Hugh Thomson

British explorer Hugh Thomson is the closest it gets to a real Lost Cities explorer- he's spent years looking for them and what is more- finding them- with great success- read more:

Q: How did you get involved in jungle exploration, specifically looking for lost cities and ancient ruins?

Chance conversations are dangerous things.

In the summer of 1982 I was working for a West London pub landlord with an unsavoury reputation.  In his previous incarnations, Albert had been through several encounters with the law, and usually lost.  When he first arrived to take over the pub, the local residents had gone so far as to sign a petition against him.  I was working there was because it was one of the few jobs in London where I could earn cash-in-hand and supplement the dole while working out what to do in life.  I was twenty-one.

Albert ran a tough house.  He was not above hitting bar-staff if they didn’t live up to his high standards of immorality.  Drinks were regularly sold short – particularly Pimms, which could be served ready-mixed and was one of the few jobs of work Albert insisted on doing himself.  A big man, he would appear in the mornings wearing nothing but a voluminous pair of purple underpants, as he re-counted the takings from the previous night and swore at us before we opened. 

The pub sold a lot of Pimms:  it was in the sleazy shadow of Fulham where the criminals liked to pretend to be flash and the Sloanes pretended to be low-life.  They combined well and the evenings were riots of exchanged gambling information, Pimms, pool and vodka doubles.

But the mornings were quieter and I had a few regulars who slid in to begin their day’s work at half past eleven when we opened.  George was one of these and the begetter of the chance conversation.

A conversation which I started while drying the glasses behind the bar:  ‘I met a man who told me a good story.’  This got George’s concentration.  Stories were currency.  ‘There’s a ruin in the South American jungle that’s got lost again.  An Inca fortress.’ 

George was sober enough to spot the discrepancy.  ‘How can a ruin get lost again – either it’s been found or it hasn’t been.’ 

‘Not this one.  The jungle came back so fast it covered the ruin up after they discovered it – and now no one can find their way back.’

George reflected.  ‘Well I’m glad in a way,’ he laughed.  ‘I mean where would we fucking be if we’d found everything there was to find in life.’  George appreciated a good failure.

‘In fact I was thinking of trying to find it myself.’  This was loose talk, a way of keeping the conversation going, a joke.

But George took me seriously. ‘That’s one of the first ideas I’ve heard from you with any sense to it.   Given a choice between wasting your time serving old farts like me and getting lost in the South American jungle, I’d have thought the jungle was a far more constructive alternative.’

George was not the most reliable source of worldly advice.  He was an alcoholic who used our pub as a starting point so that later in the day when he hit the Colony in Soho he would already be at full stretch and ready to cross swords with Francis Bacon, Tom Baker and the other names he enjoyed dropping into our morning pre-match conversations.  But perhaps precisely because he lacked any real interest in my fate, it meant more from him than anybody else, and what had previously just been a febrile possibility started to harden into something I could conceivably make happen.

I had first heard the story from an extremely reliable source, indeed in the betting parlance of the pub, a cert.  John Hemming was a distinguished South American explorer who had gone down the Amazon and up the Andes in some style.  I had met him through a chance family connection and he had told me the story of a lost (or more properly mislaid) ruin, which was waiting to be re-found in the Peruvian Andes, close to Machu Picchu.

Not only was it a glamorous idea, it was, unlike most of those told in the pub, a true story.  Hemming was a celebrated explorer, but he also wore a suit in his capacity as Director of the Royal Geographical Society and had impeccable academic respectability.

For months, washing glasses or watching the world slide by from the top of a London bus on the way to and from the pub, I merely toyed with the thought of the ruin in much the same way as I had toyed with how to spend a pools win or make a fortune.  But that morning’s conversation with George stayed with me, through the endless days of arrogant customers and low pay, and it began to seem very attractive.  If the ruin had been found once, it could be found again.  I had nothing to lose.

So I went.

[the full account is in the book The White Rock]  


Q: What skills do you need for your way of exploring?

