Deep in the remote mountains of central Ecuador, the largest undiscovered treasure in Latin America waits to be found. This ancient horde of Inca gold comes complete with a vengeful curse, multiple treasure maps and a trail of dead adventurers.
With an estimated value of over two billion dollars, this stash of Inca Gold tops my list of lost treasures.
The Backstory – Conquest of the Incan Empire
In 1532 the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro led 183 cold and hungry soldiers up the spine of the Andes and began his conquest of the Inca Empire. The empire was in a state of turmoil caused by a civil war between two brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar.
Victory had recently gone to Atahualpa, the brother who controlled the northern half of the empire. Lucky for Pizarro, the long civil war had weakened the Inca’s army allowing the Spaniards to easily captured the newly appointed Emperor at his capital city of Cajamarca.
With Atahualpa as their hostage, the Spaniards began sacking the city, stripping sacred religious objects from the temples of the sun and moon.
Atahualpa, seeing that the Spaniards’ valued gold and silver so highly, made Pizarro an offer he couldn’t refuse. In exchange for his freedom, The Emperor promised to fill his massive prison cell with gold – as high as Pizarro could reach his hand – and the two adjoining rooms with silver.
Pizarro agreed to the bargain and for the next three months the treasure streamed in as promised, borne on the backs of Inca peasants – hundreds of beautiful, handcrafted gold artifacts from the far corners of the Inca empire – all of which Pizarro melted down into ingots for transport back to Spain.
The ransom continued to pour in – but by now the Incan people were growing restless. The imprisoned Atahualpa still had a great deal of influence over his warriors – so to head off a possible uprising Pizarro broke his bargain and had the Inca emperor executed.
Atahualpa was garroted on August 29, 1533, then burned at the stake for good measure.
This was a classic case of killing the golden goose. What Pizarro didn’t know was that at the very moment of Atahualpa’s murder, a caravan of 60,000 men was on its way to Cajamarca.
The caravan, led by the Inca general Rumiñahui, was carrying 750 tons of worked gold with which to pay the balance of Atahualpa’s Ransom.
When Rumiñahui learned that Atahualpa had been murdered, the furious general, diverted the treasure caravan into a mountainous region of Ecuador called the Llanganates, then, somewhere in this unforgiving wilderness, he stashed the vast horde of treasure to keep it safe from the marauding Spaniards.
Ruminahui continued fighting against the Spanish, and though he was eventually captured and tortured, he never revealed the location of the treasure.
Over the next forty years the Inca Empire was decimated, its people enslaved – and the Treasure of Llanganates was all but forgotten.
Where’s the Treasure?
Well, if I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, would I? No one (alive) knows the exact location of the treasure, but I can give you a general idea to get you started.
According to legend, the treasure lies somewhere in the Llanganates Mountain Range. Today this area is encompassed by the Llangantes National Park.
This huge reserve (219707 hectares) is located smack-dab in the center of Ecuador and boasts some of the most treacherous terrain and extreme weather conditions in the country.
Situated at an altitude between 1,200 and 4,512 meters, with temperatures ranging between 5 to 24 degrees centigrade; It rains, sleets, or snows so frequently that thick cloud banks shroud the volcanic peaks of the Langanates throughout most of the year.
On the ground, dense fog obscures the rocky cliffs and the land is saturated in mud – not a place for the faint of heart!
If you want to launch your own expedition then go between December and January when the weather is the most hospitable.
Trail of Clues
Many generations of adventurers have sought Atahualpa’s gold, but the mountains of the Llanganates have refused to surrender their secret.
Here is a short timeline of clues that may lead you to the treasure:
Several decades after the death of Atahualpa, an impoverished Spanish adventurer named Valverde marries an Inca princess from the area. She is said to have led him to the treasure, because Valverde becomes unaccountably wealthy and returns to Spain, supposedly having removed only a small amount from the hoard.
When he lay dying Valverde writes an itinerary which has come to be know as Valverde’s Derrotero – Valverde’s Path. The document describes various Llanganates landmarks which will lead one to the treasure.
On his death, Valverde bequeaths the document to King Charles V of Spain.
King Charles sends Valverde’s Derrotero to provincial authorities in Latacunga, a town near the Llanganates mountains. These officials then undertake an expedition and apparently stumble onto something extremely promising.
But their leader, a Franciscan monk named Father Longo, mysteriously vanishes one night. The hunt is abandoned for the next hundred years.
In the late 1700s, a miner named Don Atanasio Guzmán, who worked the old Inca mines in the Llanganates, manages to draft a detailed treasure map. But before he can claim his prize he too disappears in the mountains.
The treasure is forgotten until….
1860 when a British botanist named Richard Spruce, while doing research in the archives at Latacunga, stumbles upon Valverde’s Derrotero, and the map drawn by Guzman.
Spruce publishes this information in the Journal of Royal Geographical Society in 1860.
This article, entitled Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, rekindles the treasure fever. The accumulated weight of Guzmán’s map, Spruce’s notes, and a translation of Valverde’s Derrotero into English set off a small stampede of English-speaking explorers.
In 1886, working with Spruce, a pair of treasure hunters from Nova Scotia reportedly solve the riddle of Valverde’s Derrotero and find the treasure. Their names are Captain Barth Blake and Lieutenant George Edwin Chapman.
Blake makes maps of the region and sends letters to a friend. In one of the letters Blake writes…
It is impossible for me to describe the wealth that now lays in that cave marked on my map, but I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men….There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine, life-size human figures made out of beaten gold and silver, birds, animals, cornstalks, gold and silver flowers. Pots full of the most incredible jewelry. Golden vases full of emeralds.
Captain Barth Blake
So, why didn’t Blake and Chapman claim the treasure? Because Chapman didn’t survive the journey out of the mountains and Blake fell overboard on a trip to North America to sell the gold they’d taken from the cave.
The Curse of Atahualpa’s Gold
You’ve already read about some of the victims of the treasure’s curse; Father Longo, Guzman, Chapman and Blake.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
In the mid-1930s a Scotsman named Erskine Loch mounted two disastrous treasure hunts in the Llanganates. During the first expedition, porters deserted Loch and violent rains dogged him for 37 out of 39 days.
On his second trip, Loch’s party ran out of food and fell to hallucinations. “The country ahead,” Loch wrote in his book, Fever, Famine, and Gold, “had spur after spur of precipitous rock faces descending into raging torrents below.
Everything we stood upon, everything we clutched gave way under us.” Soon after the book’s publication, Loch shot himself.
Yet others kept coming – and dying. In the 1920s, an American known in local accounts as “Colonel Brooks” established a bank in Ecuador and then got the treasure bug.
On his first trip into the mountains, his porters mutinied.
Later Brooks decided to take his wife to the Llanganati for a “romantic getaway”, but they were promptly greeted by torrential rains.
She died of pneumonia, and he ended up in a madhouse in New York – muttering wildly, one imagines, about gold and silver and emeralds.
Bob Holt was an American geologist from Arizona who had worked with various oil and gold-mining companies in Ecuador during the 1960s. On his first treasure expedition into the Langanati Holt slipped and fell on a sharp broken tree trunk. It stabbed him directly through the heart.
And the list goes on!