For nearly half a century, legends of a giant cave in the Andes—holding artifacts that could rewrite human history—have beckoned adventurers and tantalized fans of the occult. Now the daughter of a legendary explorer is on a new kind of quest: to tell the truth about the cave in order to save it.
The world’s most mysterious cave is difficult to reach.
To get to Cueva de los Tayos—Cave of the Oilbirds—drive east out of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito for eight hours along narrow, potholed roads that twist through cloudforest above the Amazon Basin. Pull over outside the small town of Mendez, and walk a path to the bank of the muddy Santiago River, where you’ll see locals hauling 150-pound bushels of bananas on their shoulders. Lower yourself into a long wooden canoe and glide past cascading waterfalls to the start of a dirt trail. Hike five hours in the humidity, over Puntilla de Coangos mountain, then up to the summit of Bocana de Coangos. The trail ends at a clearing with three thatch huts, home to a dozen Shuar, the ancient tribe that guards the cave.
The Shuar are the Indigenous people of the region, legendary warriors known for shamanism and for shrinking the heads of their enemies. Tayos beckons from deep inside territory that is managed and protected by the tribe, and visitors must take great care when navigating the local politics and customs. Theo Toulkaridis, a geology professor and researcher at the University of the Armed Forces in Ecuador, who is a leading expert on Tayos, learned this the hard way in 2014. After a few days exploring the cave, he climbed out to find 20 angry Shuar waiting for him. Toulkaridis had hired local guides, but other Shuar were upset that they had not been hired as well. “My guide hugged me close and whispered, ‘Don’t resist,’” Toulkaridis recalls. Then a Shuar woman whipped him with a belt.
Tayos is named for the brown-feathered, hook-billed nocturnal birds that dwell inside the cave alongside thousands of bats. The birds act a lot like bats, spending their days in darkness and heading out at night to forage for fruit. They’re called oilbirds because of their fatty chicks, which the Shuar capture and reduce to oil. The cave is also rumored to contain artifacts of a lost civilization. A 1972 bestselling book by Swiss author Erich von Däniken, called The Gold of the Gods, claimed that Tayos held carved passageways and a “metal library” of tablets written in an unknown language. Von Däniken has long believed that aliens once inhabited the earth, and the tablets fit his theory that extraterrestrials helped ancient people evolve. The notion has been criticized as pseudoscientific and racist, attributing the achievements of now marginalized earthlings to interlopers from space. Yet it spawned a cottage industry of books, conventions, and TV shows, including the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2010 and is one of the network’s most popular programs.
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 Ecuadorean military personnel, and, remarkably, astronaut Neil Armstrong, who served as a figurehead, and led them into Tayos to unravel the mystery. What they found astonished them. Deep inside, in spots where it would have been impossible to lug machinery, there were stone passageways that appeared to have been cut at right angles and then polished. They also discovered a burial site dating back to 1500 B.C.
“The cadaver, as if surprised by the sudden intrusion after so many lonely centuries, crumbled to dust when touched,” Hall writes in Tayos Gold, his book about the expedition. Though the team didn’t find the metal library, Armstrong put the adventure “up there with the moon landing.”
Beyond that, only a small number of intrepid hikers, wide-eyed UFO believers, and even a team of researchers from Brigham Young University—who believed that the metal tablets might be linked to the Mormon faith—have made it inside. The cave has also attracted interest from geologists and archaeologists, who have mapped portions using 3D technology to better understand its scope. (Roughly four miles of the cave have been mapped so far, but an estimated three miles remain.) Toulkaridis calls it “a natural laboratory which is fundamentally untouched.”
To enter Tayos, you need more than the permission of the Shuar. You also need a blessing from the cave itself. I learn this late one starry night in August of 2019, in Kuankus, the tiny Shuar settlement, which is located about one mile uphill from Tayos. Getting here has been a brutal ten-hour slog in sweltering heat. The trek included crossing a rickety rope bridge high above the rapids and trudging in mud through thick jungle loaded with giant black bullet ants, so named because being bit by one feels like being shot. The plan is to stay in Kuankus for the night, then enter the cave with our Shuar guides the next morning.
I’m here with a small team led by Eileen Hall, Stan Hall’s 34-year-old half-Scottish, half-Ecuadoran daughter, who continued her father’s quest to understand the true history and power of the cave after he died of prostate cancer in 2008. Eileen, who lives in London, is artistic and spiritual, a former architect who now conducts what she calls energy-healing work with private clients. Along with another architect, Tamsin Cunningham, she is also a cofounder of Tayos, a company that explores the cave through writing, music, and meditation. Today, with her long brown hair in a ponytail, she’s dressed in a black Ecuadorean shirt, long gray hiking pants, and blue rubber boots caked in mud. This is her fourth expedition to the cave. When I ask her what I should expect, she tells me that Tayos is “a psychedelic experience.”
After sipping from a wooden bowl of chicha, a chalky, alcoholic drink made from fermented yuca (prepared by women who chew it and then spit into the bowl), we gather with the Shuar around a campfire. A shaman—a stout, middle-aged woman with long, dark hair—leads us through the permission ceremony. We hold hands while in Spanish she thanks the stars, the moon, the earth. She removes a smoldering log from the fire, waving its smoke behind each of us in a blessing. Finally, we take turns asking for permission from Arutam, the all-powerful force in the Shuar religion, to enter Tayos. 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.”
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!