mordor from Lord of the Rings. Translating the old maps and Valverde’s derretoro will be the fun part – can we actually follow his trail once we are on it?

But we will take all precautions to make sure we are safe, enlist guides and porters who are tough and reliable and we will be prepared for whatever this extraordinary region can throw at us. It won’t be sunny, it won’t be any sort of picnic, but it will be an experience that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. Having a great team is the essence, being able to trust and look out out for each other, sing, cry and laugh, even when we are soaking wet.

We are not looking for the Inca gold – that should be left in it’s sunken lake forever, it’s the story and surrounding mystery that we are seeking. Also, why did poor Isabel Brookes allegedly die in the region? We will report back and let you know! In the meantime, to all our supporters who offer assistance and support to our very big middle-age-ladies’ adventure, a huge thank you.