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What Dreams Still Come: An Old-Fashioned Explorer in Modern Times

How to be an old-fashioned explorer—intrepid, obsessive, khaki-clad—without conquering anything. The secret life of Keith Muscutt.
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Peru. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

Peru. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

On an August morning in 2012, Keith Muscutt—a retired University of California administrator who has, for decades, spent his summers disappearing into the Andean rainforest—peered through his binoculars and saw what he thought was the discovery of a lifetime. Standing on a promontory high above the Lejìa River in north-central Peru, he saw the telltale signs of a major pre-Colombian cemetery. What appeared to be large stone sarcophagi lined three caves on a high bluff that rose 400 feet above the opposite bank. Muscutt hoped the sarcophagi would hold textiles, weapons, ornaments, and mummies wrapped in cloth, left behind by the ancient Chachapoya people.

As he stared across the Lejìa, 67-year-old Muscutt faced an agonizing decision. From what he could see, reaching the cemetery would require technical climbing, not to mention the hours necessary to carve a trail and build a bridge. His team of locals had made the expedition to this spot possible, but he feared that if he brought them any closer, word of the discovery would leak out via barroom conversation or pillow talk, and he’d return to yet another looted site. Moreover, they’d already missed their turn-around date and were bottoming out on supplies. So Muscutt downplayed his excitement and began the long march back to Leimebamba, the remote mountain town that served as his base of operations. On the way, his mind raced with plans to reach the site the following summer. He would need a climber with a full rack of gear. He would need an archeologist, and he would need the permits required by an exacting Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

Stripped of their myths and seen from a distance, these men (and they're pretty much always men) come across as a shady lot of liars and false prophets, con artists and bullies.

The eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru are home to cloud forests wreathed in almost perpetual mist. In the cloud forests around Machu Picchu alone there is more plant diversity than in all of Europe. The Chachapoya had held sway in the north-central highlands of what are now the regions of Amazonas, San Martin, and La Libertad for more than 500 years, only to be conquered by the Incas, obliterated by the Spanish, and largely overlooked by archeologists. In the middle of the 1800s, modern settlers who pressed into the region began discovering impressive Chachapoya ruins—including Kuelap, one of the largest stone structures built in the ancient Americas. But it wasn’t until the last few decades of the 20th century that archeologists began to understand all that the Chachapoyas had left behind. Today, if people outside of Peru know anything about this ancient culture, it is in part because of Keith Muscutt.

A member of Muscutt’s team dubbed the cemetery across the riverbank Ukullaqta, “Underworld Town” in Quechua, the language the Incas brought to the region. Reaching Underworld Town isn’t easy. There are no buses, no trails, no houses, no cell phone coverage. The journey requires an hour-long flight from Lima over snowy Andean peaks to the booming city of Tarapoto in the Amazon Basin. From Tarapoto, you have to ploddingly retrace the miles that passed so swiftly in a plane, back into the mountains. Nine hours’ travel due west up a winding road—one of just two paved roads that traverse the Peruvian Andes—will deposit you in the ancient town of Leimebamba at 7,480 feet. Paradoxically, the transit times grow longer as the distances shrink; it’s an 11-hour ride on horses and mules to climb 13 miles and another 4,000 feet in elevation to the village of Atuen. If you are a stranger to the Añazcos, a frontier clan of Seventh-day Adventists who were some of the first people to settle this area in modern times, this is as far as you’ll get. If you do have their trust, their mules will carry you another two days east across the mountains to the source of the Lejìa. After that it’s three weeks hacking through jungle on foot and a tiptoe across a logjam to reach your destination.


AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS: Keith Muscutt in the Lejia valley with his longtime local teammate, Niger Añazco Chavarri. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

A BLUE-COLLAR PRODUCT of London’s East End, young Keith Muscutt arrived in the United States on the Queen Mary in 1964. After a semester at Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was a classmate of one George Walker Bush, Muscutt hitchhiked across the country and watched the sun set across the Pacific on the eve of his 18th birthday. He dropped acid on the Haight that year, then returned to England, where he served as a stagehand for bands including the Beatles and the Yardbirds. But he had fallen for California and eventually made his way back, finding a job teaching theater at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

In 2007, Muscutt retired from 29 years as assistant dean of the Division of the Arts at the university. He then began working with a music technology company, partnering with his Santa Cruz friend and colleague David Cope, the pioneering artificial intelligence composer, to help develop new music apps. He is also a frequent attendee at Burning Man. Muscutt often turns his interests into obsessions, and has the drive to succeed in all of them.

In the mid-1970s, Muscutt made the requisite hippie trek to Machu Picchu, but found himself put off by the masses at South America’s most famous ruin. As he tells me, “I got a big map of Peru and crossed off anywhere my hippie friends had been. I ended up with a map that had a big hole in it, the place which I now know is Chachapoyas.” Almost every year since 1985, Muscutt has cobbled together a trek to push farther into its jungles.

As the first outsider to reach some parts of the region, Muscutt has come across astonishing Chachapoya ruins. These include honeycombed tombs, like those he saw at Underworld Town, on cliffs decorated with red paint and pictographs. One of the most significant ruins has been dubbed Huaca La Penitenciaría—the sacred prison—by locals. It is a large stone platform in three tiers, 200 feet long and 100 wide, looming over an even larger plaza surrounded by circular and rectangular buildings. Its scale would render it a major archaeological site almost anywhere; its remote location, further east into the Peruvian jungle than anything else of its sort, renders it sui generis.

Muscutt began pushing into the little-known Lejìa river area about a decade ago, around the time I first met him. As a writer, I had my own interests in the Chachapoyas and the Andes, and we carried on a long correspondence through the years. As he began planning his return trip to Underworld Town, I got a phone call, with an invitation to join him. The lure of seeing the Chachapoya cliff tombs, in situ and unlooted, was irresistible.

Muscutt left for his return trip to the cloud forest a month ahead of me, with his trusted Añazcos team and Thomas Gilbreath, an American climber and biologist. The plan had been for me to hike in their wake with a Peruvian archeologist who could officially document and excavate the sites. Then, the night before I was to begin the journey from Lima, a frantic Muscutt made a series of calls from the jungle via satellite phone to my contact. Even though he’d climbed an hour to a ridge top for better reception, static blurred his voice and the connection kept breaking. In fragments, he said to cancel the archeologist—the tombs were looted—and that he’d run into an unfriendly party of armed hunters who were camped across the river. “It sounds bad,” my girlfriend said in our last Skype call. “Why don’t you just come home?”

I wince to see Keith Muscutt on a steep slope: His knees won't hold, and whenever he tries to outpace a snail his descent turns into a stampede toward some tragic impact. But for Muscutt, these are all only minor hindrances. He keeps pressing forward.

REVISIONIST HISTORY HAS NOT been kind to the romantic explorer of yesteryear. Christopher Columbus committed genocide, and Robert Peary, it turns out, never made it to the North Pole. Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu is belied by the fact that it appears on a map from 1874, 37 years before Bingham climbed its heights, led there by a local kid who grazed livestock on the terraces.

The Amazon Basin has attracted more than its share of dubious mavericks. Not long after the Spanish Conquest blighted Peru, Francisco Pizarro’s psychopathic half-brother, Gonzalo, rampaged through the eastern Andes in search of El Dorado, torturing and killing along the way. Sir Walter Raleigh led two expeditions up the Orinoco with the same goal: a golden city that had never existed. The second quest put his head on the chopping block. In 1925, the British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared with his son in the jungles of western Brazil while searching for the “Lost City of Z.” An eccentric and mystic, Fawcett claimed that Z was the historical source behind the legend of El Dorado. He also believed that his eldest son, Jack, who disappeared with him, was the reincarnation of a messiah and would receive special training in the jungle from the “Earth Guardians” of the “Great White Brotherhood.”

