He Struck It Rich in Ecuador. Now He’s Looking for the Lost Cities of Gold

On the hunt with Keith Barron, an Indiana Jones who blends history with geology to dig up treasure in hostile terrain.
Illustrator: Sam Bosma

Keith Barron is deep inside a Vatican library, hunkered over a 17th century tome bound in Moroccan red leather. “The country is the richest in gold in all the Indies,” reads one passage. “The natives are cannibals and very warlike, and devastated the city of Logroño de los Caballeros, massacring the Spaniards and burning the churches.”

A geologist by training, amateur historian and professional gold hunter, Barron is on a mission. Ecuador’s two “lost cities of gold” exist only in legend and in fragments of old texts like this one, written by a Spanish priest traveling through the region a half century after the settlements were destroyed.

Spain eventually gave them up for lost after dispatching more than 30 failed expeditionary forces to reclaim them. Barron and a team of researchers have spent years sleuthing around the Vatican library, the immense General Archive of the Indies, in Seville, Spain, and in small churches and libraries scattered throughout Latin America. With the aid of colonial-era chronicles and maps, they’ve narrowed the search to the Cutucú mountains, a lush jungle range 230 miles south of Quito. Buried under a thick green carpet lie the ruins of Logroño and Sevilla del Oro, two of the Empire’s most prodigious 16th century mining towns where, according to accounts at the time, laborers using primitive tools managed to extract about 4,100 Troy ounces of gold in a single year. (A Troy ounce of the precious metal is worth $1,260 at today’s prices.)

A 16th century map showing the locations of cities of gold in Peru and Ecuador.
Illustration: Paul Gaudet

Barron, who still delights in dipping into the Jules Verne and Jack London books of his youth, certainly has a quixotic side. He is betting old-fashioned gumshoe techniques coupled with modern aerial surveys will lead him to tunnels, piles of rocks, musket bullets, horseshoes or even the bells that tolled when the cities were under attack from indigenous tribes. “If we find the cities, we find the gold,” he says.

That is, if you buy into Barron’s story—and plenty of people do. Barron has raised more than $5 million from some of the biggest names in mining, including Rob McEwen, founder of Goldcorp Inc., the world’s No. 3 gold producer. They’re backing Barron’s search through his publicly traded Toronto-based company, Aurania Resources Ltd., and their enthusiasm stems from his previous success finding a big Ecuadorean gold deposit.

Until recently, many in the industry viewed Ecuador as a backwater. Barron, a Canadian, has long held a different view, dating back to a friendship he struck up with Octavio Latorre, a history professor and map collector, on a trip to Quito to learn Spanish in 1998. That’s when Barron first learned of the existence of a colonial-era map from 1574 called the Peruviae Auriferae Regionis Typus, or “The Gold Regions of Peru.”

He purchased his own copy in 2012 for $15,000 (others reside at the New York Public Library and in private collections). The map shows the location of seven gold mining cities in Ecuador and Peru dating back to the Incas. Four of the cities exist today; a fifth, Nambija, was rediscovered in 1981 when a group of boys hunting wild boars stumbled across the ruins of a mine dug by the conquistadors. The original Logroño and Sevilla have never been located, though there are cities by that name in Ecuador. The map is far from precise. Like all maps of the era, it lacks longitude and latitude measurements, making it little more than a crude approximation.

Barron first struck Ecuadorean gold in 2006 when he discovered the Fruta del Norte deposit. Two years later, a newly elected leftist government put a freeze on mining exploration and restricted production. Barron says his company lost more than $700 million in market value in one day. Kinross Gold bought it later that year for $605 million, some of which went into founding Barron’s new company. Until the ban was lifted last year, Barron explored elsewhere. He owns a sapphire mine in the U.S., a uranium exploration project in Argentina and stakes in several other companies. But the archival research to locate the lost cities continued.

Keith Barron looks at a map of the Cutucú mountains in professor Octavio Latorre’s study at his house in Quito.
Photographer: Laura Millan

The task was slow-going, with investigators reading through 400-year-old texts—their pages so delicate they had to be handled with special tongs. “It was hard work,” says Carlos Latorre, Octavio’s son, whom Barron recruited. “Just turning one page was such a meticulous job.”

The team unearthed testimonies of Spaniards who had defended Sevilla and Logroño against attacks from the Shuar people. The jibaros, as the conquistadors called them, were infamous for decapitating their prisoners to make shrunken heads. The cities were destroyed several times.

