Incas, Spaniards, and Now Westerners in Peru

Updated: Jul 8

Story Richard D. Garrett, Photos James D. Spicer, Richard D. Garrett, originally published in the 1973 Fall Western Profile

Recounted by Scott Singleton

The Doodlebugger Diary recounts the experiences of geophysicists during their working lives. I’ve published extensively on my own experiences and encourage those of you with experiences of your own to also contribute. Your fellow industry professionals would love to hear your stories.

I’ve been occasionally reprinting a series of early 1980’s articles from the GSI Shotpoints and GSI Grapevine that can be found at http://gsinet.us/. I also have reprinted various Western Geophysical Profile articles. These can be found at https://library.seg.org/page/western-profile. The past two months I reprinted two stories of Western’s early boat-building escapades. This month I bring you an incredibly hair-raising story of the experiences of one particular field crew, having the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which of course is what all of us field types experienced at one point or another in our careers. Enjoy!


Prolog by Scott Singleton

Figure 1: Sedimentary basins of Peru. From http://www.perupetro.com.pe/wps/portal/corporativo/PerupetroSite/informacion%20al%20inversionista/¿por qué invertir en el perú-/!ut/p/z1/

Peru holds a special place in my doodlebugging past. I spent the first half of 1998 birddogging an offshore survey in the far northern Talara Basin (Figure 1) and then processing that data in the Lima office of the oil company that acquired the survey. I wrote about these experiences in the Doodlebugger Diary in a 5-part series (January – May, 2019). I then followed that with a 3-part Doodlebugger Diary series by ex-SEG President Nancy House (June-October, 2019). She spent five years in the mid-1990’s with Mobil overseeing development in the Madre de Dios Basin which is in the southeastern part of Peru’s Amazon (Figure 1).


The following article predates both Nancy and I by several decades. It describes some of the initial efforts to acquire 2D seismic in the dense Amazon jungle of Peru. These efforts, by the way, were not in vain but instead for the first time imaged the subsurface of the Andes foreland basin on the Amazon side. It gradually led to enough interest that the Peruvian government signed contracts with Shell to explore in the Ucayali Basin (the same basin that is described in this article). This led to the discovery of the huge Camisea gas field in the Madre de Dios basin in 1986.


Lima, Peru, 1973

We the Westerners in Peru would like to dedicate this article to Frank Freeman, who lost his life here in a plane accident January 17, 1973.


INFERNO? Paradise? Oil Boom? Peru, with its desert coast, 22,000-foot mountains, 15 beefless days, dense and hot jungles, winding rivers, and wild Indians; beautiful women, colonial architecture, lavish fruits, superb restaurants, pisco sours, theaters, museums, and sporting events; and 30 oil companies exploring 40,000,000 acres in the jungle. Yes, Peru is all of this and more.

Figure 2: Map of Peru. From https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/cia-maps-publications/Peru.html

Covering an area of 496,222 square miles, Peru is about the size of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined. It is located on the Pacific coast of South America and is bounded by Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, and the Pacific Ocean (Figure 2).


The Inca (meaning king) Empire, which grew out of the Quechua-Aymara civilization, began around 1200 AD and is the most famous period of Peru's culture, which goes back 4,000 years. The Incas mastered the techniques of alloying metals and goldsmithing; they were excellent agriculturists (it is to them that we owe Indian corn and the potato); and they were superb engineers and architects, building highways to connect all corners of their empire (the present Pan American highway follows portions of their road system) and constructing massive cities in the Andes Mountains and coastal deserts and aqueducts to irrigate their crops. Their empire fell to the Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, in 1533. It was not until 1821 that the Argentine liberator, Jose de San Martin, defeated the Spanish viceroyalty and declared Peru liberated. Peruvian independence was recognized by Spain in 1824.


The capital of Peru, Lima, is situated on the Pacific coast, about halfway between the country's northern and southern borders. More than 20% (3,000,000) of the population lives in this city, with the main employers being the government and the plastic, automobile, and fishing industries. The mountains shelter the coast from eastern rain clouds, and so there is virtually no rain in Lima. Because the cold Humboldt Current produces an ocean mist, however, except for the summer months of December, January, and February, the sky is a leaden gray. Lima is "rest city" for most of the men when they are able to take some time off. The normally mild temperature allows Westerners to spend much of their time sightseeing or girl watching from sidewalk cafes. Speaking of girl watching, it has been successful, as attested to by the fact that three Westerners, two party managers and an observer, have recently married Peruvian girls.


The preliminary groundwork for Western's Peruvian operation was laid in 1971 by Vice President V. C. Boyd and Manager of Operations W. T. Brooks. A Peruvian company was formed, Servicios de Exploracion de Petroleo S.A., or "SEXPET" to the embarrassment of some English-speaking people.

Figure 3: One of the barges that the crews in Peru used to carry food from Pucallpa, a jungle town on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains, arrives at camp. On the right is Surveyor Dario Chiappa.

The capital of Peru, Lima, is situated on the Pacific coast, about halfway between the country's northern and southern borders. More than 20% (3,000,000) of the population lives in this city, with the main employers being the government and the plastic, automobile, and fishing industries. The mountains shelter the coast from eastern rain clouds, and so there is virtually no rain in Lima. Because the cold Humboldt Current produces an ocean mist, however, except for the summer months of December, January, and February, the sky is a leaden gray. Lima is "rest city" for most of the men when they are able to take some time off. The normally mild temperature allows Westerners to spend much of their time sightseeing or girl watching from sidewalk cafes. Speaking of girl watching, it has been successful, as attested to by the fact that three Westerners, two party managers and an observer, have recently married Peruvian girls.ocated a piece of ground that was about one foot above the water and claimed it as the Spaniards had claimed Peru.