Stripped of their myths and seen from a distance, these men (and they’re pretty much always men) come across as a shady lot of liars and false prophets, con artists and bullies. The archetype of the swashbuckling explorer itself has the feel of an antique, outdated construct. In the 21st century, the quixotic adventures of overgrown Boy Scouts have lost their hold on the scientific community—even if they are still big at the box office.

I was first in touch with Muscutt after returning from the Andean cloud forests as part of my research for a book about Douglas Eugene Savoy. An American who settled in Peru in the late 1950s, Savoy grabbed headlines in 1964 when he identified Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the Incas, in the highland jungle east of Machu Picchu. Savoy wrote a bestseller about his exploits, Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon, and continued to trek through the cloud forests into the 21st century.

Until his death in 2007, Savoy also did his utmost to lead the life of a modern-day Fawcett. Even today, a decade after his last expedition, Savoy’s infamy still shrouds the eastern slope of the Andes. If you’re in the mood to piss off an Andean archeologist, just mention the mustachioed guru in a Stetson hat and cowboy boots who was dubbed “The Real Indiana Jones.”

After his early exploits, Savoy decamped to Reno, Nevada, and established a sun-worshipping faith he dubbed the Church of the Second Advent, based off of what he said were core high religious traditions including those of ancient America. Much like Fawcett, Savoy declared that his son, Jamil, who died at the age of three, was a holy child. According to the church website, “the cosmic phenomenon of the messianic sun began in 1962, as revealed by Jamil ... a child prodigy who lived in the Andes of Peru.”

After he resumed exploring in Peru in the mid-1980s, Savoy continued making controversial claims. And the media often played along: In 1998 the BBC ran footage that showed Savoy hiking into the jungle as the theme music from Indiana Jones blared in the background. And in 2000, U.S. News & World Report described Savoy’s “discovery” of a “15-square-mile city” in the eastern Andes. The article reported that Savoy had “intuited” the location of the city, and that his adventure threw “new light on the legendary kingdom of El Dorado.”

In fact, Keith Muscutt had visited that same stretch of cloud forest years earlier, and had published the location of most of the same sites in his book, Warriors of the Clouds, in 1998.

As I tried to unpack the myth of Savoy, Muscutt became my Chachapoya sensei (he owned the domain, sharing his insights into the eastern Andes and the excesses of megalomaniacs like Savoy. Where Savoy was swaggering and grandiose—the explorer as prophet—Muscutt is understated and meticulous. Chachapoya archeologists don’t condemn Muscutt; they praise him. Where Savoy’s expeditions were lavish affairs with over a hundred porters and pack animals, Muscutt travels light with a half-dozen men, all sleeping under one tarp. Muscutt doesn’t want to impose a mystical vision on the cloud forest. What he sees is vision enough.

Yet although their methods and motives differ, Pizarro, Fawcett, Raleigh, Savoy, and Muscutt have in common the belief that something important is hidden in the Amazon Basin. For Muscutt, the drive to uncover that hidden something is fueled by our frustratingly incomplete state of knowledge about the enigmatic Chachapoyas. What we know is that they were a culture that long ago ceased to exist as a unique group. Their language is extinct, and what we understand of their history is based on second- and third-hand accounts that describe light-skinned beauties, ferocious warriors, and powerful warlocks. Aside from ruins, all that remains of their civilization are a few place- and surnames. Even the word Chachapoya itself—variously translated as “cloud people” or “warriors of the clouds”—is a name coined by the Incas, their conquerors. This kind of open-ended mystery is catnip to anyone who dreams of making a major, elucidating discovery—and to anyone tempted to project fantasies onto a nearly blank canvas. Sometimes the two aren’t easy to tell apart.