Illustration: Sam Bosma

In 2010, Barron hired Jean Paul Pallier, a French geologist, famous among gold explorers for his discovery of the Camp Caiman deposit in French Guiana. He was brought on to the Lost Cities project to meld history and geology—producing approximations of the gold cities’ locations. Documents narrating colonial treks were particularly useful for their detailed descriptions of terrain and travel times between settlements by foot or horse, allowing Pallier to make rough calculations of distances. From there, he drew lines and circles on a map, narrowing the possibilities with each description. In the end, he says, “it all pointed to the Cutucú mountains.”

Barron wasted no time applying for an 803-square-mile concession (that’s almost the size of the state of Rhode Island) after the Ecuadorean government lifted its ban on new gold mines in 2016. “We had pinned down Sevilla and Logroño within a 10-mile radius,” Barron says. “I had kept very quiet for almost 10 years; I was terrified that someone would get there before us.”

In October, Barron allowed a Bloomberg reporter to tag along to the site. We’re looking up at the rolling range, which fronts the higher Andes and stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance, some 30 volcanic peaks loom, many still active, most rising over 13,000 feet above sea level. Lava and ash eruptions have turned the soil at their base black and fertile. To reach the jungle, we cross a high mountain pass by van. Four centuries ago, caravans of horse-drawn carts carried gold ingots from the heart of the Amazon jungle over this same pass to Quito and then to the nearest port. From there the gold was shipped to Panama, carried by mules from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast and loaded into a galleon bound for Havana before reaching its final destination in Spain.

Illustrator: Sam Bosma

We descend into the Amazon, arrive at a promising rocky outcropping and set out on foot into the jungle. “It’s the infierno verde, the green hell,” says Barron. “It stinks, and everything bites you and pricks you.” We meet up with one of Aurania’s four exploration teams already at work on the ground.

Clearing a path through the thick growth are a dozen locals, descendants of the Shuar who fought the invading Spaniards. The Shuar have told Pallier about demons living in caves in the mountains and the geologist thinks some of these caves could be the tunnels of the old Spanish mines. “They know the secrets of the jungle better than anyone,” Pallier, one of four geologists on the trip, says.

We hike for three hours over a steep, muddy and slippery trail. Rain is now pouring down. The path the Shuar have opened parallels a raging creek that’s swollen to more than double its usual size.

The Cutucú mountains are one of the few places in the world that remain unexplored by geologists. The process has barely changed through the years. Geologists follow each stream up to its source, collecting samples of sediment and rocks every few hundred meters that are later sent to laboratories which test for the presence of gold and other minerals. “If the results come back positive, we know the mineral comes from somewhere upstream,” Pallier says.

Wearing rubber boots and holding picks and machetes in their hands, the explorers move slowly through the mud. To cross the creek, the group goes waist-deep into the brown, turbulent current. The bottom is slippery as we take samples from the creek bed. The team notes the spot. The hike will continue upstream for about four hours, the team will then set up a camp and take more samples upriver for three days. Then they’ll move the camp and repeat the process. Supplies are usually sent in on horse, and later, as the crew moves deeper into jungle, they’re air-dropped from a helicopter or small plane.

“This is long, hard work,” says Bart Wilson, one of the geologists who’s worked with Barron for decades. “You’re wet and really uncomfortable all the time. You spend weeks on the geologist’s diet: rice with tuna—for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Later, we’re at Aurania’s local headquarters, a small residential house in the nearby town of Macas. We’re examining the rocks we’ve collected, labeled in bright orange and pink tape on a shelf in the backyard. A plastic tarp stretched overhead makes the space even hotter and more humid than its surroundings. Everyone is sweating as they examine rocks through their hand lenses.

Aurania’s concession in Ecuador’s Cutucú mountains seen from a helicopter surveying the area.
Photographer: Laura Millan

“Incredible rocks, just as in Fruta del Norte,” Barron says. “There’s a stupid amount of mineralized rock already. This is the best we could hope for.” Though the rocks look promising, only lab analysis can determine the potential for gold in the area. Yet Barron’s optimism seems warranted: Results from an aerial geophysics survey a few weeks later confirm the terrain has similar features to the Fruta del Norte deposit, some 55 miles to the south, the biggest untapped deposit in Ecuador. The survey also identified ten magnetic occurrences in one of the concession's more than 40 areas that could later become drilling targets.

Barron is moving ahead. He’s already doubled the number of teams out in the field to eight and intends to double that again within the next few months. Drilling could start within the next six months. The odds, he says, of finding a big strike are still about 1,000 to 1. Most of the time, “the amount of gold you find can fill the back of a pickup car and that’s all there is,” Barron says. “But if you’re finding little things, then there’s potential to find more things. Hopefully this is going to finish with a big, fat discovery.”

 

(Updates with details on field exploration and findings in 15th and 21st paragraphs. Corrects terms of company sale in eighth paragraph of a previous version.)