The two young men in the front seats of the single-engine Cessna were in civilian clothes but both were lieutenants. The pilot – tall, good looking, supremely confident – was wearing gray slacks, a white shirt open at the collar and a leather jacket. All that was lacking was a silk scarf.
He no doubt later became one of the hottest jet jockeys in the Bolivian Air Force. I never learned his name, but I'll never forget him because he gave me one of the wildest plane rides I've ever had.
We were searching for some men who had hiked deep into the Andes Mountains and supposed to be on their way back. As we swooped down over one village after another, the pilot would send the Cessna into a steep dive. A church steeple would come rushing up at us, flash past in a blur and we'd quickly scan the village square below but wouldn't spot the men we were looking for.
We'd buzz the plaza a second time, the pilot would glance at the co-pilot, shake his head no and wheel into a sharp turn that sent us flying north above a dirt road leading to the next village.
I had been in Bolivia for six days, checking out reports published throughout South America that a UFO had crashed into a mountain near the Argentine border. The commandant of the Air Force group in the city of Tarija had sent a three-man expedition into the mountains on horseback to find the crash site, an area so remote there was no way to communicate with the men. They were due back and the two pilots in the Cessna had been sent up try to to locate them. The commandant had invited me to go with the two pilots, and I was flattered.
I had some regrets. There was no seat in the back of the Cessna, only a short,
four-legged stool that wasn't bolted to the floor. That's where I sat, with
no safety belt or straps to hang onto. By prying two fingers into a tiny crack
in the plastic molding behind the right door and bracing my legs against the
sides of the cabin, I was able to keep myself from flying around inside the
cabin as we buzzed those villages. But just barely.
But just barely.
Once we took off from the Tarija Air Base, all I could see from horizon to horizon were the countless peaks of the vast Andes range, but one mountain stood out from all the rest. Even though we were forty miles away, we could easily see an enormous gash down one side of the mountain where the UFO supposedly had crashed.
The scar was a gigantic rockslide. The mountain, Cerro Bravo, is in such rugged territory that an earlier expedition failed to reach it on foot.
We flew straight to Cerro Bravo in just a few minutes and circled it. There was no sign of the men and we turned east, following the route they had to take to return to civilization. A few minutes later, we circled over the tiny village of Mecoya, saw nothing and headed back north. We flew over more villages, swooping down over each, but we never found the expedition, so we returned to the base.
Apparently we missed the men in some ravine or other, because they returned the following evening.
That was on Friday, May 26, 1978. Twenty days earlier, on the afternoon of May 6, hundreds of people saw a long, slender object flying due south over a large area of southern Bolivia. It was first seen as far north as the city of Sucre, more than two hundred miles from the border.
Moments later, two Air Force officers saw it pass over the town of Culpina, midway between Sucre and Tarija. Shortly after that, many residents of Tarija saw it flash overhead and then abruptly change direction to the southwest.
Minutes later people living in Padcaya, Rosillas, Cañas, Mecoya and other villages saw it fly over on its way toward the Argentine border.
It flew so low over Padcaya and Rosillas that people thought it was going to crash. Instead, it continued on and several minutes later appeared to disintegrate in a tremendous explosion that was heard in Tarija, forty miles to the north, and as far away as Oran in Argentina, eighty-five miles southeast of the mountain.
Almost immediately, a second explosion was heard, not as loud, but this time the earth trembled. Windows rattled and clotheslines shook more than twenty-five miles away, and one hotel owner said some of his windows broke.
People in tiny, scattered mountain villages on the Argentine side of the border also saw the object and heard the explosions.
Argentine and Bolivian authorities immediately began investigations. The better-equipped Argentines searched with helicopters, jeeps and horses. However, from the Argentine side of the border Cerro Bravo is extremely difficult to reach in any manner. The Bolivians sent men in on foot and horseback from their side of the border.
Both countries made numerous air searches, but the only thing found was the huge landslide on Cerro Bravo.
It turned out that the slide was just inside Argentine territory, but could be approached only from the Bolivian side of the border. Even then, it is a two-day horseback ride from Cañas, the village where the nearest road from Tarija ends.
