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Stefan Ansermet was deep in Ecuador’s tangled southeastern jungles, a hard two-day hike from the nearest village, when he stumbled into a clearing. The change in vegetation was so subtle that everyone else on his team tromped straight through, unaware, but Ansermet was intrigued.
Over the next four days in mid-November, Ansermet, a geologist and explorer, kept returning to the remote area, finding clues that confirmed his suspicions: The narrow clearing stretched a mile and a half and had been carved into the side of the mountain at points. There was a large, chiseled stone embedded in the trail.
“It took me a day to digest all the information and realize that this is not normal,” Ansermet said from his home in Lausanne, Switzerland. “It goes perfectly north-south and has been engineered for sure. In some places it’s absolutely straight for more than 100 meters. It’s a wonderful masterpiece of road engineering.”
But it’s where this road in the middle of nowhere might lead that has Ansermet and his colleagues excited.
For more than two decades, Ansermet’s boss, Keith Barron, has been searching for two Spanish conquest-era gold mines lost in Ecuador’s forests.
The two mines, Logroño de los Caballeros and Sevilla de Oro, were established around 1562 and abandoned 40 years later after a smallpox epidemic killed the indigenous workforce and the Spaniards came under prolonged attack from local tribes. At one point the conquistadors who owned the mine appealed to the Spanish crown to send African slaves to keep the enterprises alive, but by that point the empire was bankrupt.
As the jungle reclaimed the area, the mines themselves were lost to history — last pinpointed on maps in about 1650.
Barron’s obsession with the South American mines began almost by chance.
A longtime exploration geologist from Toronto, Barron was studying Spanish in Quito, Ecuador, in 1998 and was being hosted by the family of a local historian, Octavio Latorre. Over dinner one evening, Latorre told his guest that there had been seven Spanish-era gold mines in Ecuador. One was never lost, four of them had been “rediscovered,” but two remained missing.
Latorre — an expert on colonial-era maps of the Amazon who died in 2017 — had been contracted by Ecuador’s government to pore over historical documents and find clues to the missing mines.
The government had good reason to locate them before others did. The last “rediscovery” of a Spanish-era mine had been a disaster.
In 1981, two boys hunting in southern Ecuador stumbled on the vestiges of the Nambija mine that had been “lost” in 1603. As word spread, the area was quickly overrun by more than 25,000 wildcat miners, sparking a humanitarian and environmental crisis. In 1993, a portion of the illegal mining camp collapsed during an earthquake, killing about 300 people.
By the time Barron met Latorre, the government had called off the search for Logroño de los Caballeros and Sevilla de Oro. But the story inspired Barron to start a gold company in 2001 and begin looking for the lost camps.
Good fortune, however, got in the way of his quest. In 2006, Barron’s company, Aurelian Resources, discovered a massive gold deposit in southeastern Ecuador called Fruta del Norte. The find was significant enough that Canadian mining giant Kinross Gold acquired the company in 2008 for $1.2 billion Canadian dollars, or about $1 billion.
It was only after that sale that Barron began thinking about his next project and reconnected with his old friend Latorre. Over the ensuing years, Barron, Latorre and a team of archivists began a global search for documents that took them to Peru, Spain and Italy hunting for mentions of the mines.
On one trip to the Vatican, the men found a letter from 1628 written by a Carmelite priest who had lived in the New World for two decades and who provided a detailed description on how to get to Sevilla de Oro from the colonial town of Riobamba.
Using that letter as a road map, along with extensive geological research, Barron’s new company, Aurania Resources, applied for a mining concession in 2016 covering 208,000 hectares of land (about 514,000 acres) in southeastern Ecuador.
“We have been exploring the area for about three years now and we have found things on it that the conquistadors could have never dreamed of,” Barron said in a telephone interview. “We’ve found 20 interesting areas for gold and silver, and a number of porphyry copper deposits. … We have to work through those targets and see what we have.”
Road to Lost Riches?
What they haven’t found are the gold mines themselves.
But that may have changed in November when Ansermet was tromping through the jungle looking for a place to carve out a helipad and stumbled on what appeared to be an old Spanish trail.
Ansermet, 55, spent days trying to follow the path. One side ended at a river; the other was blocked by a landslide.
But Ansermet and Barron believe the trail once connected the two mines.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s not connecting any local communities, it goes north-south, which corresponds to the relative positions of Caballeros and Sevilla de Oro,” Ansermet said, “and then there are all the other clues: blocks of rock and the engineering of the road.
“I think we really found the road — that’s my opinion,” he added. “If it’s not the road, then we’re talking about a new civilization.”
In late November, in a conference call with investors, Barron announced the discovery.
“This is not a tale of treasure island, this is something very real — people lived and died there and lots and lots of gold was produced,” he said. “It’s still back in the forest somewhere to be found and now we are very much hot on the trail.”
The announcement sent Aurania share prices on the Toronto Stock Exchange (ARU.V) shooting up more than 40 percent, although they have since settled.
Working with archaeologists, the company has started a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipment survey of the areas at the ends of the road.
It’s too soon to tell if the trail truly is a path to lost gold and riches or simply another twist in Barron’s long quest for the lost cities.
“The road might just peter out and we find that there’s nothing at either end,” he said. Or the mines might lay outside the boundaries of Aurania’s concession. “But we embarked on this journey for a reason.”
While Barron refers to the two mines as the company’s Lost Cities project, the sites were never more than crude camps.
“These were never cities, they were gold settlements, probably a maximum of 20 to 30 Spaniards living behind wooden palisades, and a number of indigenous people who remained to work the mines,” he said. “We are not going to find any buildings or anything of archaeological significance. We might find a trench or a rock dump.”
Ansermet, a self-taught geologist, has discovered 10 new mineral “species,” including the eponymous Ansermetite, a red crystal found in Utah, Italy and Switzerland that was accepted as a new mineral in 2002.
Growing up in Switzerland reading tales about South American explorers, Ansermet said that if he played a role — even an accidental one — in finding two lost cities, it would be the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition.
“What we’ve already accomplished is a sufficient dream for me,” he said. “But to maybe have found the remains of the last two cities — of El Dorados — for me it’s incredible.”