Extreme archaeologist never stops exploring

He’s uncovered Inca ruins deep within the tangled jungles of Peru; he’s scaled some of the most treacherous peaks in the Andes. He’s an author, a researcher and a pioneer of “extreme Archaeology.”

You might even call Colorado’s Gary Ziegler a real-life Indiana Jones. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“It’s probably an overused analogy,”  said Ziegler, in an e-mail. “I and several other aging, Andean explorers had been climbing jungle cliffs and dodging rolling stones long before Harrison Ford made it popular. Anyway, we all enjoy the image, even if a bit overrated.”

No, Ziegler and his associates have never stumbled upon a Crystal Skull or the Cross of Coronado. But they have explored plenty of lost cities.

The Choquequirao Trail

The Llama Wall at Choquequirao.

The archaeologist has spent decades pressing through the remote corners of the Andes, searching for  remnants of ancient Inca society. He’s investigated forgotten ruins like Choquequirao, which is larger than Machu Picchu, and has helped re-discover little-known Inca sites like Llactapta and Inca Corihuyrachina.

In 2002, he made international headlines by uncovering the ‘lost city’ of Cota Coca with fellow explorers Hugh Thomson and John Leivers. This crumbling collection of 30 buildings, located about 50 kilometres from Machu Picchu, was found in a “remarkable state of preservation.”

And after decades of adventuring, Ziegler isn’t slowing down. There’s still too much out there to be explored, he says.

S&TT: You’re a world-renowned authority on the Inca and Machu Picchu, but you’ve also led teams that have re-discovered lesser-known archaeological sites. Is there one particular discovery that you’re most proud of?

Gary Ziegler: Each exploration has been exciting, different, challenging and rewarding. Perhaps the most rewarding was uncovering a hidden, enigmatic complex of buildings and walls that our team (with Hugh Thomson and John Leivers) found in the remote depth of the Yanama River canyon.

The site, which we named Cota Coca from an early historical reference to the region, was lost when the nearby royal estate and administrative center, Choquequirao, was abandoned by the last Inca holdouts, probably in 1572.

Cota Coca

Gary Zielger and other explorers at Cota Coca.

We had never located the Inca road to Choquequirao . . .with the study of Cota Coca, we finally solved the mystery.

Finding Cota Coca in a truly unexplored and remote canyon was a great and rewarding adventure. We later came to describe these explorations as “extreme archaeology.”

I understand that part of the way you fund expeditions is through ‘archeo tourism’, which involves taking adventure-seeking travellers with you on your trips. Who are your usual tourism clients?

We travel as comfortably as possible with saddle horses where we can use them, plus dining, cook tents, a good support staff and a large string of pack mules to carry camp and personal gear. We pay top wages to our Quechua helpers. This makes our projects necessarily a bit pricey for the young backpacking crowd. Participants generally are older, some retired but all adventurous.

Last year, I escorted a small group of scientists from NASA to Choquequirao who were interested in Inca astronomy. All share in the research, data collecting and daily evening discussion about what we have observed as we attempt to unravel the Inca’s secrets.

What do you think the future holds for adventure tourism in ancient Peru? As places like Choquequirao become better known, will that be good or bad for the preservation of these amazing places?


Pisac ruins in Peru.

Tourism will become less adventurous as more roads and lodges are built along the old Inca pathways. However, there will always remain places like Choquequirao that are distant from the hotels of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. I believe Choquequirao and similar archaeological sites in rugged terrain will never be overrun or over-developed.

Machu Picchu is overrun because accessibility is made easy by the railroad offering comfortable one-day travel from Cusco. Choquequirao and other lesser-known sites are unlikely to suffer the Disneyland degradation and exploitation of Machu Picchu. The more accessible trek routes will become fewer but some remote ones will remain.

There will always be something for the adventurous traveler to explore away from the madness of Machu Picchu and the bright lights of Cusco.


Ziegler, who operates Adventure Specialists from his ranch in Colorado, hopes to soon return to several ancient sites in Peru to research them in more detail. These spots include a collection of undocumented Chachapoyan ruins in the north-central region of the country.

In the meantime, Ziegler is co-writing a book with University of Colorado archeoastronomer Kim Malville. Machu Picchu’s Sacred Sisters: Choquequirao and Llactapata will detail more than 40 years of “extreme archaeological exploring” in the remote Andes. It’s expected to be out in both print and ebook by the fall of 2013.

Have you visited any ancient ruins in Peru other than Machu Picchu? Share your story in the comments below.



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About the author

Dustin Walker

Dustin Walker is a journalist, travel copywriter and editor/owner of Slick and Twisted Trails. Follow him on Twitter @dustinjaywalker


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