Covering the May 6, 1978 “UFO crash” south of Tarija, Bolivia (for that story, click here) was a significant time for me. By then I had traveled quite a bit in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Uruguay, reporting stories for the National Enquirer, many of them about UFO encounters. But going deep into the Andes Mountains of Bolivia was the first real adventure of my life.
Over the years since then I’ve had half a dozen more little adventures. None of them were as dangerous as covering a war or going undercover to investigate mobsters or corrupt officials, but they were exhilarating, especially for someone who turned fifty-two just three months after visiting Tarija.
What was also remarkable about this story is that it was never published even though I worked on it for nearly four weeks and four other Enquirer staff members put in an addition three weeks of effort on it. More on that later.
Tarija – capital of the department, or state, of Tarija – was a pleasant little city about six thousand feet up in the mountains. Today it has a population of around a hundred thousand, but the first time I was there, in May 1978, it had about twenty thousand souls.
I remember being impressed by the fact that most of the houses looked clean and were nicely painted in various pastel shades, and that nearly every morning I would see people sweeping the streets in front of their homes. I learned soon that this might have been due to the fact that the army colonel who was governor of Tarija had decreed that homes and streets would be kept clean and neat.
Even though the country was under military rule, I never saw any signs of repression. The governor, the major commanding the local army garrison and the colonel in charge of the Tarija air force group all treated me cordially.
All three found the border incident a mystery and they cooperated in my efforts to find out what happened. At least a half dozen Bolivian and Argentinean reporters were in the area but I was the only American reporter to show up.
On May 16 I had flown to Rio de Janeiro to look into a report that a Brazilian Air Force colonel had seen a fleet of perhaps a hundred UFOs pass low in formation over an air base near Rio. I also intended to work on several other UFO stories in Brazil as well as one in Uruguay, where I had been in 1977.
was my first real trip to Brazil, although not my first time in Rio. The previous
July I was one of more than a hundred unhappy passengers who had spent a miserable
night in Rio after our Pan American jetliner from Montevideo to Miami developed
engine trouble over Brasília.
Then early the next morning we were bused all the way back across the busy city to board the plane after the engine problem had been fixed.
This visit to Rio in 1978, however, was far more pleasant. Arriving on the morning of May 17, I checked into a good hotel that was just off Rio’s Leme beach and only a block or two from Irene Granchi’s apartment. Irene was one of Brazil’s best-known UFO investigators and at the time was my sole source for UFO news in Brazil.
Irene (say Ee-RAY-nee) kept me informed of what was happening, and later, through her, I was to come to know many other investigators throughout the country.
The story about the fleet of UFOs, however, was going to be tough to get because the colonel had told her he wasn’t going to talk about it anymore and there apparently were few if any other witnesses. But I had to drop the story before I ever really got started.
Before I left the United States, Irene had phoned and said newspapers in Rio and Buenos Aires had been publishing stories about a UFO incident in a remote section of the Bolivian Andes. But the details were slow in coming out.
GO TO BOLIVIA RIGHT AWAY
By the time I got to Rio, it was getting more and more attention, so much so that on my second day in Rio I phoned my editor and told him the newspapers were claiming a UFO had crashed near the Argentinean border. He told me to get to Bolivia right away.
“Right away” took a good two days. I flew to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I had to spend the night before catching another plane south to Tarija.
Another American, Charles Tucker, then from Nappanee, Indiana, had joined me just before I left Rio. He is a former minister-turned-businessman who became a successful manufacturing and could afford to fly almost anywhere in the world whenever he wanted to pursue his interest in UFOs.
I had met him in 1977 at an international UFO congress in Acapulco, Mexico. We became friends, stayed in touch by phone and he had joined me later that year when I went to Puerto Rico to look into some UFO stories there. This time, he flew into Rio a day or two after I did and arrived just two or three hours before I checked out of my hotel to go to Bolivia. (He was to join me a third time, on a trip up the Amazon River in Brazil in 1981 right after I left the Enquirer.)
A jetliner took us to Cochabamba but from there we flew in a twin-engine turboprop plane to Tarija. This leg of the trip is almost entirely over mountains and can be very rough when the winds sweeping up out of the valleys below are just right.
While blasé flight attendants casually lean on a seat back chatting to you, some passengers have all they can do not to throw up as the plane bounces all over the sky. Not me, though. By then I had flown thousands of miles for the Enquirer and was a veteran of air turbulence.
