Journey to the Center of the Earth

For our trip, Eileen had a vision, a project that would bring together creativity and activism. The plan is to record musical performances inside the cave for a multimedia installa­tion in London. Publicity from that will generate support for Unesco World Heritage site designation, protecting the area around Tayos from mining and other threats. The musicians are an Ecuadoran multi-­instrumentalist named David Villa­gomez and British producer Henry “Hoffy” Hoffman. We’ll set up camp an hour’s hike into the cave and spend two days and nights there, recording and exploring under the guidance of the Shuar. 

Eileen admits that skeptics would probably label her New Agey, but Toulkaridis told me that, after initially being resistant to her idea of playing music in the cave, he has no objections to the esoteric nature of the enterprise. To him, anything that helps spread the word about the fragility of the region’s landscape and the Shuar people is worthwhile. “Scientists have no outreach to the mass media,” he says. “You need someone who can help get the message heard.”

A seminomadic, polygynous tribe spread across the forests of Ecuador and Peru, the Shuar have been fighting against colonization and missionization since the Spaniards invaded their territory in the 16th century. To the Europeans, they were subjects of fascination: a warrior culture known for shrinking the heads of their victims as a way of capturing souls. In battle they believed that their shaman could conjure invisible darts to destroy their foes. They were so feared that in 1995 the Ecuadorean army developed elite units of Shuar soldiers for territorial battles with Peru.

Since the 1960s, the Shuar have maintained jurisdiction over portions of their land, and they’ve become a powerful force in protecting the country’s natural resources. In 2008, they helped persuade the Ecuadorean legislature to pass the world’s first law granting the kinds of legal rights to forests and rivers that are ordinarily reserved for people. 

Still, the Shuar are vulnerable to development. In 2012, the government entered into a contract with Ecuacorriente S.A. in which the Chinese-owned mining company would invest $1.4 billion to build a copper and gold mine in the heart of Shuar territory. The move defied Ecuadorean law and international agreements on the rights of Indigenous people, according to the ­International Federation of Human Rights and the United Nations. Called the Mirador Mine, it’s the first large-scale mining operation in the country and will occupy some 22,000 acres of forest. Since construction began, the Shuar have staged numerous protests. There have been violent confrontations with police and military forces, and at least two anti-mining activists have been murdered

Eileen told me that her father earned the respect of the Shuar and that the tribe was instrumental in helping him gain access to the cave. “They were very welcoming,” she says. After three past trips to Tayos, she’s developed her own familial connection with Kuankus villagers, who dress in modern clothing but still mostly live off the land. When we first arrived, a middle-aged Shuar woman named Susana Wamputsar and her husband, Don Bosco Tiwiram, presented ­Eileen with handmade jewelry. 

After the ceremony giving us permission to enter the cave, we sit with the couple—along with one of their sons, Jaime, who will be our primary guide and translator—on a small wooden bench outside a thatch hut. As Susana speaks, Jaime translates her words into Spanish, then Eileen translates them into English so I can follow along. Susana, who was around 12 when Hall’s expedition came through the area, recalls the dramatic sight of the helicopters landing. She says the elders in her community wouldn’t dare go near the cave while the foreigners were there. According to folklore, the men left with “a thigh bone,” she says, as well as boxes of ceramics. She recounts another well-known story, about a time decades earlier when an Italian monk named Father Carlos Crespi left the cave with “tablets wrapped in newspaper.” 

After a few moments of silence, the shaman tells us that the spirit has allowed us inside what she calls “the womb of the earth.”

Ecuador banned expeditions to Tayos soon after Hall’s expedition, so that the Shuar could “come back to their place and just be with the cave,” Susana explains. It remained closed to foreigners until the Shuar began offering tours a decade ago. When I ask her what the Shuar believe is inside Tayos, she tells me that there is a tall stone that contains salt, as well as a “double spirit.” One is Nunkui, a female entity who protects and cultivates the plants of the area. The other is Weh, who makes healing salts. For centuries, the Shuar would descend into Tayos to retrieve Weh’s magic salts. But since others began traipsing through the cave, says Jaime, Weh has receded into the shadows. Now he believes Weh is ready to return. Earlier in the year, Jaime was in the cave with a group of tourists when he heard a loud noise coming from a high cranny of a cavern. “It sounded like footsteps,” he says. 

Jaime, who is intense and wiry, with thick black hair and bangs, flipped on his ­headlamp and, along with another guide, shimmied over fallen rocks toward the sound. At a narrow passageway, the footsteps grew louder and louder, spooking the other guide so much that he retreated, but Jaime crawled inside. He was alone when everything suddenly went silent. Then he looked down and saw a giant footprint.

“A footprint?” I ask, skeptical.

“I have a picture,” he replies, matter-of-factly. He swipes at his phone, then hands it to me. The photo indeed shows a fat, wide footprint in brown mud that, by my count, has seven toes. 

His account would feel like a hoax if Jaime wasn’t so stoic and his words weren’t so heartfelt. The Shuar consider dreams to be visions, and for weeks, Jaime says, he has been seeing Weh in his sleep. The spirit, appearing in the form of a Shuar man, told Jaime that he wants to return. 

Jaime says he also had been having dreams of Eileen coming back to Tayos, bringing others with her. Together with Jaime, they would sit deep inside the cave in total silence, and if they waited long enough, Weh would emerge. Turning to Eileen, Jaime tells her that, physically, she may live in London, but her true spirit is in Tayos. “I feel that you live in the cave,” he says.

Oh, and the group from his dreams who would conjure Weh with her? That would be us.

This just got real!

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