The Chachapoyas bound the limbs of their dead tightly, with hands pressed to cheeks. These mummies from the Lake of the Condors are preserved in the museum at Leimebamba. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

I ARRIVED IN LEIMEBAMBA two days after Muscutt’s troubling satellite phone calls. Long isolated and supremely insular, Leimebamba has little use for outsiders. Muscutt believes this is due, at least in part, to the town heritage. Leimebamba was an Inca stronghold, and the residents see themselves as heirs of an empire. On his first visit to Leimebamba in 1973, he sat at a table in the only restaurant in town for two hours while the owner ignored him. On his return, 12 years later, he rode into town with a friend and local children threw rocks at the pair of them, hoping to spook the mules to buck the gringos into the dirt.

Three days after I arrived in town, I was met by Alan Añazco and a few other members of Muscutt’s team who had hiked up from camp on the Lejìa. It was Alan’s job to keep me alive on the hike to Underworld Town. We left Leimebamba at dawn and spent the next night in Atuen, where, except for a few gasoline-powered generators, there is no electricity, and no running water or flush toilets (and in a twist that seems too good to be true, the operator of the one phone in town is deaf). The next morning we left Atuen on foot, with a pack mule carrying my gear. Because the Añazcos had already cut a trail down the Lejìa, our journey would only take eight days, compared to the three weeks Muscutt had endured.

At five-foot-three and 140 pounds or so, with little body fat, Alan was a dynamo on the trail, emotions speeding across his broad face. His native heritage showed in his black hair, flat cheekbones, and caramel skin that glowed with reddish undertones. He and his twin are the youngest sons of Niger, the head of the Atuen branch of the Añazco clan and Muscutt’s compadre. Two days out of Atuen, Alan’s mule plunged chest deep into a hillside bog, so he left it tied to a clump of bunch grass and shouldered its 125-pound pack himself. It’s never encouraging when you have to walk where mules can’t.

How much farther? I asked in Spanish.

No está tan lejos. Una media hora, mas o menos, Alan said. Not far. A half hour, more or less. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked the question and it wasn’t the first time I’d received a similar answer. So we kept going, me licking blood from my palm in between steps—during a fall I’d planted my hand and sword grass had split it open with a razor swipe.

After staggering across the 14,000-foot pass that the Añazcos had named Gringo Rendido—Exhausted White Man—for Muscutt, I saw the cloud forest for the first time in a decade, stretching down into the Lejìa basin. Billowing mist shrouded the distant green hills; the trees were wreathed in moss, vines, lichens, bromeliads, and orchids (more than a thousand species of them have been found in the Peruvian cloud forests). I was one of only a small number of human beings who had looked over this forest in the last five hundred years, and that made it even more beautiful. In isolation, the world recovers from our demands. Yet the fact that the Andean cloud forests have remained relatively free of humans since the Spanish Conquest always surprises me: it seems too temperate, too rich, too beautiful to have been left alone.

As Alan and I started downhill, I slowly left my altitude sickness behind. He bounced along in front of me, never settling his full weight, never stopping, as surefooted as a mountain goat. Atuen is situated at 11,735 feet, so Alan found my struggles with the thin air completely foreign: Oxygen-poor air is the only air he’s ever breathed.

The cloud forest seems strangely barren of larger animals, save the birds that appear at dawn and dusk. But it teems with insects. There are dozens of species of mosquito, including the manta blanca, whose bites linger for weeks. There are tabanas, flies whose rapacious attentions can drive men and animals to madness. There are chiggers and sand flies bearing the skin-rotting disease leishmaniasis, and there are bees desperate for salt. Every time we stopped, a carpet of them settled on our garments—anything that had touched a sweating human body.

After an hour of swatting at bugs, we swung around a limestone outcrop to a series of shallow caves at the base of a cliff: a former Añazco hunting camp, and the gateway to the Lejìa valley. Alan led me to straw-topped platforms built under a cliff, behind the rain line. Across the trail, spindly trees infested with lichen and moss twisted into the dusk. East of there it was forest forever, the Amazon Basin, 2,500 miles of green until the beach at Ipanema. In the last light, I noticed a series of marks over one of the caves: ‘K.M.’ and dates stretching back over a decade. Muscutt was somewhere down in the valley below—sick or well, alive or dead, I wouldn’t know until I got there.


