How it all started
I never thought this job would be easy, but a girl can dream, right? Even though in my line of work it is wishful thinking rather than a dream. I still don’t know how this will end, yet there is already a man dead, a pile of animal carcasses and I am in front of an unexplored area high up in the mountains of Peru.
Wait. I’m jumping ahead. Let’s try that again.
I was sitting in Calcutta in a hotel foyer minding my own business, so no one can blame me (at least not this time) for actively putting myself in these situations. All of a sudden, there was this American trying to strike up a conversation by throwing a magazine about one of my latest exploits down in front of me, and asking me what he would have to do to get this kind of attention. I can only guess if he actually wanted to meet the same end as the unfortunate Bigfoot, but who am I to spoil his idea of fun.
Unsurprisingly, he missed the irony of my reply (and probably forgot the last time we met since he DID get exactly that kind of attention from me...and the hydra).
The only significant thing that Larson did was to set down a laptop with a direct connection to his boss. Ms. Natla of Natla Technologies seemed to have the same impression of her employee’s “charm” and, after dismissing him, proceeded to tell me the real reason for this interruption.
What I must give to this woman is that she knows how to change a strategy quickly and effectively. When she saw that money was no motivation for me, she appealed to my sense of adventure. After bringing up the unexplored area in the Peruvian mountains, a sealed tomb and a mysterious artifact, who was I to say no?
Today, not even 24 hours after my talk with Natla, I flew to my destination and found a guide who was willing to accompany me to the tomb. The poor man never knew what he was getting himself into. Just when I had managed to find the opening mechanism of the tomb, a pack of wolves emerged from the stone doors and tore his throat out. I imagine he did not forsee this when becoming a local guide.
After dispatching the wolves and checking whether my companion was really as dead as he appeared to be (and yes, there is no faking that much blood), I entered the tomb. The stone doors closed after me with a loud thud. But, I’m not worried about that now. If anything, I am thrilled.
Let’s see what the Tomb of Qualopec has in store for me...
Into the cavern
The cavern I entered was dark and it took my eyes a moment to adjust. The first thing I noticed were some tracks in the snow that the strong mountain wind had swept inside. The beasts probably expected a different outcome when they were running towards the light entrance, but a mere glance told me that this would not be the last encounter with that pack. The number of tracks definitely implied a larger number compared to the bodies lying outside.
But I could not stand in one spot for long; the cave was freezing and, while I was used to low temperatures, staying still was not helping. Following the tracks, as that it was the only possible direction I could take, the place was quiet. However, the silence was soon broken by a suspicious swishing sound. I stopped and soon found its source: an ancient bolt-shooting device (and while I did not test this hypothesis, I was quite certain they were poisoned).
I had to chuckle at this pathetic attempt at keeping people out. Were they even trying when they built this place? No one would fall for a trap like this. But just then I remembered Larson's face...and the smell of his burning jeans. This distant, almost welcome memory made me add a small correction: only an idiot would fall for a trap like that.
I simply jumped over the trap, not really out of necessity, but only wanting to stretch my freezing limbs. It seemed that my presence was unwelcome to other inhabitants of the cavern as well, but I had no complaints. After all, was there any better shooting practice than an enraged bat?
As I progressed, I finally got used to the gloomy lighting and, more importantly, started recognizing parts of the ancient architecture.
At the beginning it was difficult to find, but soon I could appreciate the technique and the state in which the walls and ornaments were preserved.The city had been sealed for centuries and the archaeologist in me wished that I could just stop for a moment and do what I was trained for during my studies. Unfortunately, I had a different task.
There was a single part of the old city I was not fond of: its wooden bridges.
The cold had preserved some of them, but even so I was reluctant to trust their stability. The hungry howling under the frozen planks was not very welcoming either, so I felt a slight relief once I crossed the bridges without slipping or crashing through.
Soon enough I was not so lucky. My feet slipped and, instead of a safe leap across the gap in front of me, I landed, barely on my feet, in front of a bear. Of course it had to be a bear. There was no other animal I loved seeing more than a bear when I'm scrambling to regain my footing with so little room that I nearly hit a wall whenever I dodge. It's good that I had packed some bandages.