This is high in the Andes, and at that time of the year the nights get bitter cold. Temperatures drop thirty to forty degrees after the sun goes down.
Newspapers in South America had published lengthy stories about the incident for several weeks, reporting that a UFO had crashed, causing part of the mountain to collapse and "terrifying the indians living in the area." The stories said the object had landed in Bolivian territory and authorities had cordoned off the area to keep newsmen and spectators out.
Some newspapers claimed "wild animals roamed the dense, tangled jungle" where the UFO had crashed, and that experts from the U.S. space agency NASA had quietly slipped in and spirited away a large metal object that had been located in a ravine.
That was exciting stuff, if true. Unfortunately, virtually none of it was, as I was to learn when I went to Tarija on May 20, two weeks after the incident occurred.
When the stories were first published I was still in the United States. But Irene Granchi in Rio de Janeiro kept me informed of latest developments by phone and I passed the information on to my editor.
I was then working as a reporter for the National Enquirer and Mrs. Granchi, one of the leading ufologists in Brazil, was my principal contact in the country. By coincidence, I was getting ready to go to Brazil and Uruguay on several other UFO assignments.
Less than forty-eight hours after I arrived in Rio, stories about the border incident were carrying more details. It promised to be a major story. I phoned my editor in Florida and he told me to hurry over to Bolivia and find out what was going on.
It took two days to get to Tarija, flying from Rio de Janeiro to Santa Cruz in Bolivia and on to Cochabamba and then, after spending the night in Cochabamba, flying south to Tarija, the nearest I could get by airline to Cerro Bravo.
Tarija is a quiet little city that is the capital of the department, or state, of Tarija. The southernmost tip of the state is a triangular spit of land that juts into Argentina. The days were sunny and warm but the nights were unbelievably cold.
The city is about six thousand feet above sea level and is surrounded by mountains. It is in a valley that was long ago denuded of trees and was a harsh landscape of unreal erosion.
Once in Tarija, my first chore was to find an interpreter, and I was lucky. The desk clerks at my hotel put me in touch with Olga Castrillo, a cultured, charming, very intelligent woman who spoke fluent English. Her father was an American who had settled in southern Bolivia early in the twentieth century. She'd also lived in Washington and New York when her late husband, a lawyer, had served as a diplomat.
When I met her, she was operating a small school in Tarija where she and another woman taught English, but it was closed for a few weeks and Olga was free to interpret for me.
Olga (with me in photo at the Tarija airport) was very helpful in more ways than one. It turned out that she was one of the more influential people in Tarija, and she never hesitated to approach the colonels then in charge to ask for their cooperation on my behalf.
Virtually everyone in Tarija had seen or heard that an unidentified object had flown over the area on May 6, but no one knew what had really happened on Cerro Bravo. When I first arrived, no one had yet been able to reach the mountain on foot or horseback.
A geologist named Daniel Centeno, then thirty-one, had taken part in the initial investigation, which was still going on, and Olga asked him to come and talk to me. Centeno had prospected for radioactive minerals around Cerro Bravo and knew the area well.
He and Dr. Orlando René Bravo, a physicist, had been put in charge of an expedition to Cerro Bravo shortly after the incident occurred. Dr. Bravo, then fifty-four, was the head of the physics and math departments at the Tarija branch of the University of Bolivia.
Dr. Bravo and a dozen other men were still in the mountains but were due to return late the next day. Centeno had started out with them, but had turned back on the second day to accompany an engineer from the Bolivian nuclear energy commission in La Paz who had gotten sick and was unable to continue.
"People saw different things as the object passed over," said Centeno, a tall man with dark, curly hair. "In Rosillas, people saw a silver-colored tube or cylinder with a black head in front and flames at the back, a cylinder that appeared to be about four meters long.
"A teacher in Rosillas told me she saw a fireball pass in the sky and disappear, leaving a trail of smoke behind it, and about five minutes later she heard an explosion. All the teachers and children saw something fall.
