The Lost City of the Monkey God Page 2

I snuck a glance at my compatriots: The convivial atmosphere of the group earlier in the day, beers in hand around the hotel pool, had evaporated.

Next came a lecture on the disease-bearing insects we might encounter, including mosquitoes** and sand flies, chiggers, ticks, kissing bugs (so called because they like to bite your face), scorpions, and bullet ants, whose bite equals the pain of being shot with a bullet. Perhaps the ghastliest disease endemic to Mosquitia is mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, sometimes called white leprosy, caused by the bite of an infected sand fly. The Leishmania parasite migrates to the mucous membranes of the victim’s nose and lips and eats them away, eventually creating a giant weeping sore where the face used to be. He emphasized that it was important to apply DEET from head to toe on a regular basis, spray our clothing with it, and thoroughly cover up after dusk.

We heard about scorpions and spiders climbing into our boots at night, which we were to store upside down on stakes driven into the ground and shake out every morning. He spoke of vicious red ants that swarmed in the understory, and which, at the slightest tremble of a branch, would shower down like rain, getting into our hair, going down our necks, and biting like mad, injecting a toxin that would require an immediate evacuation. Look carefully, he warned, before placing your hand on any branch, stem, or tree trunk. Don’t push willy-nilly through dense vegetation. In addition to hiding insects and tree-climbing snakes, many plants sport thorns and spikes that can draw blood. We should wear gloves while in the jungle, preferably the scuba kind, which do a better job preventing the entry of spines. He warned us how easy it was to get lost in the jungle, often a matter of wandering a mere ten or fifteen feet from the group. Under no circumstances would anyone, ever, be allowed to leave camp on his or her own or detach from the group while in the bush. On every trip we took from the base camp, he said, we would be required to carry a backpack with a kit of emergency supplies—food, water, clothing, DEET, flashlight, knife, matches, rain gear—under the assumption that we would get lost and be forced to spend the night sheltering under some dripping log. We were issued whistles, and as soon as we thought we might be lost, we were to stop, blow a distress signal, and wait to be fetched.

I paid attention. I really did. From the safety of the conference room it seemed clear that Woody was simply trying to scare us into line, offering an excess of caution for those expedition members inexperienced in wilderness conditions. I was one of only three people in the room who had actually flown over Target One, the exceedingly remote valley we were headed into. From the air it looked like a sun-dappled tropical paradise, not the dangerous, dank, disease-and snake-infested jungle Woody was picturing. We would be fine.


I can tell you only that it is somewhere in the Americas.

I first heard the legend of the White City in 1996, when I was on assignment from National Geographic to write a story about the ancient temples of Cambodia. NASA had recently flown a DC-10 carrying an advanced radar system over various jungle areas of the world, to determine if the radar could penetrate the foliage to reveal what lay hidden beneath. The results were analyzed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, by a team of experts in remote sensing—that is, analyzing images of the earth taken from space. After crunching the data, the team found the ruins of a previously unknown, twelfth-century temple hidden in the Cambodian jungle. I met with the team’s leader, Ron Blom, to find out more.

Blom was not your stereotypical scientist: He was bearded, rugged, and fit, with aviator glasses and an Indiana Jones hat. He had gained international fame for discovering the lost city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert. When I asked Blom what other projects he was working on, he rattled off a number of missions: mapping the frankincense trade routes across the Arabian Desert, tracking the old Silk Road, and mapping Civil War sites in Virginia. He explained that by combining digitized images in different wavelengths of infrared light and radar, and then “beating up on the data” with computers, they were now able to see fifteen feet beneath desert sands, peer through jungle canopies, and even cancel out modern tracks and roads, revealing ancient trails.

Ancient trails were interesting, but I was particularly enthralled by the idea that this technology might be able to discover other lost cities like Ubar. When I asked him about that, Blom suddenly became evasive. “Let me just say we are looking at other sites.”

Scientists are terrible at deception: I knew immediately he was covering up something big. I pressed further, and finally he admitted that it “could be a very major site, but I can’t talk about it. I’m working for a private party. I’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement. It’s based on legends of a lost city. I can tell you only that it’s somewhere in the Americas. The legends suggested a general area, and we’re using satellite data to locate targets.”

“Have you found it?”

“I can’t say more than that.”

“Who are you working with?”

“I can’t reveal that information.”

Blom agreed to pass on my interest to his mysterious employer and ask him or her to call me. He couldn’t promise that the person would be in touch.

Inflamed with curiosity about the possible identity of this “lost city,” I called up several Central American archaeologists I knew, who offered their own speculations. David Stuart, then assistant director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and one of those who contributed to the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, told me: “I know that area pretty well. Some of it is almost unexplored by archaeologists. Local people were always telling me about sites they’d see while hunting out in the forest—big ruins with sculptures. Most of these stories are true; these people have no reason to lie.” In Mayan texts themselves, he added, there are also tantalizing references to major cities and temples that are not correlated with any known sites. It is one of the last areas on earth where an actual pre-Columbian city could be hidden, untouched for centuries.

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