Photos by @renan_ozturk / words by @m_synnott  / Science and the search for new species was the raison d’etre of the @natgeo Lost World Expedition in Guyana. But the beating heart of our team was the native Akawaios who served as guides, porters, citizen scientists, and friends. Some of roughly 70 Akawaois who accompanied us live in this village, which is called Wayalayeng, home to about 50 families and accessible only by foot or boat.

Over the years that I've been exploring our planet, I've secretly dreamed that one day I might find a real Shangri-La. The term was coined by British author in 1933 and is defined as “a remote, beautiful, imaginary place where life approaches perfection; utopia.” It's tempting to project this vision onto Wayalayeng, and I’ll admit that I have. But the truth is that life in this village is hard. Wayalayeng lacks basic amenities that many of us take for granted in our daily lives—electricity, running water, cellular communications, and medical care.

Wayalayeng sits on the edge of a plateau, and the land is ideally suited to the creation of a landing strip. I spoke with Akawaios both for and against the idea, but the consensus seems to be for maintaining the status quo. An airstrip would bring miners. (Apparently, outsiders currently hold over 100 mining claims in the area.) So far, the Akawaois have held them off. For hundreds of years, they have lived communally, subsisting on crops of cassava and hunting fish, deer, tapirs, and agoutis. Their vision of sustainability for this remote corner of the world has been passed down from one generation to the next—and it doesn't include mining. No one knows better than the Akawaios that the real treasures of El Dorado are not gold and diamonds, but the plants, animals, and people who call this magical place home. With @taylorfreesolo #TheLostWorldExpedition #Akawaios