"For twenty to twenty-five miles around, people heard the explosion. I went to all these places, and people said they felt the ground tremble when they heard the explosion."
Dr. Bravo's expedition to Cerro Bravo was due to return to Cañas the next day, a Sunday, and we decided to meet it. The following afternoon I hired a taxi, and Olga, Centeno and I, along with Charles Tucker, an American UFO researcher, drove to Cañas.
Cañas is thirty-six miles southwest of Tarija by road. To get from Cañas to Cerro Bravo, you have to hike seventeen miles through rugged mountains to reach the tiny border village of Mecoya, and the mountain is another fifteen miles west of Mecoya.
The route from Cañas to Mecoya is a well-worn path fairly easy to follow, but to go from Mecoya to Cerro Bravo a mountain guide is needed.
On this particular Sunday, we arrived at Cañas just before sunset and by coincidence Dr. Bravo's expedition was just straggling back in from the long trek from Mecoya. In the group were Manuel de la Torre, then twenty-seven, an astronomer from the University of La Paz, Army Lieutenant Jorge Antequera, four soldiers and seven Argentine and Bolivian newsmen.
With the villagers who turned out to greet them, it was quite a crowd and in the growing darkness we missed Dr. Bravo, who had hopped into one of the waiting Army trucks and returned to Tarija without our ever seeing him.
De la Torre, the astronomer, told us the expedition had failed to reach Cerro Bravo. Although they could see it on the other side of a steep valley, they decided not to risk the climb.
The next day Olga and I went to the university in Tarija and talked with Dr. Bravo, who had already resumed his classes. In his office, he told us that before going on the expedition he had already made a far more extensive search of the border area than anyone else.
In addition to the five-day expedition that he'd just returned from, he had walked for six days from village to village in the border area, a trek undertaken immediately after the UFO incident occurred.
He was convinced that three missiles were seen in addition to the unidentified flying object and that the missiles apparently were converging on it.
"I don't know what the first object was, but I'm sure the others were missiles," said Dr. Bravo. He based his conclusions on the fact that people in villages north, east and south of Cerro Bravo all said they'd seen long, thin objects heading toward Cerro Bravo. No one had seen more than one object.
"Two geologists from GEOBOL (the Bolivian geological agency) and their guide were in Yerba Buena at the bottom of a ravine, and they thought this object was going to crash on the far side of the hill.
"I walked from La Mamora, about thirty-eight hundred feet high, to Rio Condada, to Puesta de la Laguna, Estancia Jalanoquero and Yerba Buena, which is more than ten thousand feet high. I also walked to the towns of San Luis, Tolomosita, Tolomosa and Pampa Redonda. I interviewed more than fifty people, taking directions with a compass all the time.
"The second investigation was between May 16 and May 21, with Mr. De La Torre. From Cañas up to Mecoya, we interviewed more than thirty people. From Mecoya, we explored up to Cerro Salle, all the way up to border marker number four, at an elevation of nearly twelve thousand feet. I carried a compass, an altimeter and a radiation detector.
"Most of the people in the Mecoya area said the object went to Cerro Bravo in Argentine territory. A sheepherder said the object exploded in the air near Mecoya and changed direction from the southwest to a more southerly direction.
"Apparently, the object crashed into a buttress of Cerro Bravo at about ten thousand feet height. There, a rockslide can be seen superimposed on the top of an older, natural slide. The difference is clear and can be noticed by the different coloration of the rock.
"In summing up, we have a complicated problem. One large object came from Sucre to Tarija and changed course, and other objects more or less at the same time came from Emborozu, Palca and Zaire (all southeast of Cerro Bravo).
"The first object's form can't be determined but everybody said it was more or less long, but the others were long and thin like a pencil with a pointed nose and spitting fire from the back. They are maneuverable. They can change directions and they can rise. That's the truth.
"One of the objects – I'm not sure which – crashed into the mountain and produced an explosion that was heard in La Mamora, Padcaya, Cañas, Camacho and up to Oran in Argentina."
