The Ocucaje Desert holds some of the most important fossils in the world—and Roberto Cabrera is standing guard
I am investigating the skull of a huge toothy beast on the rocky slope of a dun mountain when I hear Roberto cry out. I look over to see him doing a shuffle in the dust, tan arms held above his head—the lone spot of motion on the mountain’s stony face. He gathers us around so we can see what he has found: the fossilized tooth of a megalodon shark, one of the most fearsome killers in the planet’s history. The tooth is a six-inch dagger, gleaming white.
It’s our second day deep in the Ocucaje Desert in the Ica region of southern Peru. Photographer Morgan Stetler, Sergio Tueros Grimaldo (a 17-year-old spending his summer vacation studying extinct sharks), and I have traveled here with our guide, Roberto Penny Cabrera, in search of fossils.
For eons, this land was the bed of a shallow bay off the coast of South America. The water teemed with life: whales, dolphins, giant penguins, crocodiles, and the megalodon, a 60-foot-long whale-eating shark, which disappeared some 1.5 million years ago. Now the landscape looks like Mars. Wind-formed hills of crumbling stone and dunes of fine sand enclose basins of shiny polished pebbles that appear to have been sorted by size: small ones here, larger ones over there. And the remains of all the creatures that once swam now lie buried in the stone.
The fossils make the region one of the most important paleontological areas in the world. Yet the Peruvian government offers the desert no legal protection. Fossils—taken by unscrupulous scientists and local scavengers and sold to collectors and museums—have become lucrative exports.
Our guide, Roberto, sees himself as the desert’s only protector, and for the most part he’s right. Behind the wheel of Hermelinda, his trusty and heavily modified black-and-olive Datsun diesel pickup, he cruises the trackless desert sands like one of the lonely, indefatigable desert foxes that live there.
Roberto is a descendant of Capitán Don Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera y Toledo, a conquistador who, in 1563, founded the city of Ica on the banks of a river 190 miles south of Lima. Wearing a thick gray mustache, Roberto favors desert fatigues, a khaki shirt, and tan boots. At 54, he maintains the natural good looks of a rakish man of action: a Burt Reynolds or a Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
We had begun our trip at Roberto’s home in Ica’s city center. He lives on the main square, in the thick-walled yellow mansion built by his grandfather. From the facade of the house, under the Cabrera coat of arms, two huge, dark doors swing into a courtyard. Inside, the bustling traffic in the plaza fades to a distant echo. In a grand dining room, a massive mahogany table is set for a feast of dust. In the rear courtyard, the entire back of the house has collapsed.
The front rooms of the mansion house the Museum of the Engraved Stones of Ica. The stones were collected by Roberto’s late uncle, Javier Cabrera Darquea. A prominent physician in the 1960s and 1970s, he spent his later years taking trips to the desert. He came back bearing rocks engraved with images of people of, as he told it, extraterrestrial origin, commingling with dinosaurs. Above Javier’s desk is a framed photo of him presenting a black carved stone to actress Shirley MacLaine.
This is Roberto’s birthright: The Cabrera name is equal parts legacy and burden. The family is given to big ideas both practical (bringing irrigation to the valley; planting the first olive trees in the area) and eccentric (communing with aliens; ranting in the public square). When I told our cabdriver we were going to the Cabrera mansion, he looked at me over his shoulder and said, “They’re all crazy.”
After walking us through the house, Roberto leads us up to the flat adobe roof. Massive sand dunes loom at the edge of town. This is where, as an 8-year-old, Roberto discovered who he could be in the desert: “You go up to the top of the dunes,” he says, gazing past the garish billboards for chicken burgers, computer classes, and plastic surgery, “and you feel free.”
Back inside the decaying mansion, Roberto’s single room feels like a campsite. A mattress, covered in camouflage sheets, lies on the floor; even the easy chair is upholstered in camo. Massive satellite maps of the region cover one wall. Along another wall are glass cases holding Roberto’s collection of fossil shark teeth.
A legion of small-scale entrepreneurs in Ica collect fossil shark teeth for sale to tourists, but to Roberto they are valuable only as trophies, testaments to his skills.
“It is the hunt that I like,” he says. “The finding.”
The next day we load Hermelinda with gear and supplies and head into the desert. From the back seat, crammed between two spare tires, I can see we’re following a track across the plain toward a wall of tan mountains. We’re traversing one of the driest places on earth, an arid zone that stretches more than a thousand miles across Peru and Chile.
One of the first things Roberto stops to show us is a whale skull worn open by the wind. The brain that once pondered whale song has turned to stone and glows milky white in the hot sun. “I collect brains,” Roberto says. “But not that one. It is in the ground. I do not take from the ground.”
Roberto’s ethic is simple: He takes only fossils that have been fully freed by the wind, figuring that these will soon be worn away to join the dust. Everything else he leaves. The desert and all it contains—fossils, pre-Columbian relics, minerals, meteorites—form an inviolable, pristine whole.