Speaking Spanish .  Having a  great and trusted team of muleteers.  Reading every available bit of source material.  Going back more than once.

I’d hope that my research measures up to academic standards.  They would soon tell me if it didn’t!   Savoy annoyed the academics in his later years by promoting diffusionism (the idea that ancient cultures like Egypt exported their knowledge across the Atlantic to the pre-Columbian civilizations) which I don’t agree with;  but reading some of Savoy’s early pieces, you can see a  subtlety of approach that academic archaeologists have often misinterpreted.  I once asked him about the difference between academics and non-specialist explorers and he told me:  ‘I see explorers as people with open minds who can scan many different sources for information, unconfined by an academic discipline, just like computers scan the internet.’  


Q:How many expeditions have you mounted and what smaller discoveries are you most proud of?

Over 25 years, a lot, including filming expeditions.  The smaller discovery I’m proud of is the complex around Pincha Unuyoc (or Espa Unuyoc) we first reported in 1982;  it lies on the Rio Blanco side of the Choquequirao massif and has just been restored to a magnificent amphitheatre of a site – a wonderful buzz to see it.  Nearby and overhead is a very small but perfectly formed site I investigated with Gary Ziegler called Huaca Mayo, ‘the river shrine’:  it’s portrayed in the banner over my website at  , and commands a fabulous view over the  Apurímac, Yanama and Blanco rivers.  That has not been restored and is still rarely visited.


Q:What areas of the South American jungle are most ripe for new discoveries do you think?

Well, still plenty to find in Eastern Peru and on its borders with modern Bolivia.  And as archaeological techniques develop we may discover more about the extensive pre-Columbian civilizations of the Amazon that built mainly in wood and so left fewer traces.


Q: What is, to you, the major significance of such a site as Llactapata?

We not only established that Llactapata (an Inca site near and facing Machu Picchu) was far more extensive and important than had at first been thought, but also that it included a previously unknown sun-temple and was positioned in such a way as to be aligned for the rising of the sun at the June Solstice:  in many ways it served as an astronomical observatory for Machu Picchu.

See both the press release at the time and  the full report on the expedition.


Q: Is there any false or misleading information on the net that you would like to correct regarding your discovery?

Most of the articles published by the scientific correspondents of newspapers like the Times, the Telegraph, the New York Times, LA Times and other reputable broadsheets were accurate, although the sub-editors inevitably played up the ‘Indiana Jones with machete’ line in the headlines.  

See reports by Daily Telegraph, Independent and Guardian, and  in the USA by the New York Times and LA Times.

I also wrote a personal account of the findings for the Daily Telegraph Magazine:

See Hugh Thomson’s article for Telegraph Magazine

There was a little malicious online sniping which suggested that we were claiming to have ‘discovered’ the site;  however, we were careful to stress that we had simply shown how much bigger it was than anybody had realised, and that it had a major astronomical function that again no one had realised.  This has now been accepted and after many years of neglect, the Peruvian authorities have now been clearing and restoring  the central sector, which I’m proud of.

Because it lies close to Machu Picchu it may also be integrated into the Machu Picchu Sanctuary area ;  at present it lies on private property.


Q: Anything else you want to add that seems pertinent?

For the Llactapata discovery we also made sure to publish a lengthy account of our investigations in Spanish in a full, illustrated 11,000 word lead article by the Revista Andina, (#39), the leading Andeanist academic magazine, which also published peer-reviews of the findings by specialists in this field, Tom Zuidema, Vincent Lee, Jürgen Golte and Peter Kaulicke.   All  too often in Peru and South America, an expedition’s report and analysis of a site are only  published in English language texts, so are not accessible to the host country.  (For a translation of the full Revista Andina article on the expedition in English)       

Indeed a general point I’d want to make is that it’s not enough simply to ‘discover’ something.  Interpreting that finding can take a long time, as can publishing your account.  I tried to make sure that we published across a wide array of media, from the newspapers and magazines above to a book I wrote for Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru), and to make as much as possible available online.


For pictures illustrating the above go to: