High up in a dry plateau in southern Peru, winds blast across a strange, alien landscape. It is flat for as far as the eye can see. And excessively dry.
Salt paints the landscape white, mingling with the sand to create a mottled texture of brown and white. The ground is cracked and crunches like frost underfoot as sand swishes around your legs, carried on the strong wind which blows grit into your eyes.
This land, itself a subregion of the greater Atacama Desert, is strange enough. But if you go just a bit further toward the Peruvian Andes, you will find a place beyond this world: a place which very well might touch another.
The Dust Lake. Welcome to one of the most mysterious sites in all the Andes.
At first it appears as a shimmering white mirage as you trudge toward the dark line of the distant Andes. Then, the mirage takes shape: it is no mirage at all. The white shimmer resolves into dozens of tree-like shapes. Yes, trees! But made entirely of salt.
The white trunks rise out of the salted sand with naked, jagged boughs which reach toward the wide open sky. There are dozens of these salt trees. Touch one, the salt is cool against your fingertip. If you were taste your fingertip, it would indeed be salty on your tongue.
This alien grove of pure white trees sits in the middles of a flat plain, like an oasis of dead trees. If you walk among the salt trunks, you will see other strange shapes. Twisted shapes of gray, ashy stone which comes apart at the touch. They appear almost like coral. They might have been statues which have been worn away to indistinct shapes by the strong, desert wind.
Past all these and you come to the shores of Dust Lake itself. Roughly elliptical with a shoreline rough enough to be natural but regular enough to be artificial, Dust Lake is 1,036 feet long, nearly the length of three football fields, but only 300 feet wide at its widest point.
True to its name, the lake is filled not with water, but ash-gray dust. The wind whips up the surface, sending rivulets of sand streaming across the surface. Dust devils whirl and dance in the breeze.
However, tread carefully. Dust Lake was feared by the indigenous peoples of Peru for good reason. The ground beneath your feet suddenly becomes softer. It no longer crunches under foot. Then, a few yards out in the dust, and the ground falls away almost completely. The lake will swallow people whole, like quicksand.
And the bottom has never been found.
This is not the end, however. The real mysteries lurk beneath the ashen surface of Dust Lake.
First, a little history. The place was in fact known to the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. Just a few hundred feet back from the salt trees, on a rocky outcropping jutting up from the desert floor, are the remains of a temple complex.
The Inca called the place Chakyakunapukyu, which in Quechua means “Well of Dry Waters.” The land around the Dust Lake was considered a place of death and demons, where the world of the living was connected with the land of the dead.
Despite the existence of the temple, it is known through the oral traditions of the local people that the place was avoided by the Inca.
The temple remains are impressive enough on their own.The stones resemble those of Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuamán. The cyclopean stonework suggests the site may be pre-Inca, perhaps of the Tiwanaku civilization, which the Incas saw themselves as the inheritors of.
The real purpose of the structure is unknown, but most researchers believe it to be a temple. The building is in ruins, many of the stones having fallen down or broken, speaking to some ancient calamity which struck the region at some unknown date.
The Spanish conquistadors found the place, perhaps with the aid of local guides. Shortly after the downfall of the Incan Empire at the hands of Francisco Pizarro in 1533, more Spaniards explored the Andean lands, hoping to find more Incan gold. One such convoy of armed conquistadors apparently found Dust Lake.
However, being in such a remote and desolate place, Dust Lake then was lost for more than 300 years after this discovery.
In 1965 it was rediscovered by a plane carrying geologists working for a mineral company. They spotted at first a strange discoloration in the desert which turned out to be the salt trees and ash sculptures. Work began on the site almost immediately. The temple complex was uncovered shortly after, as much of it had been buried under several feet of sand and salt.
In the 80s, researchers from Peru and other countries used radar and LiDAR—a technology still in its infancy—to penetrate the ashen depths of the lake. Also more conventional means, such as cameras on tethers, were used to sound the depths.
The ashen depths held only more questions, not answers.
The first things discovered beneath the swirling dust were bodies. Dozens of them from different times. Men and women in bright, indigenous clothing. Some sported Incan-style embroidered cloaks and gold headdresses. The dry climate and the dust did much to preserve both the corpses and their accouterments.
Next, the researchers found three horses and the bodies of eight conquistadors in their armor. It was clear what happened to some of those explorers who had found Dust Lake long ago.
Some of the pre-Spanish corpses were even bound, traces of cords around their wrists and ankles with small stone weights attached to them. Not all those who died in Dust Lake did so by accident clearly.
Then the laser scanners of the researchers found something else. There were objects in the lake. Perfectly spherical, according to the researchers’ imaging. When they got the objects in view of their camera, they saw they were stone spheres.
A crane had to be flown in to the site and set up so as not to disturb the salt trees. This proved very difficult, as the soft sand on the lake’s shores kept trying to suck the crane in. The researchers had to build a platform specially built for the crane.
No one knows for sure, but up to a dozen of these stone spheres were hoisted up to the surface, with many, many more scattered in the dust, with an unknown number down in the depths beyond the reach of the crane.
Each sphere was, according to initial reports, exactly identical to each other. The stone spheres were tan in color, ranging to dull gray. Each was exactly 3.21 feet in diameter and weighed just over 100 pounds.
Each sphere was engraved with lines and circular patterns. These grooves ran smoothly across the stone surface, carved with mathematical precision. These grooves are accompanied by regular clusters and patterns of dots, all of them very regular, drilled into the surface of the spheres.
The meaning of these carvings is unclear. Some scholars posited they were 3-D star maps of constellations. If true however, they are mapping constellations impossible to be seen in the modern sky. This would make the spheres not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of years old.
After months of work, the researchers found yet another puzzle waiting for them. Some 60 feet down, they found what turned out to be a piece of granite stonework lodged partially into the sloping wall of the lake. After scanning the object and sending down photographic tethers, they found it was a stone head, made out of pink granite.
It weighed 6 tons, making it too heavy for the crane to lift. The head was carved in a style like those statues found at Tiwanaku. The head was cylindrical and wears a headdress or helmet. The stern face had no inscription, no indication for its original purpose nor why it ended up down there.
The mystery of the Dust Lake head may never be solved.
And in fact, after all the imaging and mapping was done, the bottom of the lake was never found. The deepest point imaged was some 2,000 feet down, but then the equipment failed and could map no further. It was also found that the lake slowly became narrower, the walls moving in closer very gradually, as one went further down.
Unfortunately, these questions will never be answered. Work ceased at Dust Lake in the 90s, when the Peruvian government decided that the place was sacred to the Quechua people. And so all work ceased, just like that.
The fate of the spheres is a mystery as well. None of them ended up in a museum. Only one is said to reside on the sandy shore of Dust Lake, dust swishing around its unfathomable, smooth surface.
The intent of these spheres, their makers, will remain a mystery. As will the head, which may have been hurled in by the force of some unspeakable cataclysm.
Was this a place where the demons of the underworld were satisfied with sacrifices? Or the dead offered gifts? Or is this place far more ancient than we suppose, perhaps some echo of a long forgotten, antediluvian time when the Atacama Desert was a very different place.
The salt trees and their ashen sculptures too were never explained. Scientists could never agree whether they were artificial or natural, or what their purpose was.
We will unfortunately never know.
So for now we leave Dust Lake. The sun scorches down on it. The wind whips over the sand and shrieks among the jagged branches of the unexplainable salt trees. And below the shifting dust of Dust Lake, we leave the silent stone spheres.
And far, far below, the unseen bottom of the lake rests in silence beyond the reach of man. How knows what other secrets lie down there.