That was the first we'd heard of any missiles. It turned out that no one else shared Dr. Bravo's belief. Later that day we talked to Lt. Colonel José Quiroz, governor of the department of Tarija, who had appointed Dr. Bravo and Daniel Centeno to head the investigation.
(Bolivia was then in its fifteenth year under military rule, but was preparing for national elections that would return the country to civilian control.)
"I don't think it is possible," Colonel Quiroz said when we asked him about missiles. "There have been no reports of any missile being lost and I don't believe any country in South America has long-range missiles that could have come this distance."
He declined to discuss the possibility that the object had been a UFO, saying he knew nothing about UFOs. He also denied that NASA had had any people in the area.
Later we talked with De la Torre, who was then head of the astronomy department at the University of La Paz. Although he was personally interested in UFOs, he also dismissed the possibility of a UFO crashing on Cerro Bravo. He thought it was either a meteor or satellite coming to earth.
"In La Paz, we had received conflicting reports of what had happened in Argentina and Bolivia, so the Academy of Science decided to send me to Tarija to investigate," he said. "Only recently a Russian satellite had fallen in Canada and we were afraid of the possibility of radiation. That was why COBOEN (the Bolivian nuclear energy commission) was concerned."
It was not a satellite. Four weeks later, when I got back to the United States, I checked with the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which keeps track of all satellites, rocket boosters and other man-made objects in orbit and knows when and where anything falls back to earth. A NORAD spokesman said there was no record of any space debris falling in South America on May 6.
When Dr. Bravo's expedition first started, everyone walked from Cañas to Mecoya and, after spending a night in Mecoya, started walking toward Cerro Bravo.
"All day we explored an area based on what people told us," De la Torre said. "We walked thirty miles trying to find this object. Most of the people we met saw only a slight trail in the sky, like a jet contrail, before they heard an explosion. Everybody heard the explosion, and the ground shook in some areas.
"One person saw a column of smoke after the explosion and one or two saw an object in the air before the explosion. They said it was long, shaped more or less like a bullet, with a black head and lights or flames in the tail.
"People even talked about two or three of these things they had seen in different places. In one place, they had seen it going in one direction, in another place another direction and another in another direction. That's what makes Dr. Bravo believe it was two or three different things."
De la Torre felt certain the rockslide area was the impact site for whatever had flown through the air. "We could see this about seven hundred meters away across a steep valley. A steep hill goes down to a river a thousand or fifteen hundred meters below at about forty-five degrees, and across this valley we could see the impact site."
He believed that whatever crashed into the mountain was buried under the resulting landslide. After talking with us, he flew over the slide five times in an Air Force plane and although he could see no debris, he came back more convinced than ever that something had crashed there.
"There were some dark zones like burned spots but there was no object. From what I saw, I think it was one object and maybe it was a meteor."
He stressed the word "maybe."
Over the next several days, Olga and I talked to people who had seen the object in the Tarija area. One of them was Guillermina de Antelo, thirty-three, who was in Tarija's central plaza at four fifteen on the afternoon of May 6.
"I saw a round object like a disc with lights coming out of the back, like fireworks," she said. "They were very bright colors, plenty of colors, and most of them were startling pink and yellow. It shocked me.
"They weren't flames. They were more like beams of light. The object itself was in front and the lights streamed out behind. The object was about the size of my hand in the sky and was round like a disc.
"At first, it seemed slow but then it was very fast and I thought it was going to crash. It was very beautiful. It was like a record or plate from the bottom or edge. I saw it as completely round and I think that when other people say they thought it was long, it was because of the rays of light coming back.
"It was trailing the rays of light behind, maybe three times as long as the disc itself. The rays were sort of coming back to a point, giving it a sort of fish shape."
She was the first person I talked to who had actually seen the object, and her observation was interesting because of its detail. It seemed to lend credence to the belief of some that it might have been a UFO.
Another witness was Tereza Echazu de Castellanos, then forty-two, who owned a paint shop on one side of the plaza.
"It was less than a meter long in the sky, as if it had a small head, and then a tail a meter and a half long behind it," she said. "It passed in seconds, moving very fast towards the south. It was very quiet.
