Lost Inca Gold: The Quest for the Llanganatis Treasure
In 1532, following a lengthy civil war with his brother Huascar, Inca emperor Atahualpa was captured by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who seized the opportunity to conquer the lands of the Great Inca Empire while they were divided.
While Atahualpa was imprisoned at a palace in Cajamarca, the incarcerated monarch offered Pizarro an incredible amount of gold for his release. Intoxicated with the prospect of unlimited riches, Pizarro accepted the deal, and shortly after the gold would be collected from all over the Inca Empire by the emperor’s trusted confidant, General Rumiñahui.
Atahualpa. (Public Domain)
The Origins of the Llanganatis Treasure
On hearing that the general and his men were coming to deliver over 750 tons of gold, Pizarro became suspicious, believing that the army planned to liberate Atahualpa from his shackles. Atahualpa was promptly executed, being gruesomely strangled to death and burnt at the stake. Upon hearing the news, Rumiñahui ordered the gold to be hidden in an uninhabited area of Northern Ecuador now called the Llanganates, and although the commander was detained and tortured by the Spanish, he never revealed the location, taking it with him to his grave.
The Llanganates, a remote mountain range lying at 2500 to 4500m (8202-14763 ft) altitude, is seldom visited, and is located on the eastern edge of the Avenue of Volcanoes - where Ecuador’s central highlands straddle the dense vegetation of the Amazon rainforest. It’s a place with cold, rainy grasslands, perilous lakes, rivers, and swamps, dense mist, and it’s wet all year around.
The Llanganates. (Cristian Paliz/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Despite the treacherous conditions, for 500 years countless fortune-finders hoping to stumble upon the legendary Llanganatis treasure would undertake the grueling expedition to Northern Ecuador.
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The mystery of the Llanganatis treasure would surface again 50 years later when Jose Valverde, the first resident bishop of South America, married a local indigenous girl in Latacunga. For a wedding present, her father, Cacique de Pillaro, had taken him to a spot in the Llanganates and unveiled the secret fortune of Atahualpa, making Valverde rich overnight.
On his death bed, the Spaniard would bequeath the location of the treasure to the Spanish king in a cryptic guide called the ‘Derrotero de Valverde’. The Iberian monarch would later send an unsuccessful search party that ended with the drowning of a friar in the deadly swamps of the Llanganates.
After, the tale of Emperor Atahualpa remained forgotten for hundreds of years, until its re-discovery by English botanist Richard Spruce in 1850. Spruce had travelled to Ecuador to find the cinchona tree, whose seeds were a key ingredient in the anti-malarial drug quinine. Risking his life on more than one occasion, Spruce documented a plethora of hallucinogenic and toxic plants of the Amazon and noted down the languages of 21 indigenous Amazonian tribes during his stay in Ecuador between 1849 to 1864.
While based at a town called Baños, he unearthed Valverde’s account and an accompanying map, publishing them both in the ‘ Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London’ in 1861. The map had been drawn by Anastacio Guzman, a botanist who had marked it with the clues provided by Valverde only a few years after his passing.
Section of the map constructed by the Anastacio Guzman. (Richard Spruce/The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London)
36 years later, a treasure-hunter named Barth Blake and his associate Lieutenant George Edwin Chapman, would attempt to find Valverde’s cave after coming across Spruce’s manuscripts. Unperturbed by the death of his companion Chapman, who died on the journey out of the mountains, Blake claimed that he had discovered the Llanganatis treasure in a series of letters sent to his friends. He wrote:
"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.”
A gold Inca plaque. (Ángel M. Felicísimo/CC BY 2.0)
Alongside this the stash contained life-sized statues of humans, birds, and flowers and golden vases filled to the brim with exquisite emeralds. Yet Blake professed that it was impossible to carry all the priceless artifacts back. Intending to return to pick up the rest of the treasure on a second trip, Blake embarked on a boat back to New York, but he was never seen again, with some claiming he was pushed overboard.
Nearly 100 years later, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, British mountaineer Joe Brown and his Scottish companion Hamish MacInnes attempted to find the Llanganatis treasure in a series of expeditions that would test the experienced adventurers to their limits. MacInnes’s travelogue ‘Beyond the Ranges’ documents how they tried 3 times, in 1979, 1980, and 1981, to discover a prize that would make them the most celebrated explorers of their generation.
In 1979, accompanied by illustrious climbing equipment manufacturer Yvon Choinard, the group would start their inaugural journey at the town of San Jose. They had naively opted to undertake the expeditions without the help of local guides and porters, a decision that they would later regret.
On the first day MacInnes would develop sunstroke, and for the majority of the trip Brown suffered from dysentery. Inexperienced with the terrain, the men suffered further difficulties cutting down the local ‘arrow grass’ which grew in dense thickets all around, could be 6 meters tall (19.69 ft) and was razor-sharp. The climbers, realizing the conditions were too dangerous, decided to head back. On the way they became lost again following tapir trails, but with the help of Brown’s compass they were able to re-orientate themselves back to Ambato, their starting point.
MacInne’s recalls how: “Our lips were cracked and bleeding from the sun and our clothes ripped and black from campfire smoke”.
To rigorously explore the Llanganates for Valverde’s cave, they understood that they needed to bring a bigger team. The next year they brought with them two more bigshots of British mountaineering, Mo Anthoine and Martin Boysen, and reflecting on their mistakes of the previous year, employed a crew of local guides and porters to help them on their way.
A section of the Llanganates. (Mr.mach /Adobe Stock)
Initially, following a marked path, the hike went smoothly, however, problems arose when the path started to bring them away from their intended direction. The local guides wanted to keep on following the path, but their European employers favored a more direct route which would lead them again through dangerous arrow-grass.