OVERPASS: Author Robert Anasi edges across the team's makeshift bridge, 80 feet above the Lejia river, en route to the caves at Underworld Town. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

SIX DAYS LATER, I found Keith Muscutt alive and well, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping platform like the Buddha. The camp hugged the base of a bluff into which the Añazcos had built a maze of poles, lines, hanging gear, platforms, and a plein air kitchen. It looked like a set for the next remake of Planet of the Apes. A flock of parrots swarmed raucously overhead. They looked like flying fruit and served as dawn alarms. Muscutt rose from his platform—a slow and creaky unwinding to his full six feet—shook my hand, and said, “Dr. Anasi, I presume,” then offered me a cup of tea. The man is English, after all, and one who can’t resist a bad joke.

A month on the trail had carved 20 pounds from his frame, accentuating his ruddy wrinkled face and shock of white hair. He looked taller than I remembered—maybe from the slimming jungle diet, or the fact that he towered above the Peruvian highlanders, who were the only other humans I’d seen for a week. But behind a new set of white whiskers, his pale blue eyes were unchanged. After my long trek into the wilderness, I was happy to see anyone who could speak English. The fact that it was Muscutt and he was in good spirits only made me happier.

Muscutt had arrived at camp 21 days earlier to find that his supplies, cached there the previous summer, had been stolen. The next day, he had a tense encounter with the heavily armed thieves, a hunting party from the nearest town, across a high ridge on the other side of the river. The hunters—an advance party looking for new timber to fell, new pastures for their cows, unlooted tombs to plunder—eventually stood down and moved on. The encounter was a miniature version of the grand drama sweeping across cloud forests throughout the Andes.

In fact, very little was as Muscutt had perceived through his binoculars a year earlier. On the trip to Underworld Town, he found that the steep rock face that he thought would demand technical climbing skills was simply a brushy slope that required only a few minutes of scrambling. And when he arrived at the first cave, he found that it was indeed the site of a Chachapoya mausoleum—but a ruined one. The caves had been looted long ago.

"WHEN I MOVE IN ordinary middle-class life, wherever it is—Santa Cruz, London, or Los Angeles or something,” Muscutt told me over tea in camp, “I feel like a Ferrari idling at a stop signal waiting for the light to change. When I’m down here, I’m firing on all cylinders, challenged intellectually by the language, by the decisions that I have to make. You know that when you turn on the light switch, the light is going to go on. But in Peru you turn on the light switch and you might get showered with sparks.”

It is impossible to overlook the similarities between Muscutt and the dubious explorers of yesteryear—similarities that make him closer in spirit to them than to the credentialed professionals who now control the field of archeology. It’s there in his willpower, his drive to overcome a failing 67-year-old body and threats that would keep a more prudent man at home. On one expedition, he suffered an abscess on an embarrassing part of his anatomy; a surgeon operated on it using Muscutt’s camping headlamp and a single-edged razor while two of his team members held his legs. When the Añazcos look at Muscutt, they see an old gringo with an appetite for suffering. I wince to see Muscutt on a steep slope: His knees won’t hold, and whenever he tries to outpace a snail his descent turns into a stampede toward some tragic impact. But for Muscutt, these are all only minor hindrances. He keeps pressing forward.

“It might seem strange,” he says. “But I see every expedition I have as a theatrical performance where I’m the director and an actor. All of this is my stage. There’s a freedom out here that I haven’t gotten anywhere else. Certainly not sitting in front of that damned computer 10 hours a day.”

Like the early mavericks, Muscutt finds a space for unbridled imagination in these isolated forests. There are elements in his perspective that smack of privilege; after all, he’s a wealthy patron in the terms of the Andean highlands. He pays each of the Añazcos about $10 a day, with another $8 per mule or horse. (He also awards bonuses and brings gifts; the most popular last year were MP3 players loaded with the Beatles and Pink Floyd.) The Añazcos consider Muscutt family—he’s a godfather to children of two of the men—but part of their respect stems from what they see as his riches.