Figure 4: Puinahua, Party 48's base camp on the Puinahua Canal in the jungles of Peru-and all land for miles around--is flooded. This camp is usually no more than 10 inches above the water line and basic transportation for the crew is barges, skiffs, and canoes.

On returning to Pucallpa, he was joined by four more crew members. Having more to do than time allowed, everybody set off in separate directions, hiring personnel, purchasing supplies, renting an office and warehouse, checking out equipment, constructing buildings, cutting line (with machetes and axes, no 'dozers unless they have wings), and drilling. Before we knew it, Party 40 was paying, feeding, and clothing 500 men and had built a small city in the middle of the jungle, called San Roque.


About the time that the proper amount of line had been cut, the recording equipment reached Pucallpa and was checked out by the observers and party chief. With everything ready, the observers and their 100-man recording crew struck out for the line to get their first shot. Man, was it wet!

Figure 5: Unable to find dry ground, the Party 48 recording crew must make camp in the trees.

Just as everyone was starting to breathe a little easier, it was time to start another crew, Party 48. The party chief and his family came to Pucallpa to set up headquarters and start housekeeping. The party manager joined them a few days later, and the start-up process began all over again. Party 48's base camp is located on the Puinahua Canal, and it is appropriately named Puinahua. This camp is 10 inches above the water line. Construction immediately began on the base camp. Buildings include, generally, a combination kitchen, a dining-recreation building, an administration building, a warehouse, a hospital, a helicopter hangar, an observer's shop, a mechanic shop, a laundry, staff living quarters, labor living quarters, staff bath, labor bath, a laundry, and a carpenter shop.

Figure 6: San Roque, base camp for Party 40, is a small city carved out of the jungle and is often flooded, as when this picture was taken.

Running crews of this nature and size presents a unique set of problems. For instance, food has to be trucked over the Andes from as far away as Lima and then barged up the 350 miles of river. Transportation for both crews is strictly portable (no wheels); and barges carry the major portion of food supplies and laborers to base camp, where they are dispersed by helicopter, skiffs, canoes with Wisconsin engines, and strong backs. Staff personnel, fresh meat, and vegetables are flown from Pucallpa by a Twin Otter mounted on floats. When all of the barges, skiffs, and canoes are docked at the base camp, it looks like a naval shipyard. The person responsible for coordinating all of the boats and people is the party manager. Each day he talks to all of the crews, discussing their production, supply requirements, and where they will be moving next. When scheduling transport, he looks more like an air traffic controller than a doodlebugger.

Figure 7: This photo, taken from the air by a crew member on the way to the prospect area, shows the Ucayali River in the Peruvian jungle.

These camps are small cities and house quite a number of people, and it seems that everyone either grows something or collects something. Before you know it, there are flower gardens; fruit trees; vegetable gardens; and numerous pets, such as ocelots, dogs, cats, parrots, monkeys, snakes, rabbits, and anything else a guy with three hours on his hands after supper can dream up to occupy his time.


In February Party 40 encountered some problems with Indians in the area; so operations were temporarily suspended until a peace treaty was negotiated. Meanwhile, Party 40's recording crew moved to a new prospect, with headquarters in Yurimaguas, north of Pucallpa, and base camp in Santa Teresa. We understand that there is more water here than in the former prospect, if that is possible. The crew will be using a small navy of skiffs and outboards to transport people and equipment from set­up to set-up.


Figure 8: Working in water through the seemingly impenetrable underbrush of the Peruvian jungle, the crew had to overcome some difficult conditions to clear this line, using only machetes and axes to cut through the trees and vines. It is now ready for the observers.

No sooner did Party 40 get settled in to its new location that it was time to start yet another crew. Party 41 set up operational headquarters in Pucallpa, just a few shot points down the road from Party 48's office. The party is a combination portable swampland and shallow-water-river marine crew. This crew is faced with a different set of problems as it will have a floating base camp; however, it will be made up of experienced jungle recording crew members and mechanics. The party chief joined the crew shortly after his three-week "vacation tour" in Iquitos, where the bulk of Party 41's equipment was transshipped from a deep-water vessel to river barges for delivery in Pucallpa. They will start operations soon. We will write another update on everyone’s progress in a future Profile.

Figure 9: These shacks In Pucallpa, around the wharf on the Ucayali River, are under water when the river floods.

Figure 10: Pucallpa, located on the Ucayali River, is the town from which Westem's crews in Peru received many of their supplies. This is a photo of the main street.

Figure 11: This is the market place in Pucallpa.

Figure 12: The president's palace in Lima was a sightseeing attraction for many of the Westem crew members in Peru. (Editor’s note: This is true. My wife and I had a favorite café on the square in back of where the photographer was standing for this shot. The ceviche was wonderful as was the view of the president’s palace. Even saw protesters marching in front of the palace!).

Figure 13: Westerners who toured Lima were impressed by the coastline and these cliffs on the Pacific Ocean just outside of the capital. (Editor’s note: I have a similar picture of the bluffs in my Peru series, part 4, April 2019).


The views, interpretations, and conclusions expressed within these articles represent those of the author (authors or other entities) and are not necessarily shared or representative of the GSH, GSHJ, or any other entity associated with the journal or society.

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