"I was astonished. I'm still wondering what it could have been. I thought everybody in the plaza must be looking at this object, but nobody was paying any attention to it because it was so quiet."
Adela de Mendoza, thirty-three, was with her husband, their six children and her husband's parents near the airport on the south side of Tarija when the object passed over.
"The whole family saw it," she said. "I was so startled. I thought it was a meteor because of the colors, but a meteor can't do what this did. It came from behind the mountain and rose up into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. It was a long, slender object, sort of bluish and brilliant. It sparkled with the sun on it and it hurt my eyes to look at it."
Mrs. Mendoza held her hands about fifteen inches apart and said: "It looked about that size in the air and was shaped sort of like a light bulb. It gave off green and blue lights and they were beautiful.
"We talked with a musician who was southwest of where we were and he said the object came straight toward him and it hurt his eyes to look at it. He said his eyes were still sore the next day.
"Later, I was talking with a cowherder who was in the mountains west of here and he saw this object too. He said he heard a loud noise and the ground shook and his cows shook."
In one of the government buildings in Tarija, we talked with Brahim Handam, forty-two, a technician with Bolivia's agricultural development agency. He traveled throughout the area in his work and on the afternoon of May 6 he was in Emborozu, a small town far south of Tarija and forty miles east of Cerro Bravo.
He said the explosion rumbled on for twenty seconds or more but all he saw was smoke in the sky.
"My uncle's workers were off in that direction and they said they saw a very big object about the size of a jeep with lots of lights crossing the mountain. They said it was a very brilliant object but it was not flames.
"The next day we were returning to Tarija and we stopped at La Merced, and a friend there said he saw it passing over and it was shaped like a fish, not a plane, and was very brightly lighted. He said it was long and brilliant and bluish."
I interviewed a number of other witnesses in Tarija and, later, in several villages between Tarija and Cerro Bravo. All told more or less the same stories.
In Padcaya, Leonardo Leon, then fifteen, said: “I heard something like a whistle, very loud, and looked up and saw an object with a blue flame about five meters long. It was going very fast.
“I thought it was going to crash into the mountain. A minute later I heard an explosion and saw a lot of smoke toward the border. The smoke stayed for some time.”
His father, Divar Leon, fifty-five, said: “Everybody heard the impact. It was like dynamite. Everybody was astonished.”
Freddy Morales, a teacher who lived in Cañas, said almost everyone in the village of about a hundred people saw the object or heard the explosion. He didn’t see it himself but his neighbors did.
“They said the object was like a cylinder, about one and a half meters long, and pointed in front. The explosion formed a cloud about a thousand meters high near the border. It was white in color and afterwards it turned red. Everybody saw the cloud dissipate.”
In Mecoya, a young teacher named Arturo Casso (right) said all four hundred or so people living in that area heard the explosion and maybe half of them saw an object moving through the sky. He himself didn’t see it but said that after the explosion there was a “cloud of all colors like fireworks, then the smoke rose in a spiral.”
Five days after I arrived in Tarija, I hired a plane to fly the geologist Daniel Centeno and me over the rockslide on Cerro Bravo. Tucker, my American friend, had departed for the United States by then, unable to stay any longer. The pilot was Omar Forti, a very serious-minded young man of twenty-five who was a skilled flier.
That was when I got my first look at the rockslide, just as we took off from the Tarija airport. The slide was awesome in size. About twenty minutes later, we started flying back and forth over it and I could see it ran down virtually the entire side of this twelve thousand-foot-tall mountain. However, no matter how close we flew we could tell very little about what had happened.
Just before we took off, Olga had introduced me to Xavier Castellanos, a young Air Force lieutenant who, on learning we were going to fly over Cerro Bravo, graciously offered to let me use his 35mm camera with a 135mm telephoto lens. So I was able to shoot several dozen photos of the slide.
(A month after I left Tarija, Olga said in a letter that Lieutenant Castellanos and three other men were killed in the crash of a Cessna just seven minutes after taking off from Tarija. The wreckage wasn't found for fifteen days, an indication of the ruggedness of the mountains. I never learned who the other men were or if it was the same Cessna I had flown in.)
