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The Treasure of the Llanganates.


Some forty years ago, I was sitting in my bar awaiting the first customers of the day, when Warren came barging through the swing doors, shouting up a large bourbon before he even reached the bar.

I had only recently taken over the Wildcatter Club and I hardly knew Warren; only that he was an American film producer and, for the past two months, had been installed in a suite in the Hotel Colon but preferred to do his drinking in the Wildcatter.

He also conducted the major part of his business dealings over the club’s telephone. I had not objected to an arrangement between him and the club’s previous owner which allowed to make international calls; as he overpaid me in US dollars. I had heard rumours that to get the difficult to obtain permission to film in the country, he threw in his hotel suite, where members of the Ecuadorian military junta were entertained with cocktails and prohibited, pornographic films.

He was on his second bourbon and third telephone call before he invited me to join him. Without my inquiring, he informed  me that he was having serious production problems and was at a loss as how to solve them. He was almost in tears as he explained how desperately he needed help. The locals, he informed me,  were useless  in a case of emergency and he himself was too busy to be away from a telephone. If only he had someone like myself, young fit and reliable to assist him, his problems would be solved.

It was while Gladys the barmaid was preparing us another round that he sprang the trap.
Had I had ever been to the Llanganates?  I told him I hadn’t but that I had been to Llanelwy and even to Llandudno but no, I’d never been to Llanganates. There followed a moment of confusion before we realized I was referring to towns in Wales which he, an American, had would never have heard of and  he was referring to the Cordillera de Llanganates, a range of mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, which I, being a newcomer to the country, likewise had never heard of.

Surprisingly taking me into his confidence he explained that for years he had been researching the story of Atahualpa’s missing treasure and he was convinced he knew the location of the hoard. It he insisted had been buried in the Llaganates. According to Warren’s version of history,  it all began back in 1533, in Cusco, when Atahualpa,  Lord of the Incas, was imprisoned by the Spanish general, Francisco Pizarro. To save his neck he offered to fill a large room, supposedly 7 meters long by 6 wide and 2.50 high,  with gold and precious metals. Atahualapa kept his promise but Pizarro, the kinky conquistador, still went ahead and had him garroted. 

 Under the command of Rumiñahui, one of Atahualpa’s generals, a train of 600 mules, loaded with more gold and other precious metals had been on its way to Cusco. When news of Atahualpa’s murder reached him, he decided not to complete the delivery but to hide the treasure in the Llanganates. Warren’s extensive research and surely some agile imagination had revealed to him that it was at the bottom of the very lake where his crew were presently filming.

Unfortunately for the project, the film crew, who had been on site in the Llangenates for the past two weeks had run out of supplies. If the indigenous messenger who had somehow gotten the news to Quito was to be believed, they were near to dying of  starvation and the two divers who were with them to explore the lake had gone down with the bends (from being submerged at a height of 11,000 feet), hypothermia or hepatitis; possibly all three.

The Ecuadorian military had no helicopters available for hire and  were either unable or unwilling to offer any assistance. He confined in me that he suspected their negativity was due to fact that the only projector available for showing the pornographic films had broken down.

As Warren’s story unfolded, I gathered that he had not been completely honest with the military. He had neglected to mention that, apart from filming the legend of the Llanganates, he intended to uncover or raise from the lake and smuggle as much of the treasure out of the country without informing his hosts. This is where I came into the picture.

Warren proposed that if I was willing to take medicines and supplies to the stranded crew, I would be well paid for my services and - drawing me away from the bar and out of hearing distance from Gladys  – for a bonus, he would give me a significantly valuable piece of the treasure. Why not, I asked myself? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The staff were capable of looking after the club for a couple of days and it would be a great opportunity to see more of the country I was now a resident of.

I should have asked around. No one went to the Llanganates, I was informed, when attempting to hire a vehicle, because no one could get into the Llangantes period. Did I know how many idiots had died up there, they asked? The prospects of getting even somewhere near to the mysterious mountains was not looking good. However, Warren, with the wiles of a true film producer, had the answer – money. With sufficient US dollars he convinced Boliva, a Hotel Colon taxi driver to take me and the supplies as far as El Triunfo, a village some miles north of the town of Bańos.  Warrren assured me that, on arrival at the village, I would be able to hire a guide and pack animals to carry the supplies and myself.

