The most mysterious cave in the world is elusive.
To reach Cueva de Los Tayos, the cave of the oil birds, drive east of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, for eight hours on narrow, bumpy roads winding through the overcast forest above the Amazon Basin. Stop outside the small town of Mendez and walk along a path to the banks of the muddy Santiago River, where you’ll see locals carrying 150-pound banana skirts on their shoulders. Descend in a long wooden canoe and slip past the waterfalls to the beginning of the dirt trail. Hike five hours in the wet, over Mount Puntilla de Coangos, then to the top of Bocana de Coangos. The trail ends in a clearing with three thatched huts, home to a dozen Shuar, an ancient tribe that guards the cave.
The Shuars are the indigenous peoples of the region, legendary warriors known for shamanism and clutching the heads of their enemies. Tayos attracts from within a territory that is managed and protected by the tribe, and visitors must be very careful when navigating through local politics and customs. Theo Tulkaridis, a professor of geology and researcher at the University of the Armed Forces in Ecuador, who is a leading expert on Tayos, learned this in 2014. A few days later, while exploring the cave, he came out to find 20 angry shuars waiting for him. The Toulkaridis hired local guides, but the other Shuar were upset because they weren’t hired as well. “My guide hugged me tightly and whispered:” Don’t resist, Toulkeridis. Then the shuar woman whipped him with her belt.
Tayos is named after the brown-feathered, hooked-beaked nocturnal birds that live in the cave alongside thousands of bats. Birds act just like bats, spending their days in the dark and going out at night for fruit. They are called oilbirds because of their fat chickens, which the Shuars catch and turn into oil. The cave is also rumored to contain artifacts of a lost civilization. A 1972 best-selling book by Swiss author Erich von Deniken called The Gold of the Gods claimed that Tayos had carved passageways and a “metal library” of tablets written in an unknown language.
Von Deniken has long believed that extraterrestrials once inhabited the Earth, and the tablets fit his theory that extraterrestrials helped ancient peoples develop. This concept has been criticized as pseudoscientific and racist, attributing the achievements of now-marginalized earthlings to space intruders. However, it has spawned a craft industry of books, conventions, and television shows, including the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2010 and is one of the network’s most popular shows.
A couple of years after the Gold of the Gods was published, the late Scottish explorer Stan Hall assembled a team of 100 scientists, cavers, British and Ecuadorian military personnel, and in particular astronaut Neil Armstrong, who served as a face mask, and took them to Tayos to solve the mystery. What they found amazed them. In the background, in places where it would be impossible to drag equipment, there were stone passageways that seemed to have been carved at right angles and then polished. They also discovered a burial site dating back to 1500 BC.
“The corpse, as if struck by a sudden invasion after so many lonely centuries, crumbled to dust when it touched it,” Hall writes in Tayos Gold, his book about the expedition. Although the team didn’t find the metal library, Armstrong put the adventure ” out there with the Moon landing.””
In addition, only a small number of intrepid tourists, open-eyed UFO believers, and even a team of researchers at Brigham Young University who thought the metal tablets might be linked to the Mormon faith made it inside. The cave has also attracted the interest of geologists and archaeologists, who have mapped parts using 3D technology to better understand its scale. (About four miles of the cave have been mapped so far, but an estimated three miles remain.) Tulkaridis calls it ” a natural laboratory that is fundamentally intact.”
To get to Tayos, you need more than the permission of the Shuars. You also need a blessing from the cave itself. I recognized this afternoon a starry night in August 2019 in Quancus, a small settlement of Shuar that is about a mile uphill from Tayos. Getting here was a brutal ten-hour job in the sweltering heat. The trek involved crossing a rickety rope bridge high above the rapids and walking through mud through a dense jungle filled with giant black bullet ants, so named because biting one is like being shot. The plan is to stay in Quancus at night and then enter the cave with our Shuar guides the next morning.
I’m here with a small team led by Eileen Hall, the half-Scottish and half-Ecuadorian daughter of 34-year-old Stan Hall, who continued her father’s quest to understand the true history and power of the cave after she died of prostate cancer in 2008. Eileen, who lives in London, is an artistic and spiritual, former architect who now does what she calls energy healing work with private clients. Along with another architect, Tamsin Cunningham, she is also the co-founder of Tayos, a company that explores the cave through writing, music, and meditation. Today, with her long brown hair in a ponytail, she is wearing a black Ecuadorian shirt, long gray hiking pants, and blue rubber boots covered in mud. This is his fourth expedition to the cave. When I ask her what I should expect, she tells me that Tayos is “a psychedelic experience.”
After drinking from a wooden bowl of Chichi, a lime-based alcoholic drink made from fermented cassava (made by women who chew it and then spit it into the bowl), we met Shuar around a campfire. The shaman, a burly middle-aged woman with long dark hair, leads us through the permission ceremony. We hold hands, and in Spanish she thanks the stars, the moon, the earth. She pulls a burning log out of the fire, waving her smoke behind each of us in blessing. Finally, we take turns asking permission from Arutam, the all-powerful force in the Shuar religion, to enter Tayos. After a few minutes of silence, the shaman tells us that the spirit has allowed us into what she calls ” the womb of the earth.”