Exploring the City of Caesars: Patagonia's Legendary Lost City
Legend has it that the City of Caesars, otherwise known as the Wandering City, once existed in Patagonia, nestled between contemporary Chile and Argentina. Despite rumors and reports having circulated for about 200 years, and expeditions sent to try to track it down, no concrete evidence of its existence was ever uncovered.
El Dorado, Paititi, and the City of Caesars: The Quest for South America's Lost Cities
Stories surrounding the mythical City of Caesars echo tales of other fabled lost cities which have enthralled and enchanted generations of dreamers and explorers, especially during the era of European colonization. Much like Plato’s famously fabled Atlantis, tantalizing tall tales of long-forgotten cities brimming with treasure have captured the imagination of fortune-seeking adventurers, inspiring many to embark on perilous journeys into the vast expanse of South America.
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“How to explain the magic of an abandoned city?” asked Aude de Tocqueville in Atlas of Lost Cities: A Travel Guide to Abandoned and Forsaken Destinations:
“For the very reason that somewhere no longer exists, it can be transformed into the ideal city, the city of one’s dreams.”
In Chile, Lost City of Z is a rumored hub of wealth hidden deep within the Chilean jungle, while in the Peruvian Andes Paititi is believed by many to be the legendary last (and lost) city of the Inca.
Many believe that the City of Caesars once existed in Patagonia. Representational image of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia. (SCStock / Adobe Stock)
Patagonia’s City of Caesars
The City of Caesars of Patagonia has gone down in history as a mythological lost city situated somewhere in South America’s Southern Cone. With such a prestigious name, it’s important not to confuse it with Italy’s Baiae, a once fashionable resort frequented by the likes of Julius Caesar, Nero and Hadrian, and which has come to be known as the sunken city of the Caesars after parts of it were lost underwater when the coastline retreated due to volcanic activity.
Remembered as being an incredibly wealthy city, the Patagonian City of Caesars has been described as being filled with gold and precious stones.
“This imaginary city was given buildings with roofs of silver, churches and towers of jasper, and bells of gold, and whose inhabitants, withdrawn from all external dealings, possessed everything that was imagined to be delightful,” wrote Francisco Astaburuaga Cienfuegos in his 1899 Geographical Dictionary of the Republic of Chile.
In some accounts, the City of Caesars is even described as being home to a legendary race, sometimes described as European-looking white giants. In The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Brooke-Hitching describes the case of a book published anonymously in 1764. The novel included nine letters reportedly written in the early 1600s which described a people known as “the Cessares” existing in the 43rd or 44th degree of south latitude.
While the letters cited were “completely invented” by a Scotsman named James Burgh, the book was inspired by the original legend of the City of Caesars. But where did the story of this mythical lost city actually come from?
Artistic representation of a fabled lost city of gold. (freehand / Adobe Stock)
Unraveling the Roots of Patagonia's Enigmatic City of Caesars
It appears that these tales about the City of Caesar are an amalgamation of several fabled accounts told by colonial explorers.
In 1515 the Spanish explorer Juan de Solis and his men were attacked by natives while undertaking an expedition near present-day Buenos Aires. Inspired by indigenous stories of an inland mountain of silver, which came to be known as Sierra de la Plata, rumor spread that the survivors of de Solis’ party had trekked inland toward Patagonia, where they had encountered a fantastic city inhabited by a race of white men.
The first reference of the City of Caesars itself comes from Francisco Cesar, a captain who led an expedition to explore modern-day Argentina in 1528. Cesar was sent on this odyssey by the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot who, on route to the Maluku Islands via the Strait of Magellan, decided to explore the area surrounding the Rio de la Plata in northern Argentina. Cabot’s mission ended up founding the first Spanish forts in both modern-day Uruguay and Argentina.
Stories of Cesar’s mission were spread thanks to Ruy Díaz de Guzmán, who wrote a third-hand account of their adventures, during which they reportedly encountered a rich city made of precious metals deep inside the Andean mountains. He called is the Ciudad de los Césares, meaning the City of Caesars. By all accounts, this City of Caesars was a fabrication of Guzmán’s overactive imagination.
Fueled by the disappearance of men during various exploratory expeditions throughout South America, as well curious legends recounted by native inhabitants, stories of the lost city and its treasures continued to pop up time and time again. In 1540, a shipwreck in the straits of Magellan resulted in the loss of about 200 lives.
The twist in the story occurred in 1563 — 23 years later — when two of the lost crew finally returned to Chile and recounted their adventures. Their captivating story claimed that they had discovered a city brimming with treasures attributed to the Inca during their remarkable journey.
Another version originated in the 17th century, during which Spanish colonists claimed to have discovered a city believed to be the lost City of Caesars. While this inspired several expeditions in the following centuries, none of them succeeded in finding the lost city.
Despite the failure to locate the lost City of Caesars, the memory of the city and its many different forms continued to endure over time.
Map of the coast of South America, including the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, from the Miller Atlas dating back to 1519 (Public domain)
The Argentine Fort - Remnants of the Lost City?
The “enduring allure,” to borrow a term coined by the BBC, of the lost City of Caesars, and the obsessive quest to find it has continued up until today. There are reports that the elusive Delphos Foundation announced that a rock formation found in the province of Rio Negro in Argentina, known as the Argentine Fort, is part of the City of Caesars.
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Patagonia Argentina, a travel company based out of Argentina, claims that the foundation believed that this fortress was built by the Knights Templar to protect the Holy Grail. This yarn asserts that the Templars travelled to America before Christopher Columbus. One version states that the Holy Grail, along with the rest of the Templar treasure, made its way to America before the massacre of the Templar Knights. A favorite of conspiracy theorists around the world, these stories are bound to attract tourism.
Having led many expeditions to the area from 1997 to 2006, the Delphos Foundation appears to have disappeared without a trace, much like the lost city itself (some reports have even linked the foundation to cases of child sexual abuse). Secondhand accounts claim that the foundation backed up their hypothesis with maps, specifically a map published in 1865 by Juan Antonio Victor Martin de Moussy, a cartographer who refers to the Fort as the “ancient abandoned Fort.”
Whether the Argentine fortress is the key to finding the mythical lost City of Caesars, if it ever existed at all, is clearly open to question. However, the allure of pursuing unsubstantiated stories of boundless treasures in far-flung locations has captivated explorers for generations, fueling their relentless pursuit of unattainable dreams.
Top image: Representational image of the ruins of the lost City of Caesars in an overgrown jungle. Source: warmtail / Adobe Stock
Alfieri, A. 14 October 2013. “Patagonia’s Mysterious Lost City of the Caesars” in Murder is Everywhere. Available at: https://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2013/10/patagonias-mysterious-lost-city-of.html
Beliefnet. No date. “The Secret History of the Knights Templar in America” in beliefnet. Available at: https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/the-da-vinci-code/the-secret-history-of-the-knights-templar-in-america.aspx
Brooke-Hitching, E. 2018. The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. Chronicle Books.
Contenidos Patagonia. No date. “The City of Caesars: The Abandoned Fort” in Patagonia Argentina. Available at: https://www.patagonia-argentina.com/en/ciudad-de-los-cesares-en-patagonia/
De Tocqueville, A. 2016. Atlas of Lost Cities: A Travel Guide to Abandoned and Forsaken Destinations. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
Heuvel, S. 22 September 2022. “The Knights Templar and Holy Grail in America?” in Tidewater Historian. Available at: https://tidewaterhistorian.blogspot.com/2009/09/knights-templar-and-holy-grail-in.html
Smith, J. R. 6 April 2021. “The enduring allure of lost cities” in BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210405-the-enduring-allure-of-lost-cities