The weather in Tarija was warm and sunny in the daytime but it could get very cold at night. My hotel room didn’t have any heat and most nights I soaked in a narrow bathtub filled with water as hot as I could get it, then jumped into bed under a pile of blankets. My room had a tiny vestibule with a broken window that let the cold air flood in.
Charlie stayed only one week and went home, saying he had to get back to business, but I sometimes wondered if the frigid sleeping conditions made that business more urgent.
in Tarija, I was able to find an excellent interpreter almost immediately.
Olga Castrillo spoke flawless English and had lived in the United States.
first thing she did was put me in touch with a young geologist, Daniel Centeno,
who had interviewed a number of people who had seen something flying through
the air toward the border and heard an explosion. He told us that an expedition
to the suspected crash site was due to return the next day to Cañas, the small
village where the last road leading into the mountains ends.
Olga, Daniel, Charlie and I went in a hired taxi to the village of Cañas, about thirty miles south of Tarija. On the way we stopped and talked to four or five rugged-looking men on horseback, probably gauchos. I started to take a photo of them but Daniel frowned and told me I shouldn’t do it. I thought the men were picturesque but he thought such a photo would reflect poorly on his country, and I put my camera away.
The details of meeting the expedition members as they straggled back into Cañas are reported elsewhere (see Mysterious Crashes in the Andes) but not the feast that soon took place. The expedition consisted of a physicist, an astronomer, an army lieutenant and three or four soldiers, plus half a dozen or more newsman from Bolivia's capital city, La Paz, and Salto, Argentina, the nearest large city south of the mountains where the incident occurred.
Right after they all came trudging back into Cañas, the physicist climbed into a waiting army truck and left for Tarija even before I knew he was there. But I was able to talk to the astronomer and several of the newsmen.
Then, before I knew it was even happening, everyone gathered in the courtyard of one of the houses where someone had roasted a goat or a cow. I didn’t know which it was because by then night had fallen and the only light we had was from the fire in an outdoor adobe oven used to cook the animal.
In the darkness someone thrust a piece of roast meat into my hands, so I began eating. Everybody else was chewing away in the darkness too. It was quite messy but also quite good.
Eight days later I was to go off on my own expedition into the mountains from Cañas. With me were the geologist Daniel Centeno, the same army lieutenant, Jorge Antequera, who had gone with the first expedition, and Omar Forti, a young pilot who had flown me over the crash site several times.
In Cañas, unfortunately, we were able to rent only three horses for the four of us. None of the other three guys was willing to walk, so I said I would. They were going simply out of curiosity about what had happened, but I was on assignment. My job was to get the story and the lack of a horse was no excuse. That's us at right, with Centeno on the white horse, me on foot, then Forti and Lieutenant Antequera.
We left at daybreak. The path rose gradually higher and higher, twisting and turning, until we went through a pass some ten thousand feet high and then on down into another valley and beyond. Most of the time we followed trails around the sides of mountains. I had no difficulty and walked for hours, stopping from time to time to drink from small streams. The other three men were ahead of me at times, and sometimes behind.
Two young army soldiers were also with us, men I had hired to take care of the three burros we rented to carry our food and gear. They walked all the way.
I set out on foot, in effect leading the way. The trail that led some twenty-five kilometers or so through the mountains to the village of Mecoya on the border was relatively easy to follow. That’s because I kept seeing what I thought were the intermittent tracks of a motorcycle tire.
was kind of strange because the "tire tracks" were never continuous.
But then one of the men explained that what I was actually seeing were imprints
of sandals that had been cut from old tires. People walking in these
sandals had made the "tire tracks."
People walking in these sandals had made the "tire tracks."
FRIED EGGS EDGE SIDE UP
Around noon we stopped at a small two-room school on the side of a hill. One room was used as a classroom and the other as the living quarters of the young man who was the teacher. For some reason there were no kids there that day – it was a Monday – and the teacher was delighted to see us. He had some adult company for a change.
He insisted we have lunch with him, and it took him only a few minutes to fry some sliced potatoes, cook some maize and fry up some eggs. He had only three dishes, one for the potatoes, one for the corn and one for the eggs. And no utensils.
We simply ate everything with our hands. The potatoes and corn were easy, and so were the fried eggs, as long as you held one horizontally, like a flying saucer on its side, and ate from the top down to keep the yolk from dribbling all over your hands.
When we left our teacher friend, I continued walking, going ever higher upward and through a pass to go down into another valley and beyond.
Several hours later, late in the afternoon, Daniel the geologist took pity on me and gave me his horse. He had been in these mountains many times doing geological studies and knew the area well. He left us to follow the trail around the steep hills while he hiked straight up and over one mountain in a short cut to our destination, the village of Mecoya.