It was only when we returned from that flight to Cerro Bravo that we learned Colonel Júlio Molina, commandant of the Air Force group in Tarija, had sent three officers on an expedition into the mountains to try to reach the slide area. He offered to help me in any way he could.
The next day he made good on the offer when he invited me to go up with the two pilots in a Cessna to try to locate the men. Thus, for the second time in twenty-four hours, I found myself flying over the rockslide again – and this time buzzing church steeples and village plazas as well.
Early the following evening, Saturday May 27, Colonel Molina phoned Olga and said the expedition had just returned. He invited us to meet with the men at his home in the military compound. Olga and I hurried over and were introduced to Major German Calleja, thirty-nine, Captain AtÍlio Montero, thirty-five, and Lieutenant Oswaldo Prado, twenty-six. (In the photo at left, the day after they returned, they confer with Colonel Molina. From left, Prado, Calleja, Molina and Montero.)
"I think something crashed up there," a weary Calleja told us. "The four of us who went there think there was some kind of impact, that something struck there." (The fourth man was Juan Orihuela, a guide who lived near Mecoya, shown at right.)
The officers had returned to Tarija only two hours before we met them, just long enough to shower, shave and change clothes. They were sore and very tired. They'd spent four days in the mountains on foot and horseback, sleeping the first and third nights in a house in Mecoya.
The days are short at that time of the year and it's impossible to reach Cerro Bravo from Mecoya, take time to examine the rockslide and still get back to Mecoya before nightfall. So they had to spend one night in a tent in the freezing cold.
"I'd never do it again," Calleja said. "It was very hard. There were places where only horses could go and then only up to a certain point. When we left the horses, we had to climb a big mountain and go down again to get to the place.
"We found nothing strange. There were things that caught our attention but nothing strange. What we did find were big rocks that came down with all the gravel or rockslide. I do think something crashed there."
They spent three hours at the slide and found ten large, monolith-like stones that appeared to have been burned white, and a long trench on the left, or eastern, side of the slide. They also discovered that the grass was withered for about a hundred meters around the top and sides of the slide area.
Major Calleja said the monolith-like stones were about three meters tall and two meters wide. "They appeared to have been cut or sliced exactly. Very straight slices, like square blocks, and as if sliced with a ruler. They were rectangular in shape, with four equal sides. I've never seen this before in the mountains. Whatever hit the mountain left them in that shape.
"We took a pick with us, thinking we'd dig some, but we couldn't use it because we were afraid everything would come tumbling down and cause an avalanche."
The trench intrigued Captain Montero. "It
is terribly straight, at least a hundred meters
or more," he said. "It is about three meters deep and four meters
wide at the top, in a V shape. It's like a ditch digger would have dug it,
as if it had been done by the hand of man. It looks like something enormous
went through it with a knife." (This photo that I took from an airplane
shows the top of the landslide at the right and the trench on the left, going
diagonally up from lower left toward the top at the center.)
(This photo that I took from an airplane shows the top of the landslide at the right and the trench on the left, going diagonally up from lower left toward the top at the center.)
Told about Dr. Bravo's theory about missiles, Major Calleja said he didn't believe a missile caused the rockslide. "Because of the withered grass," he explained. "A missile would have burned the grass, and this grass wasn't burned. It was withered, as if it had been subjected to high heat."
Colonel Molina also discounted missiles. "If there had been missiles, they would have had to come down somewhere and there've been no reports of any missiles landing anywhere," he said.
So, the three officers found no evidence of a crashed flying saucer, but they returned convinced that something unusual had happened on the mountainside.
By now, I could feel Cerro Bravo beckoning to me.
Leaving Mecoya, we crossed the narrow Mecoyita River into Argentina on horseback and tried to approach Cerro Bravo from the south. But the terrain was such that we found ourselves getting farther and farther from Cerro Bravo. So we made our way back to Mecoya.
