December 2016 ISSUE


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We All Search For Something
Never mind that he’s 77 – the explorer inside Gene Savoy keeps him looking for long-lost horizons. Gene Savoy has a unique understanding of personal limitation. The internationally celebrated and controversial American explorer who is frequently cited as being the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones knows what it’s like to be betrayed.
“Sometimes we have more confidence in our body than we should. I’ve learned about human weakness, about the limitations of the body,” he says. “My strengths lie in my determination to learn and to know what motivates me, to learn more about myself. My weaknesses? Well, lack of physical strength.”

The human spirit, of course, is another matter entirely, and Savoy’s spirit, fierce and vivid as his blue eyes, is the driving force behind a lifetime of historically and culturally
significant discoveries, most of them in the unforgiving Peruvian jungles of the eastern Andes and the Amazon.

His theories, which run counter to conventional belief, led to the discovery in 1964-65 of Vilicabamba, the Inca’s last point of refuge from the Spanish.

A year later, he discovered Gran Pajaten, generally thought of as one of the most significant of the pre-Columbian ruins. Two decades after that, he found Gran Vilaya, a stunning ancient settlement with more than 24,000 stone structures spread over 100 miles.

There were other discoveries in the intervening years between 1965 and 1985; approximately 40 of them were pre-Colombian sites, including the Twelve Cities of the Condors.

Even the most intrepid explorer, however, starts off small.

“I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, exploring as a Sea Scout and a Boy Scout. I was a young explorer and learned how to sail the Lake of the Woods on a small catboat. In Oregon, I was a member of the Oregon Archaeological Society. I was always fascinated by history, especially that of the American Indians. I became familiar with their remains along the Columbia River Gorge and this fueled my interest in exploration, in history and in the cultures of ancient peoples,” says Savoy, whose natural curiosity led him to a career in journalism.

He went to South America and began working for the Peruvian Times, writing about cultural issues. His talent for writing has served him well — Savoy is the author of several books, which tell the exciting tales of his many adventures (most of them are available on

“As I came to write articles about the ancient Peruvian cultures, I became more and more interested in exploration, the pre-history of Peru and in studying the ancient sites. The wild country of the Pacific Northwest and talking to the indigenous peoples there inspired me to be an explorer, but Peru is where the spark was really lit.”

Exploration and all it entails means different things to different people. For Savoy, it’s the quest to know and see what’s on the other side of the mountain, to find the unknown, to contribute to knowledge of the ancient past. He likes to fill in the missing pieces.

“The more we learn, the more we discover about our past,” he says.

The scientific community, while delighted by discovery, is reluctant to draw conclusions and generally remains skeptical about some of the self-taught Savoy’s theories. That’s okay. Savoy, under the auspices of the Andean Explorers Foundation & Ocean Sailing Club, an organization he founded in Peru in 1957, intends to keep looking.

“An explorer seeks the unknown to find new evidence while the scientists determine what that new knowledge means scientifically, according to the rules. The explorer can seek and find, but it remains to be determined if what he finds has meaning. I would say you have to work with other experts, other specialists. Explorers are experts at finding — even that is specialized.”

In 1969, Savoy, using ancient design concepts, built a totora-reed raft called the Kuviqu or Feathered Serpent 1, which he captained for more than 2,000 miles on the ocean from Peru to Mesoamerica. In Savoy’s view, the successful expedition lent credence to his idea that ancient Peruvians and Mexicans likely communicated with one another.

It was the first of several challenging sea voyages. From 1977 to 1982, he sailed from the U.S. to the Caribbean, Central and South America and Hawaii, investigating possible sea routes used by ancient civilizations to navigate between the Orient and the Americas.

“Were the ancient cultures in Peru indigenous or did they come from some other place? There remains a great-unanswered question about whether peoples originated out of the jungles. I believe they came out of the rainforest in ancient times and that they were familiar with the jungles. Generally speaking, specialists of pre-Columbian studies didn’t believe they occupied the rain forest in force. My research proved to the contrary. Just because you get criticized you don’t stop. The explorer keeps looking. In my case, it’s for ruins. You keep looking for new evidence,” says Savoy.

