It’s interesting that the things we value the most, like gold, silver and jewels, all come from the ground. It’s poetic irony that when our ancestors wanted to protect those things of value they would frequently put them back in the ground. With thousands of years of human history behind us, a lot of that treasure is still down there, waiting on a chance discovery.
One of the greatest crimes against humanity was committed by the Spanish in the name of God and the pursuit of gold. By the start of the 16th century the empire of the Incas, which spread through all of Central and South America, was giving way to the new foreign invaders. In the early 1500s a Spanish conquistador named Francisco Pizarro captured the Incan leader, Atahualpa, and demanded an exorbitant ransom for his return. The Incas promised, and delivered, on half a room full of gold, around 13,000 pounds by various estimates, and more than twice as much silver. Pizarro melted down much of the bounty and shipped it back to Spain, which kicked off a gold rush of sorts, even though those pesky natives were in the way. We know that part of the story is true because Pizarro kept meticulous records so the king wouldn’t think he was holding out.
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Pizarro reneged on the deal with the Incas and ended up killing Atahualpa anyway and that’s where what we know ends and the legends begin. One legend suggests that a shipment of gold, silver and jewels that was part of the ransom was diverted and hidden in the mountains when word reached them that the Spanish had double crossed them. The missing treasure shipment also gets lumped in the legend of Paititi, a lost Incan city that was rumored to be full of treasure but was found empty when the Spanish finally seized it.
By this time the Incas had been pushed back west of Brazil to the fringe of modern day Peru and Ecuador. If you’re not familiar with that area, that is some nasty, rugged and inaccessible territory to this day. The Incas learned the hard lesson that the Spanish couldn’t be trusted and it’s certainly plausible that the last of that civilization hid their treasures rather than try to barter for their lives with the conquistadors.
The best guess is that the treasure was hidden somewhere in the Llanganates Mountain Range. If you’re thinking it might be fun to hike the hills looking for lost Inca treasure, forget it. Once you’ve driven as far as rugged, off road vehicles can take you, then your journey starts on foot. From the end of the restored Inca roads, you walk for days and days through rugged mountains. All that hiking gets you to an area of steep cliffs, sharp drops and tangled high altitude jungle…and you’re not alone. The inaccessibility of those hills makes it a perfect hiding place for drug smugglers, rebels and other criminals who have an alarming tendency to shoot strangers on sight. That’s why many striking out to search for the lost treasure of the Incas are never seen again.
All the same, search parties and research teams, both armed and unarmed, have continued pursuing the legend. Back in 2013 researchers found a promising location in the hills but there’s no recent update on whether the area contained any of the lost treasure.
There probably is Incan treasure hidden in those hills, maybe a lot of it. But this is one time that the lure of gold has to take backseat to the preservation of history. The Spanish looted an entire civilization of priceless artifacts and works of art. Most of them were melted down and shipped home. A few of the most intricate pieces were sent to Spain intact where they were briefly put on display before being melted down for the metal.
It’s a sad truth but worth remembering that treasure and tragedy are so frequently intertwined.