Unimpressed by their choices, the majority of the team left Brown and MacInnes and returned to San Jose. The band of mountaineers continued on, but without the help of their crew’s machetes, progress through the thick scrubland slowed down considerably. The one remaining good machete, owned by their dedicated guide Geraldo who had stayed behind, broke, and he decided to retrieve some machetes back at San Jose, a 5-day round-trip. The struggling adventurers carried on with only a Nepalese combat knife to help them navigate through the impenetrable foliage.
Braving deadly sharp vines, ant bites, and trickling wet mud, they eventually reached a steep valley, where MacInnes spotted a pass near a landslide area he thought was marked on the map. Making their way to the top of the landslide, the team discovered to their dismay a boulder field 80 meters (262.47 ft) deep, which would have covered any remnants of an Inca mine.
Even worse, when they went to rendezvous with their relief party, they found only their footprints and tracks. Luckily, Martin Boysen, a skilled tracker, was able to follow them back to a village called La Serena. Nelson Cerda of the relief party lived there, and upon hearing about the pass and the landslide, revealed to the explorers the existence of Inca mines nearby.
On their final expedition in 1981, Brown and MacInnes would return to the Inca mines spoken about by Nelson, only to find nothing but a drystone structure. They had forgotten to bring an archaeologist who could explain this feature, and so they went back home, empty-handed but overflowing with stories.
While Brown, MacInnes, and their teams lived to tell the tale, others weren’t so lucky. Perhaps inspired by the British mountaineers, In 1986, Davis Groover, Bill Johnson, and Edison Cristobal Guevara set out to find the lost trove, entering the rainforest with six guides. On their way back to Latacunga the party were split up by impassable fog and became lost. Johnson, who was suffering from a broken arm, dehydration, and exhaustion, was the first to be recovered by a group of Americans who had also been searching for gold, and 2 days later, Guevara was found in an equally wretched state. But their friend David Groover didn’t survive, having died of hunger and exposure.
Unflustered by the potentially deadly consequences, in the early 2000s British author Mark Honigsbaum sought the fabled treasure hoard with the help of 2 other adventurers claiming they had independently discovered Inca gold.
Originally traveling to Ecuador to find the malaria medication developed by Richard Spruce, Honigsbaum’s plans changed after he heard about the gold when the Ecuadorian Air Force, in a failed bid to finally locate it, deployed paratroopers to a mountain crater in the north-east. Attracted by the lure of ancient treasure, he retrieved Valverde’s account and the map from Kew National Archives in London and made his way to the promised land of the Incas.
Before they set out, Honigsbaum contemplated the task ahead of him:
“I would be undertaking not only a voyage into a physical unknown but what Carl Jung called an ‘archetypal’ journey into a psychological unknown -- an exploration, if you like, of the collective antecedants of all treasure legends. I had to go there”.
Yet, despite their best efforts, the gold was never found. Reflecting on his journey, Mark Honigsbaum believed that the Inca gold was forever lost, having been thrown in a lake that had later become inaccessible because of earthquakes.
Llanganatis Treasure: Fact or Fiction?
In 2013, a multi-national team from the UK claimed to have discovered the treasure in a small hidden canyon between the Rio Zunac Reserve and the Baños to Puyo highway. A 79-meter (260-ft) wide and tall stone structure, believed to be man-made, was a particular focus of interest.
Benoit Duverneuill, an archaeologist and part of the crew, divulged more details:
“It looks like a paved wall, an ancient street or plaza with a 60 degrees angle, perhaps the roof of a larger structure. Many of the stones were perfectly aligned, have sharp edges and seemed to have been sculpted by human hands”.
The discovery, however, was merely a sensational news story. In fact, the site had been known to locals since 1997 when photographer Olivier Currat had been brought there by a local guide to take photos. Images of the location had even been featured in Honigsbaum’s book ‘Valverde’s Gold’ as far back as 2004. The ‘pyramid’, as news broadcasters called it, was subsequently found to be a natural formation according to a December 2014 report filed by the Ecuadorian government.
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The entire story has cast doubt on the existence of the treasure, where a strong case remains.
Historian Tamara Estupiñán is one of a number of voices to have argued that the entire story is invented as there is no historical or archaeological evidence to back it up, only the oral tradition. To add to this, the only document that states that the treasure exists and is hidden in the depths of the jungle, Valverde’s account, is famously confusing and unreliable. His distances are imprecise and the landmarks he refers to have unclear names such as ‘The Reclining Woman’. Most importantly, the treasure has still never been seen.
Despite the shaky evidence, the mere possibility of untold riches has remained a beguiling prospect for many, who even today still risk their lives in the pursuit of Inca gold. David Arias, before his untimely death in a car crash, undertook over 40 expeditions, and Andrés Fernández-Salvador, a local man, has spent over 70 years trying to find the mythical Inca treasure chests. Even death hasn’t deterred some adventurers. In 1993, Bill Johnson, whose expedition led to disaster in 1986 and the death of David Groover, sought $300,000 dollars to fund another trip to the Llanganates. He had been seeking the treasure since 1982, completing a staggering 16 expeditions.
In spite of its questionable reality, it’s clear that the draw of treasure still remains a powerful motivation for prospectors. For, as Honigsbaum relates:
“It doesn't matter how many times they promise to use a pencil and respect the regulations governing the handling of precious documents. If they stumble across a treasure map or some other clue to the location of a lost hoard, they are apt to tear the pages straight from the book”.
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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