In 1997, Savoy launched an ambitious project, the Grand Ophir Sea Expedition, designed to illustrate his theory that the ancients traveled the world in ships similar to the Feathered Serpent 111, a hand-hewn mahogany catamaran secured by rope.

With a crew of six men, Savoy sailed from Callao, Peru to Kona, Hawaii, using only the stars to guide him, accompanied by the reassuring presence of dolphins and birds that swam alongside the boat. Wet, cramped, and miserable, the men encountered a hurricane on the 17th day. The boat listed at a 45-degree angle, battered by 50-knot winds and 40-foot waves. The storm finally abated and the voyage continued, but victory was short-lived.

In August 1998, the ship set sail from Hawaii to Australia. After two weeks, the crew encountered another vicious storm and had to abandon their 0,000-ship, which was completely destroyed by the enormous waves generated by hurricane winds.

The men, some huddled in a tiny life raft, others bobbing alongside in shark-infested waters, were rescued by the Coast Guard.

Even for Savoy, who has successfully battled poisonous snakes, terrorists, tribal Indians and suffered the loss of a son in an avalanche in Peru in 1962, it was a terrible experience.

“Going to sea in a primitive craft without adequate facilities is something I wouldn’t keep doing unless I had a reason for doing it. But you keep driving. You don’t stop because of your fears. You overcome them. The problem is you don’t want to expose a crew to unnecessary dangers. You fear the loss of your men more than your own life. The consideration is the safety of your own crew.”

Undaunted, Savoy continued to explore, and at the age of 73, machete in hand, chopping through the impenetrable mosquito-and-snake-ridden forest of eastern Peru, he made what some consider to be his most important discovery – a 15-square-mile, pre-Incan settlement that might be the legendary Chachapoya city of Cajamarquilla.

Using handwritten maps, old documents and relying on information from local residents to guide him through centuries of jungle vegetation, he found a hidden city that he named Gran Saposa.

“You set goals and you set out to seek these goals. But you need a methodology. You build on the work of previous people, on what’s gone before. Collaboration with others is key,” says Savoy, who speculates that Gran Saposa may be part of the fabled remains of El Dorado, thought to be filled with gold and zealously sought after by the Spanish.

Being an explorer is fraught with peril — there are exhilarating highs and devastating lows, but mostly there is a grinding persistence that comes at a price.

“The wear and tear on the physical body. Disease. Strain on the heart. Altitude. Environment conditions. These were the worst things. The finest things are the satisfaction of achievement and accomplishment in finding what I was looking for, demonstrating that the ancients occupied the rain forest in strength in a civilized manner. That they could survive in the jungle is impressive.”

And then there’s the fear.

“Many times I was afraid on the mountains, climbing as my strength gave out. Or when I had my snake bite. I found out the limitations of the human body real quick. I managed my fear by driving ahead, never stopping. Looking for an opportunity. If you keep looking, you’ll find an answer.”

Savoy is amused by the inevitable comparisons to Indiana Jones, flattered even. Like Jones, Savoy is a romantic character and although he never confronted a problem like the Temple of Doom, he’s met up with a whole lot of reality.

In the end, when the mists enveloping the mountains of the Peruvian rainforest clear, there are walls, towers, stone temples and primitive roads, all part of a city that stands as a stark monument to enduring belief and personal vision.

“What I’ve achieved as an explorer cannot be taken away. The cities are there. The facts are there. I’ll stand on my work, on what I’ve achieved. Nothing else. The quest was the driving force,” says Savoy.

“My regret is that I wasn’t stronger, that I didn’t have more time. Time is the enemy.”

Before attempting any exercise or diet modification, always consult a fitness or medical professional.
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