Nobody believed Gaspar de Carvajal. Carvajal was a Dominican missionary, sent to the New World by his Spanish peers. He ended up in Quito, Peru, under the governance of the conqueror Gonzalo Pizarro. Pizarro invited Carvajal along in his search for La Canela, a mythical land of spices to the east of Quito. In 1541, the men marched bodily across the Andes and plunged into the Amazon basin.
No wealth of spices waited for them. Instead the vast expanse of the Amazon jungle spread out before them. The terrain proved difficult, hostile, and treacherous and, in a drastic effort to secure needed supplies, Pizarro ordered his second in command, an imposing sharp-cheeked man named Francisco de Orellana, to take a boat down the Napo River. Carvajal, along with fifty other men, were to accompany Orellana on this scouting trip.
But Orellana never returned to Pizarro. The currents proved too strong, the boat too clumsy, and the entire expedition was swept down river on what ended up being the first cross-continental exploration of the Amazon ever. Three men ventured out to find Pizarro, who had in the meantime taken his few remaining survivors and returned to Quito. The journey would take more than two years. In the meantime Carvajal recorded everything he saw.
Strange plants and stranger creatures. Gluts of food and the haunting presence of predatory animals. Warrior women, who’s Spanish-given moniker of ‘amazons’ would come to name the region. Walled cities, their tops rising out of the distant trees, just out of reach. Highways of carved stone, sixty feet wide, winding their way through the jungle.
Eventually the expedition finished their trek, meeting the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Amazon. The survivors, and their stories, returned to civilization. Of course, few believed the accounts.
We do now know that Carvajal was telling the truth. Archaeological evidence shows that the Amazon, rather than being the dark heart of an uncivilized continent, may have supported as many as twenty million people in a vast network of city-states. The remains of roads and planned developments have been discovered, although the political power behind these cities seems to have disappeared sometime shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, for uncertain reasons. It was likely the result of untenable agriculture.
Either way, the dream of an accidental expedition, navigating their way down a river to an uncertain salvation is such a Conrad-esque idea that one cannot help but imagine oneself there, alongside Carvajal, staring into the jungle.
Wondering what was staring back.