That night we talked with one of the locals, who told us the landslide was an old one that had occurred long before. At least, that was my understanding at the time. I knew very little Spanish and the men I was with knew little English, and we decided to abandon the attempt and return to Tarija. It was only after we got back to Tarija that I learned a new slide had occurred very recently on top of an old one on Cerro Bravo.
A year and a half later I tried to get to Cerro Bravo again while on vacation. With me were an American friend, Allan Zullo, still another Army lieutenant and two other soldiers. This time after reaching Mecoya we hired Juan Orihuela, the guide who had led the Air Force officers to Cerro Bravo.
We left Mecoya (below right) early in the
day on foot but four or five hours later gave up again. The path to Cerro
Bravo was extremely steep in some places and it was taking too long to climb
them. We wouldn’t be able to reach the mountain, inspect it and get back to
Mecoya before nightfall. It really is a hard place to reach. (Despite
the hardships, this time in Bolivia was a great adventure for me. For that
story, click here.)
(Despite the hardships, this time in Bolivia was a great adventure for me. For that story, click here.)
The trips definitely were not a total loss. Contrary to newspaper reports, we learned that there was no dense, tangled jungle where wild animals roam. We found only dry, barren mountains with little vegetation, and the only wild animals I saw were two mountain goats butting heads in some private turf battle.
We also found no evidence that NASA was ever involved, although I was able to confirm from the U.S. State Department later that two U.S. Air Force officers from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz had flown to Tarija several days after the May 6 incident, along with some high-ranking Bolivian officers. However, they returned to La Paz without ever going near Cerro Bravo.
I feel certain that had NASA or anyone else gone to Cerro Bravo with a helicopter – and that is the only way anything of any size could have been carried out of that region – someone would have seen the operation. Although the area is sparsely populated, people do live throughout the area and it would be impossible to do anything of that nature without being seen.
In addition, neither NASA nor anyone else would have been able to carry out such a mission without the help of Bolivian authorities. Knowing personally how difficult it is to reach Cerro Bravo, I'm sure Major Calleja and the two other officers would never have gone there if whatever had fallen had already been removed.
As for the military's cordoning off the area, that wasn't true either. The military made no attempt to keep me or anyone else out of the area. Instead, the military leaders were quite helpful, allowing me to hire officers and soldiers to accompany me on both attempts to reach Cerro Bravo.
Most likely, something did crash into Cerro Bravo, but whether it was a meteor, a missile or a malfunctioning flying saucer, we may never know. People who saw something flying through the sky gave so many differing descriptions that it could have been any of the three.
However, the flight characteristics and the different directions the object took seem to rule out a meteor or any missile, except perhaps for a Cruise-type missile, and that is hardly likely.
There is no evidence it was a flying saucer, either, although the descriptions of some witnesses – particularly in the Tarija, Padcaya, Rosillas, Cañas and Mecoya areas – certainly indicate it was an object much like those seen elsewhere in the world.
What happened on Cerro Bravo wasn't the only "UFO crash" in the Andes. A remarkably similar incident occurred in another remote mountain area in Argentina fourteen hundred miles southwest of Tarija.
This one was near Piedra del Aguila in Neuquen Province. Witnesses for three hundred miles around saw what appeared to be a fireball come down and explode about seven o'clock at night on October 3, 1980.
One witness said it was saucer-shaped. People close to the area said the object flew low and slowly in perfect circles, almost hitting a hill, something a meteor wouldn't do.
Two minutes later, an explosion was heard and one man said his furniture shook. A second explosion occurred a minute or two later and a tall column of white smoke rose into the sky.
Newsmen who flew over the area reported seeing two fires about five hundred yards apart, with a bluish-green circular area between the two.
Captain Carlos Lima, then head of the Space Research Division of the Argentine Air Force, officially investigated the incident. He first flew over the area in a plane and then went there in a helicopter.
He found four burned spots, each almost circular and ten to eighteen meters in diameter that appeared, in Captain Lima’s words, "to be the product of combustion originated by liquid fuel or some sort of material with a very high temperature.
“Even with the rare vegetation in the area, which has a very soft soil like sand,” he added, “the ground was completely burned to a depth of about two centimeters."