Shopping for supplies and the packing done, I set out into the unknown; sitting comfortably in a yellow Ford Taunus, with the Hotels logo ’s blazoned on both sides. None of your Land Rovers or Jeeps for me; this I was convinced was the only way to make an expedition into the wilds of Ecuador.  However, as we progressed, I began to see that the Ecuadorian length of Pan-American Highway down which we were travelling was in places, not even a highway, It took Boliva, who had about as much knowledge of the terrain outside Quito as I had, six hours hard driving to reach Bańos and then we had to leave a bad highway and drive along an unpaved road cum track for a further hour before reaching  El Triunfo.

At the village, we discovered there were no guides or pack animals. I would have to continue further on foot, until I came to the very last group of huts and there I might be lucky enough to find someone foolish enough to accompany me. How far was this last group of huts, I asked? Three to four hours but maybe longer for a Gringo, I was informed. This is where Boliva came in. I must say that he was a hero. Not only had he risked his car through some truly awful conditions, he even allowed me to sleep  night in it; the nearest hotel being back in Bańos. Next morning I had reason to be even more grateful to him. He promised to come back to El Triunfo in three days and collect me, with or without Warren financing the trip.

Taking charge of the situation he sent a youth to fetch a guide and two mules and, when they eventually arrived, berated the guard into giving me an honest price. He  remained  with me until the supplies were safely loaded onto one of the animals. My knowledge of Spanish still being zero I was sad to see him leave. I was fascinated by the way the villager’s had deferred to him. His  mud splattered yellow taxi was treated like an object from outer space and permanently surrounded by gaping villagers , who had never seen a vehicle of such dimensions.

There was no problem with the guide knowing where to go, having already taken the film crew up to their orginal campsite. The second mule proved to be of no use. There was no saddle and if you have ridden a horse without a saddle for any length of time you will know how uncomfortable it can be. As the weather deteriorated and the conditions on the trail went from bad to worse. my dangling feet would sink as deep into the mud as the mules and at times this was up to its belly. I got off the poor beast and proceeded on foot.
I have been over a few absolutely nasty assault courses in my army days but struggling up that murderous trail into the Llanganates was worse than doing three of them consecutively.   It took us two days, sleeping rough, to get to the vamp site and at one time during the odyssey I not ashamed to admit that, to the bewilderment of the guide, I literally shed tears.

I never did get a clear view of that miserable pond - which I later learned was known as Brunner’s Laguna, after a Swiss treasure hunter, who made a living conning gullible dreamers like Warren. it was swathed in cold grey fog for the short time I was there. As to the starving and sick camera crew, they were not quite starving and what sickness the divers thought they may of had had disappeared. Somehow, as so often happens, along the line of communications the original message had been embellished and the only thing they had really needed were fresh oxygen tanks for the divers.

They were pleased to see me and get some fresh food but they never unpacked the supplies as they were preparing to leave as I arrived. Dispirited and disillusioned they were abandoning the camp site and about to head home. Find any treasure I guardedly asked Ken, one of the divers? The only gold in that fucking lake is the gold tooth I lost when my teeth were chattering so hard I thought my jaw had broken, was his reply.

Leaving the two mules - who knew the route better than the guide - with the crew, I slid and slithered and swam my way back down to El Triunfo, dreading to that Boliva would not wait for me. But thankfully, there he was patiently waiting to deliver me back to Quito and civilization.

I never did get my bonus of that significantly valuable piece of the treasure but over the years I would occasionally find myself taking Boliva’s taxi and our amusement on the recounting the story, made the little adventure worth while.
 

A few years later, Joe Brown (regarded as the outstanding pioneering English rock climber of the 1950s and early 1960s) was in my bar, following an expedition he had made into the Llanganates. He told me it was the roughest terrain he had ever been in.

(from Wildcatting Times, by Bryan R.Thomas)

 

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