Muscutt has published a book and numerous articles on the Chachapoyas, and garnered respect from archeologists and anthropologists—he dispatches his insights and discoveries to the top archeologists in the field for review—despite the fact that the only advanced degree he holds is a Master of Arts in drama. Says Warren Church, a professor of anthropology and archeology at Columbus State University in Georgia, “Keith, in his own way and despite his self-acknowledged limitations, is a full-blown player and contributor to the slow but steady expansion of Chachapoya archaeology.”

Muscutt is a real explorer, a strange and gentle variation on a bombastic antique archetype, a species as close to extinction as the yellow-tailed woolly monkeys he has found in the Lejìa. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He’ll never declare that he’s discovered the Fountain of Youth in the Andean Amazon, or write a dubious Thor Heyerdahlish volume about contact between the pale Chachapoyas and the Celts. He doesn’t want to start a religion, and though his work has been featured in places like the History Channel, he underplays his accomplishments, so much so that I have had to learn about them from the handful of other Chachapoya experts. Muscutt doesn’t add much personal insight beyond how he feels when he’s there. “If I knew why I was doing this,” he says, “I’d have to stop.”


THE CREW: For many years, Muscutt has worked closely with Añazco family members, including, left to right, Manuel, Willan, Patrocino, Denny, Robinson, Niger, Alan, and Klever. (Photo: Keith Muscutt)

EIGHTY FEET ABOVE THE Lejìa River, Keith Muscutt was crawling across a log bridge on all fours. It was the morning of my second day in camp, and we were setting out for a final survey of Underworld Town. He had good reason for his undignified posture: The log was 16 inches wide, round, and covered with damp moss. But a fall wouldn’t drown him—the river is only three feet deep here: He’d splatter on the rocks. Gilbreath had strung a climbing rope alongside the log, and Muscutt was attached to it with a harness as he inched his 67-year-old frame across. The Añazcos, Gilbreath, and I stared; ‘‘Crossing the Bridge” was our jungle spectator sport. When it was their turn, the Añazcos trotted across the mossy stretch, no harness, no pause. For them it was just another day at the office.

On the far side, we followed a steep, slick trail for an hour until we reached a rope ladder that descended to the bank of the Lejìa, where we had to make a second crossing. The bridge that Muscutt’s team had fashioned upon their arrival at the site three weeks ago had washed out in a storm, so Alan stripped down to his tiger-stripe briefs and dove into the river. As he rigged up a cable to a stump, his brother-in-law Willan found a nearby tree. Within 15 minutes, they had fashioned a serviceable new bridge. (Daniel Boone could have learned a few things from the Añazcos.)

We crossed the second bridge, then scrambled up the brushy slope to the first cave. It was far more immense than Muscutt had been able to discern the year before. You could play a regulation-size football game in it; the ceiling was at least a hundred feet overhead. The rock floor was a shambles of shattered stone and debris. Over the centuries, the high rock roof had partly calved away, obliterating whatever lay beneath. In the shards we could see a fragment or two of textile, human bone, and the splintered remains of wooden planks: the remnants of ataúdes, barrel-like wooden coffins that the Chachapoyas used as decorative containers for human mummies. Nothing was intact save a few skulls with surprisingly perfect smiles.

I found myself imagining what the cave would have looked like had we arrived, say, 600 years earlier. Dozens of ataúdes—each as tall as a man—might have stood on a series of stone and mortar platforms at the cave mouth. They may have been decorated with life-sized figures in red and white and black paint, with sculpted wooden heads attached. A few of these might even wear trophy skulls like hats. Inside, the ataúdes would contain fiber bundles decorated with different colors and designs; smiling faces would be stitched onto some of them. And inside the bundles themselves would be mummies.