I was glad to have the horse. Before long, night fell and it got very dark. There was no moonlight or starlight to show us the way. The lieutenant had gone on ahead and the pilot Omar Forti and I had lost contact with him. I was on a white horse but it was so dark I couldn’t see any part of Omar or his horse or even my white horse.
Omar was just a few feet ahead of me and I could hear his horse but I couldn't see him. His horse seemed to know the way to Mecoya. I would never have found it myself. We spent a lot of time walking in a rocky creek bed with both horses occasionally stumbling over the rocks. An hour or two after nightfall, someone shouted to us. We had arrived, and the two soldiers and the burros came in shortly after.
Mecoya, the nights were truly bitter cold. The six of us slept on the concrete
floor of a two-room school (the building behind us in the photo below right),
using blankets and rugs and whatever else we could find to put under and over
us, trying to stay warm. We still froze.
We still froze.
Our hosts in Mecoya were a young man named Ciro and his wife Alejandra and another young man named Arturo, all three of them teachers who shared a one-room house next to the school. All of our meals were cooked in an outdoor adobe oven (left) in the courtyard, and again we had few plates and utensils.
We had brought our food with us and after it was cooked we took turns sharing the plates and spoons to eat. (In photo at left above, I try to get warm at the oven while one of the teachers, Arturo Casso, then nineteen, wasn't bothered by the cold. In the photo at upper right are, from left, Alejandra, me, Ciro, Antequera, Arturo and Centeno.)
There is no electricity or running water in that area along the border. The people of Mecoya get their water from a furiously-flowing stream in a narrow gorge two hundred feet or so below the village. (At right, a gaucho leads his horse across the stream, which is the border between Argentina on the left and Bolivia on the right). I brushed my teeth there in the mornings but had to be careful because the steep path down to the stream was icy.
THE COCA LEAF KID
Other than the “crash” itself, two things stand out in my memories of Mecoya. On the first full day there we started out on horseback, hoping to reach the crash site from the Argentinean side of the border. We stopped briefly just outside the village to buy a bag of coca leaves for me to try (left) because of the altitudes we would be reaching. I chewed the leaves and chewed them but never felt any effect.
About that time we also saw a horseman galloping several hundred meters below us near the stream that is the border between Bolivia and Argentina in that part of the world. The lieutenant shouted for him to stop, indicating to me that the rider was an Argentinean in Bolivian territory. The man didn’t stop and the lieutenant fired his pistol into the air. The man just rode on out of sight.
The other incident occurred late that day after we failed to reach the crash site – we tried tackling it from the Argentine side of the border but found ourselves getting farther and farther away from Cerro Bravo – and had returned to Mecoya. I was taking it easy in the school room when a man came to the lieutenant, who was the only law within a hundred kilometers or more. The man was talking rapidly. He was agitated, even angry. My Spanish was very poor and no one spoke English. I understood very little.
But using pigeon-English and gestures, the lieutenant and others explained that another man had had sex with the angry man’s fourteen-year-old daughter and the father wanted something done. In a short time the lieutenant had the culprit leaning against a wall of the school, patting him down for weapons. Then he locked him in the other room of the school for the night.
I wondered how the locked-up man had stayed warm while we huddled under our blankets and rugs for the second night. Early the next morning I heard two pistol shots. I rushed outside but by the time I got out there, the wrongdoer had vanished and I discovered only two nervous goats tied to a log.
It seems the lieutenant had tried the man, convicted him, fined him by making him give the offended father the two goats, and had sent him scurrying with two shots in the air. The lieutenant was only twenty-one but a very confident, capable and apparently wise twenty-one.
One more memorable thing about that trip, even though we never got close to the crash site, was the quick trek back to Cañas.
Somehow we had picked up a fourth horse the first morning in Mecoya and until the morning we left we had always walked our horses wherever we went. I hadn’t ridden a horse in many years but by that final morning had gotten used to the feel of the saddle and a horse’s gait again. However, just after leaving Mecoya to return to Cañas, the lieutenant suggested we pick up the pace and we all broke into a gallop. We raced much of the way back.
made this particularly exciting was that we were often galloping along really
narrow mountain trails where a misstep could have sent both horse and rider
tumbling hundreds of feet down the steep hillsides. Exhilarating. There were
no mishaps, however. (At left, the pilot Omar Forti on one of those narrow
trails with sharp drop-offs.)
(At left, the pilot Omar Forti on one of those narrow trails with sharp drop-offs.)
