Sometimes a small gathering of friends can send you on a flight of learning.
A barbecue party hosted by a local retired architect named Robert Fenn was one such event: His friend Jack Vetter of Westwood showed us a documentary about his 2003 Inca expedition organized by archaeologist/writers Hugh Thomson and Vetter’s friend Gary Ziegler.
Vetter, 76, had spent considerable time in the Andes mountains but this particular expedition was important, he said, because this journey led to the rediscovery of a place called Llactapata.
Llactapata was “rediscovered,” because a part of the site was found by Yale University historian Hiram Bingham in 1912. The previous year, Bingham had discovered Machu Picchu, the magnificent Inca ceremonial city perched on a precipitous mountain ridge. While seeking other ruins, Bingham stumbled upon what he called “an Inca castle” on a nearby ridge named Llactapata. Not realizing the size or significance of the Llactapata ruins, he wrote only a short note, leaving an inadequate description of the location then quickly moved onto other areas. Llactapata was lost again to the outside world.
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Nine decades later, in 2003, the Thomson-Ziegler team rediscovered what Bingham had found.
According to the Royal Geographic Society, the Thomson-Ziegler Research Expedition included 17 explorers — including Vetter — who flew over the Andes using infra-red cameras to see through the thick jungle vegetation and find the outlines of stone buildings beneath, and then traveled in to the site with 12 horses and 25 mules. The complex of ruins they uncovered has been described as Machu Picchu’s ceremonial suburb, and this discovery has contributed much to the understanding of why the Inca may have placed and built it where it stands today.
Vetter gave us about 20 minutes of introduction, and soon we were looking at the TV screen with a distant landscape of Peru captured from an airplane, and then we were following nearly 30 humans, including a dozen local helpers, on horses or donkeys, some loaded with bundles and equipment. Moments later, we were in the cloud forest with men chopping down branches and vines with machetes then in campsites, and then we were viewing crumbling walls with niches that could have held a statue of an Inca god or an emperor. And finally we were looking across the valley at Machu Picchu in the distance through a long, narrow corridor.
When finished, Vetter said, “I played a small part in the expedition team,” though the scenes we had just watched in the video told us differently.
Gary Ziegler didn’t agree with Vetter either.
“Jack has been an enthusiastic and valuable team member,” the archaeologist wrote me in an email. “Jack was with us on a number of explorations and studies of Inca sites in the Andes Mountains of Southern Peru, and during our Llactapata Expedition in 2003 supported by Royal Geographical Society, he and his old buddy from the Peace Corps project in Ecuador, Bob Mroczek, discovered what we identified as ‘Machu Picchu’s Lost Temple of the Sun.’
“Jack has amazing energy and endurance,” Ziegler wrote. “He was always one who returned to the camp with a notebook full of notes after a long day of machete-hacking through steep, tangled vegetation in the cloud forest. Much of our successful exploration and surveying of the extensive Inca Llactapata site, encompassing several square miles of ruins built upon ridges, hill sides, and summits can be credited to his efforts and knack for finding hidden ruins.”
Vetter and Ziegler met in 1962, at a Peace Corps training camp in Puerto Rico. Ziegler was a young field staffer there, instructing climbing and jungle survival techniques, and Vetter was a volunteer in one of the groups heading for Ecuador. More than three decades later, during which time Ziegler finished graduate school and served in the army, Vetter worked as a structural engineer and enjoyed his numerous hobbies, including hiking, flying, old cars and more. The two reunited again in Peru in 2002.
I, a Korean American, hardly knew anything about Inca culture or ruins but about 20 years ago I watched on TV a frozen body of a young Inca girl just discovered at the world’s highest archeological site in the Andes Mountain and listened to the newsman talking about how she might have been buried there 500 years earlier.
It was a horrifying history lesson — that the Inca offered their young to their mountain gods on a regular basis and that the girl on TV was one of the sacrificial gifts! Unbelievably, the selected children were fattened with corn and llama meat for months, and on the day of their impending death they were dressed in their finest clothing and jewelry, before they were led to the ceremonial site on the mountain top, drugged, and killed by strangulation or a blow to their heads or by leaving them to die of exposure.
Vetter’s presentation rekindled my horror as well as curiosity, and I read all I could find about the Inca.
Thanks to explorer-writers like Bingham, Thomson, Ziegler and many more brave souls, the history and culture of Incas is revealed and recorded. I’m now dying to visit Machu Picchu and other ruins in the cloud forest of the Andes Mountains 9,000 feet in the air, before my time runs out.
As Confucius said, “Seeing once is better than hearing a hundred times!”
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.