The Chachapoyas often placed their tombs in dramatic locales—on balconies and platforms carved into sheer rock walls hundreds of feet above surrounding valleys, adorned with red pictographs of abstract designs and human figures. That way, the people farming and herding down below had their ancestors watching over them.

In the cave, Muscutt began taking pictures and jotting down notes and measurements in his journal. He asked the Añazcos how many skulls had they seen. How many femurs? Had they picked up any textile fragments? Every few steps, he dictated observations into his voice recorder.

If Muscutt felt disappointed by the state of the caves, I couldn’t tell. He showed only one moment of irritation, after I stepped over the ruin of a wall and almost crumpled a skull with my heel. When I placed the skull on a masonry wall to grin out onto the jungle, Muscutt raised his voice for the only time on the expedition: “There will be no posing of skulls!”

Nature wasn’t the only culprit in the destruction of the mausoleum: Whatever hadn’t been pulverized by rock had been carried away by looters. As modern Peruvians encroach further and further into the cloud forest to graze their cattle—their onward march signified by the frequent smoke plumes from (semi) controlled burns that cloud the horizon—more and more of the ancient Chachapoya realm is being exposed to the light of day and, in turn, swiftly picked clean.

In a way, Muscutt is in a race with these settlers, trying to find archaeological sites before they do. At the cave, however, we had the small consolation of knowing that there was no way we could have arrived fast enough. Underworld Town had been ravaged a long time ago. There were no signs of recent activity, no machete marks or footprints. Muscutt estimated that the site had been raided sometime within the last hundred years, but it could have happened even longer ago, during the societal collapse that followed the Conquest. With little fanfare, he decided there was no point in climbing to the two higher platforms above the first cave. Doing so would be dangerous, and they’d probably been looted or wiped clear by rockfall anyway.

JUST TWO DAYS AFTER our visit to the sepulchral cavern, we left camp for civilization, or at least what passes for it at Atuen. Sometimes Muscutt and I hiked together, but his slow pace meant that there was more time for the mosquitoes, bees, and tabanas to triangulate our location.

Muscutt noticed everything on the trail—every orchid, every unfamiliar species of tree, the spoor left by the local wildlife: spectacled bear, brocket deer, Cock-of-the-rock birds. He pointed out the views from openings in the canopy and the constellations in a clear winter sky. If I was on a coca break and Muscutt passed by, he left plastic flags along the trail to alert me to discoveries (such as a giant rat with its head gnawed off, probably by a puma). Gilbreath and I were the first gringos who had been with him to the Lejìa and he wanted the place to mean as much to us as it did to him.

Three days into our hike, I found Muscutt peering through a pair of binoculars. Across the Lejìa, a break in the green screen of forest exposed a steep expanse of white cliff. He had studied this stretch of the valley many times, but the slant of afternoon light had etched the cliff with preternatural clarity.

“I think I’ve found something,” he said.

Framing the cliff, two waterfalls arced down. A dark smudge between them may have been nothing—weathering in the rock, or a cloud shadow. But even at this distance, the place looked sacred, a break from jungle into something else—exactly the kind of place where the Chachapoyas would honor their dead and their gods.

Muscutt considered changing our itinerary, but the site was across the river, far from our trail. It would take three days, at least, to reach it from the nearest ford. “I think when we get to Atuen, I’m going to ask the Añazcos to take a closer look,” he said. He looked up, his pale blue eyes sparkling.

“If they find something worthwhile,” he added, “then I know what I’ll be doing next summer.”

On our first night in Atuen, as we sat down to a feast of guinea pig, roasted corn, and four kinds of potatoes, Muscutt was called into a meeting with a local official and asked to write a letter responding to accusations of looting. Two days later in Leimebamba, he faced the community president, the council, and six hours of interviews. He shrugged and smiled and skated through it all—the meeting was a drill he’d become accustomed to, another tariff to be paid to live his dream.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “What Dreams Still Come.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.