Years of experience allow him to read the desert in a way few can. “Roberto’s skills are amazing,” says Jürgen Kriwet, head of the Fossil Shark Research Lab at the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde in Stuttgart, Germany. “He is one of the best finders of fossils I have ever met.”
Finding shark teeth is a subspecialty of its own. Roberto favors morning light, when the low sun glints off the smooth fossil enamel, distinguishing it from the matte ground. Early in the morning of our second day in the desert, he stands pointing out teeth in the distance: “There is one. And there. And another one there.”
The area’s fossils have been crucial in understanding the evolutionary history of modern sharks. Fossilized shark teeth can be found in many parts of the world, but Peru’s desert hides entire fossilized shark skeletons, which are much more informative for paleontologists. “Nowhere else in the world has this quality of fossils,” Kriwet says. “This is unique.”
The bone hunters, tooth collectors, and other guides follow Roberto’s tracks. Not long after he started leading trips, Roberto took a group to the site of one his favorite fossils—a complete shark, seven feet long—only to find an empty hole in the ground. The skeleton had been taken. Now Roberto is careful about whom he takes. Some places are so special he never returns, lest his tracks give them away.
Both Roberto and Peruvian law insist that relics from the ground belong to the region in which they are found, but Ica has no suitable museums. In the meantime, unregulated fossil hunters comb the area, limited only by their equipment (most use motorcycles, which cannot go very far into the desert) and their lack of specialized knowledge. Roberto relishes foiling them.
In 2007 he led government agents to an unauthorized dig, resulting in a French scientist’s expulsion from Peru. Subsequently, Roberto was deputized by Ica’s regional president, Vicente Tello, to monitor the area, but when Tello’s term ended, Roberto’s role disappeared and the fossils were left, once again, with no official protection.
Now Roberto’s plan is to team up with institutions from abroad to establish a museum and a national park that, together, would preserve the desert while fostering scientific discovery and the local economy. “It’s so rich!” he says. “People here will find out that if they protect the area it will be good for them. Now it is the opposite: People are coming and taking the fossils out, and leaving very little money.”
After our morning search for shark teeth, the four of us drive south, across a river and away from Ica, ever deeper into the desert and into total isolation. “You will see a place that has been untouched for 12 million years,” Roberto shouts over the din of Hermelinda’s motor. “The paleontologists cannot go there because it is very dangerous. Very. You can’t get out of there walking.”
He turns the faithful truck toward a range of black mountains, and we climb a huge tongue of sand that falls from them like a dry glacier. It’s an exhilarating ride, the truck shimmying as it paws the uncertain ground along a precipitous vista.
We reach the crest and confront an awe-inspiring sight. In front of us stretches a plain of fine gray sand studded with fossilized whales. Hundreds of them.
Rolling past them in Hermelinda is like a macabre whale-watching trip: Broad, iridescent skulls break the surface of ancient seas turned to sand. Complete skeletons 20 feet long lie with their huge vertebrae and fat rib cages, some with their baleen and skin preserved. We come to a stop and Roberto cuts the motor. There is no sound but the howl of the wind. Fingers of fog cast shadows on the silent pod of whales.
We camp just around a bend, huddling behind a pre-Hispanic shelter—a crescent of flat boulders set on edge atop a low dune. The next morning, we climb aboard Hermelinda and skitter down falling dunes, past strange rock outcrops and through trackless valleys of dust and sand, until we come to a long slope of fine sand coated in a thin layer of dark pebbles. When we leap from the truck, I can see fossil fragments that have drained down in streams from layers of rich beds above. “He is here, Gregory, he is here,” Roberto says, looking deep into my eyes. “Megalodon—the biggest one!”
Somewhere above us a giant shark has lain for 10 million years. Of late, it has been giving up massive teeth. If Roberto can find the jaw, that would be a paleontological prize big enough to bring global attention to the area—enough, perhaps, to bring about his plan for protecting the Ocucaje Desert. “I am waiting for this guy,” he says, scanning the ridgeline. “I know where he is.” Digging wouldn’t work—the location is imprecise, and besides it would violate his ethic—so he’s waiting, as patient as the wind.
We four become a swarm of little boys, gleefully strolling the hillside, picking up this tooth fragment and that knucklebone, a periwinkle here, a stingray spine there. When I look up, I see Roberto down the slope, standing stock still. He raises his arms above his head, then falls onto his back and lies in the dust.
I run over, but he is sitting up by the time I reach him, laughing softly at something in the sand: a massive megalodon tooth. It is broken in two and missing its point, but it is clearly from a huge shark. “Another sign,” Roberto says softly. He had not even touched it, this small fragment of the immense landscape to which he has devoted his life. “What luck to have been born with a chance to see this place!”
Excerpted from Afar (July-Aug. 2010), a vivid magazine launched in August 2009 that inspires and guides people who engage in experiential global travel. www.afar.com