He interviewed a number of witnesses, all of whom more or less agreed on what they saw.
"What they observed," he noted in his official report, "was a fiery object appearing to be about forty centimeters in diameter that was discharging black smoke and moving at great speed.
“It went into a cluster of clouds and when it came out it looked smaller and left a trace of white smoke. About three minutes later, there was a loud explosion and the echo shook the ground and windows in all the houses around."
Captain Lima took soil samples from the burned area but the results of any analyses have never been released.
I didn't investigate the Neuquen incident. All the information came to me from Captain Lima, who, at my request, sent me a summary of the report he submitted to the Argentine Air Force.
… AND ONE IN CHILE
Another incident in some ways similar to the Tarija case occurred in the isolated copper mining and smelting town of Potrerillos, Chile, less than five hundred miles southwest of Tarija (see map above). I learned about it in March 1979 when I was in Santiago, Chile, from José Manuel Garcia, a reporter for Las Ultimas Notícias, a Santiago newspaper.
According to Garcia, between two and three o'clock one morning in 1978 (he couldn't remember the exact date), a tremendous explosion woke up virtually all three thousand people then living in Potrerillos. All the houses shook and everyone thought a blast furnace had blown up. However, a quick inspection showed that everything was intact.
The next day, several underground shafts were found to have caved in, while on the surface a section of a road going up the side of a ravine had collapsed. Engineers determined that whatever the explosion was, it had occurred in the air and the force of the blast had been exerted downwards.
Garcia felt the blast himself. He was working in Potrerillos at the time as a public relations representative for CODELCO, the government-owned mining company.
Two days after the explosion, he said, six NASA technicians showed up with radiation-detection devices and other equipment. One of them arrived in a two-man Chilean Air Force helicopter and the others arrived a little later in a panel truck with NASA emblems on it.
Garcia said there was no doubt that the men were Americans, or "gringos" as he called them.
All six wore coveralls with NASA emblems on them. They all spoke Spanish but only one man, apparently the leader, asked questions. People throughout Potrerillos were questioned about the characteristics of the noise and where the sound had come from.
Garcia said the six men spent one day in Potrerillos and then, instead of heading for the nearest Chilean city, they drove east deep into the Andes Mountains. The only thing in that direction is a border crossing that leads to Salta, Argentina, which is two hundred fifty miles south of Tarija (the Argentine newsmen in the Bolivian expedition were from Salta).
By a strange coincidence, we got some confirmation of this story the day after we talked to Garcia. My interpreter, Nelson Miranda, and I had visited a TV station on the outskirts of Santiago and after we finished out business there we flagged down a taxi to return to the downtown area.
We struck up a conversation with the driver, who said he'd been driving a taxi for only a few months and had recently retired as a miner in northern Chile.
“Where in northern Chile?” Nelson asked.
“Potrerillos,” he said.
Asked if he knew anything about an explosion incident, he said he remembered it well. He said it occurred during his vacation, which ran from April 28 through May 25 in 1978 – the period during which the Cerro Bravo incident occurred.
The driver, Pedro Gallardo, sixty-five, said he wasn't in Potrerillos at the time but was visiting a nearby town. He said he'd heard about the visit by the NASA people and told us that another group of technicians from the La Silla Observatory near Santiago had also investigated the mysterious blast. He said his brother had been the driver for the observatory people while they were there.
When I returned to the United States, I sent Freedom of Information Act queries to both NASA and the Central Intelligence Agency about the Potrerillos incident. Both replied – NASA five months later and the CIA ten months later – saying they knew nothing about it.
The day after we talked with the taxi driver, we got further confirmation in an interview with Major Guillermo Arancíbia, police chief of Talagante, a town near Santiago.
Arancíbia said he was security chief of the mining camp in Potrerillos at the time of the blast. He told us the same story that Garcia had and said no one ever determined what had caused the explosion.
Arancíbia also told us that he had seen UFOs often enough at night in Potrerillos that toward the end of his stay there he began carrying a 35mm camera with him on his rounds in hopes of capturing one on film.