We made it to Cañas in about five hours, a journey that in the other direction several days earlier had taken nearly fourteen hours. My fellow riders called it a “marcha forcada,” or forced march, and congratulated me. They said I was the only foreigner to have ever done it… at least from Mecoya to Cañas.
The story about the “UFO crash” on the Bolivia-Argentina border was never published in the National Enquirer, even though I spent three weeks in Bolivia trying to find out what happened and another week traveling and working on it back in Florida.
Almost every day while I was in Tarija I sent radiograms or cables to my editor in Florida, briefly telling him what I had learned and what I was doing, but I never got any replies. There were no phone lines linking Tarija to La Paz at that time and all cables were supposedly transmitted by radio to La Paz and forwarded from there. Apparently the radio link was not working well, if at all.
GOT TO GET OUT
By the end of the third week I had done all I could do in Tarija and was frustrated because I hadn’t heard from my editor. By then I had also gotten ill – sooner or later I nearly always get sick when traveling in other countries – and wanted to get out.
I had been scheduled to go on to Uruguay to follow up on a story there, but my wife and I were supposed to close on a new house soon and our son was about to graduate from high school. I wanted to be home for that. I was now so way off schedule that I decided to leave Tarija without consulting my editor.
I flew to Santa Cruz, one of the major cities in Bolivia, and phoned my wife Faith from the airport to tell her I was coming home. “Don’t leave!” she practically shouted. “They’re trying to find you!”
It turned out that none of my cables had gotten through to my editor either. The office thought I was missing and had sent a reporter and photographer to Bolivia to look for me. My wife didn’t know who they were or where they were.
Annoyed that I had to stay on another night, I went outside the terminal, found a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the very best hotel in town. If that’s the way the Enquirer wanted it, the Enquirer could pay for it.
The best hotel in Santa Cruz at that time was, believe it or not, a Holiday Inn. It was truly luxurious compared to where I had been the last three weeks. And as I was checking in, I happened to glance down the hallway toward the bar… and there they were, the two guys who were supposedly looking for me. They’d just come out of the bar and were surprised to find me walking toward them.
I flew back to Florida the next day while they stayed on, going to La Paz and Buenos Aires to talk with government authorities about the incident. After I got home, the Enquirer also sent a reporter to Washington to look into official aspects of the case, and an editor came to my home to work with me on the story that I was writing. I wasn’t that sick but my editor insisted I stay home.
The story, as I said in the beginning, was killed, never used. Why? Something extraordinary did happen on the border but I didn’t get the story that I had gone after – that a UFO had crashed in Bolivia.
In those days (I left the Enquirer in 1981 and don’t know how things were done after that), Generoso Pope, who then owned and published the Enquirer, personally approved every story idea ever used, killing far more proposed stories in the process (“NG” was the term scribbled on the lead sheets, meaning “No Good”).
This procedure was applied to virtually everything covered in the Enquirer, celebrities, medicine, human interest, UFOs and everything else. And the story idea that Gene Pope OKd was that “a UFO had crashed.”
Despite all of my efforts and those of the other staff members who worked on it with me (altogether about seven weeks of manpower), there was no proof that a UFO had crashed. That meant there was no story.
BACK TO TARIJA AGAIN
In spite of that, I was still very curious about what happened on the Bolivian border and went back to Tarija on vacation the following year, in September 1979. My curiosity, as usual, was alive and well.
With me was a good friend and fellow staff member, Allan Zullo, a writer who left the Enquirer not long after and went on to write and publish eighty books at last count.
Zullo (left) and I had no better luck getting to Cerro Bravo than I did the
first time. With Olga Castrillo’s help, we hired another army lieutenant,
Ariel Avila Pino, and a couple of soldiers and hiked to Mecoya in a day and
a half. We then hired Juan Orihuela (right) as our guide and after another
night’s sleep (in the now abandoned teachers' quarters) set out to walk to
the crash site. But after climbing higher and higher for four or five hours,
I gave up. We were up at least ten thousand feet and the last forty-five-degree
ascent did me in. I think Juan was a little disgusted with our dawdling
I think Juan was a little disgusted with our dawdling pace anyway.
Zullo and Lieutenant Avila also stopped and waited with me on a sloping plateau more than ten thousand feet high while the two soldiers – both of them university students fulfilling their required year’s service in the army – and Juan went on to the crash site. They took photographs for me and hiked back to us.
While we waited for them to return, Zullo and I lay on our backs on the ground most of the time, resting and watching several condors soar overhead. We could even hear the slight noise their wings made. Another great adventure.