THE LITERARY genre of tall tales from foreign lands is alive and well, especially in books on South America. Perhaps because parts of the Andes and the Amazon basin remain the last great stretches of wilderness on earth, they continue to draw adventurers in the old tradition and inspire the most fanciful stories.

Pino Turolla's Beyond the Andes is a loosely structured, personal account of explorations in search of traces of ancient civilizations in Ecuador. Turolla feels that pre-Inca cultures are badly neglected by archeologists, that man was present on the equator as early as 30,000 B.C., that early cultures arose in the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador before the end of the last ice age, and that these people later migrated into the Andes and Pacific coast, where conventional archeologists place the earliest civilizations at about 4,000 B.C.

Although I have traveled in many of the areas of Ecuador described in this book, I am in no sense an expert on archeology or pre-Columbian cultures, and I cannot judge the merits of Turolla's assertions. I have no doubt that the pre-Inca civilizations reached high levels of development, unknown to us, and I am sure a full revelation of human history in South America would hold many surprises. Whether they would be the particular surprises Turolla has in mind, I am not so sure.

Beyond the Andes is filled with those things that are requisite in this sort of book: earthquakes, mudslides, poisonous serpents, visionary drugs, scorpions, head-shrinking Indians, treacherous rivers, and so on. "We made it to Sucua after a painful three days, crossing a landscape that alternated between dense mountain jungle and stark volcanic soil sparsely covered with yellow thorn shrubs where deadly spiders, the size of a fist, were lurking for an unwitting prey." At times the author's braggadocio reaches epic heights:

"But even though the visions [from an hallucinogenic drink] eventually receded in my mind, I believe that the drug permanently altered my spiritual awareness. How else, on my subsequent trips to the jungle could I have come to understand the spiritual forces at work there, an understanding that helped me develop a depth of relationship and an influence with some of the Indian tribes that no white man has ever had before?"

For someone with such a marvelous understanding, Turolla makes some remarkable gaffes. For example, in describing certain small, pottery vessels found on the Ecuadorian coastal plain, he writes: "These pots, found throughout South and Central America, serve to hold the juice of the lime, or powdered dried lime, which is taken along with coca to cut their [sic] bitter taste." Anyone who has the least familiarity with coca-using Indians knows that the "lime" taken with the leaves is calcium oxide, a strong alkali needed to prevent breakdown of the stimulating compounds by acid in the stomach. It has nothing to do with the citrus fruit, which was a European introduction from the Old World, and would do just the opposite. Moreover, coca does not have a bitter taste.

Much of the early part of Beyond the Andes is dull and aimless, using overworked literary devices in a weak attempt to create drama: "That same evening, perched on the side of the balcony of my hotel room over Quito, my vision blurred and what I saw was not the city, but the Ecuadorian coastal plan stretching out before me. The patterns of the coastal cultures were starting to emerge more clearly in my mind, but where did they lead?"

The middled part of the book, describing the author's search for a mysterious cave the Cueva de Tayos, supposed to be a repository of fantastic ancient artifacts, as well as the abode of a fierce, Bigfoot-like creature, is much more suspenseful, but ultimately, the suspense does not lead anywhere.

To its credits, Beyond the Andes is handsomely produced, with a wealth of black-and-white photographs, sensibly reproduced throughout the text, alongside the written references. I would like to see the responses of archeologists to the theories and evidence Turolla presents. This is not an obvious work of fiction like Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods , but the style is bothersome, and I question the validity of some of the content.