And so, after nearly being mauled to death and drastically decreasing the cavern's population, I am standing in front of a large gate. The second set of bolts did not bother me much, though I have to admit that what they had lacked in imagination, they certainly made up for in shear numbers. But I have faith in the ancient builders, that they will yet surprise me. Now then...where does this lead?
Inside the lost city
I expected no welcoming committee when I entered the lost city of Vilcabamba, but the pack of wolves that considered me their snack rather spoiled my first impression of the place. No one wants to shed blood on their first visit, but it seems to happen to me quite regularly. Fortunately, I had a backpack full of ammo so I could take on whatever Peru threw at me.
After I dispatched the ravenous beasts, I could finally take a proper look around. In spite of partial collapse of the cavern’s ceiling, the city’s architecture seemed almost intact; its walls were still firm and stable, even some of the wooden constructions had been preserved by the low temperatures of Peruvian mountains.
There was no clear way ahead and therefore I could let my inner archaeologist loose. While frost had rendered some of the doors non-functional, there still were ways to access the buildings. Curiously, they seemed freshly deserted despite the time that must have passed; the primitive fireplaces in the centres of rooms were not swept clean, there were animal hides, clearly in the process of tanning. Even troughs outside were full of hay, as if the entire population of Vilcabamba simply got up and left. I wondered what happened to them and hoped that, as I progress deeper into the complex, I would learn what their fate was.
Besides the state of the buildings I found, the greatest surprise so far was the vegetation I encountered. Despite the lack of sunlight, the deeper I walked into the cavern, the more plants I found; some of them I expected, but many were of varieties that I had never seen before.
Overall the lost city’s vegetation did not seem stunted by the harsh conditions; on the contrary, it was thriving. The walls were covered with a thick growth of vines and the floor’s tiles were almost completely hidden too.
I leaned down and picked several samples, though I doubted they would safely survive the rest of my exploration. There were simply too many furry reasons to jump, dodge and therefore crush the unfortunate plants by the contents of my backpack.
Finally, I managed to locate one building that differed from others. The entrance was locked and I had to access it through the window. The remnants of ancient tiles cracked under my feet and I plummeted down to a disturbingly decorated room – someone obviously liked skulls a lot, except for one spot.
After I stepped out of the remains of the upper floor I had just crashed through, I proceeded to examine the strangely plain area of the wall. It did not fit firmly inside the remaining stones and used to be equipped with a rope, now half-frayed, half-frozen. Grounding my feet, I took a deep breath and pushed the block deeper into the wall.
My efforts were rewarded with the satisfying sound of the heavy stone moving across the ancient floor and I steadied myself again, forcing it further. I already felt sore, but I did not stop until I felt a rush of stale air.
I found myself in a room with a second floor that, unlike the one in previous room, was still stable and almost intact. I could only guess why the inhabitants of Vilcabamba decided to block the entrance to this place, but I soon got my answer; by exploring two alcoves with skull motif on their walls, I found two items, a silver key and a golden statue, an idol of some sort. I inserted them carefully inside my backpack (goodbye, plants, you will be missed) and vaulted to the second floor.
I could finally proceed through a door that was previously locked, towards a unique structure with three doors that I really, really wanted to photograph properly, but then something decided to nibble on my feet again and I had other matters to attend to. And now I’m running out of film so I will have to switch to a pencil soon. Oh well. Nothing like sketching with half-frozen fingers.
Anyway, the picture still shows at least a part of the construction. It was noteworthy not only for its distinct architecture, but also for unusual preservation of colour, as its red decorations were truly striking. The orange paintings inside also retained their original look. I could only curse myself for wasting so much film earlier, as these features definitely deserved documenting.
After some running around, the central door finally opened. I could feel I was nearing the centre of the city of Vilcabamba, not only because I almost got sliced in half by traps, this time more intelligently placed than the ones back in the caverns.
If I was amazed by the state of buildings outside, this place was simply gorgeous. It is truly a shame that I have to move on, I would be quite happy here, doing proper archaeology for once. I’m also not thrilled about having to part with the golden idol, but it seems necessary for opening the final door in this hall.
Alright. There’s still a bit of the film left.