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Peru – The Lost City of Gold

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Photography by David A. Adams

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A reverence for the sun and its life-giving rays has long marked the history of Peru. At one time, Peru’s religion, legends and myths orbited the sun as literally as the planets in the solar system. According to the Inca, the sun was “the sole, supreme and universal god, who created and sustained everything on earth with his light and virtue.” The sun was the masculine archetype; the ultimate force of creation. And the Inca culture which stamped its imprint on Peru and beyond for half a millennium, revolved in turn around the worship of that force.

At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532, the Inca empire stretched along the Pacific coast and Andean highlands, from the northern border of modern Ecuador down to central Chile. Its societal and cultural achievements were impressive: the Incas mastered astronomy, irrigation, engineering, architecture, metallurgy, a complex road network and even a form of brain surgery. Which, given the fact this was all achieved in the Andean Cordillera – second only in height and harshness to the Himalayas – makes it an astonishing feat. And all from a culture which never mastered the wheel, the arch or a written language; supposedly fundamental ingredients of ‘civilisation’.

It is easy to see that the empire itself was like a sun around which daily life revolved – its ‘rays’ were the many roads, all of which led to Cusco, its mighty capital from the 12th Century onwards. To wield this power, Tahuantinsuyu or ‘Land of the Four Quarters’ as the Incas called their empire, presided over a wealth and sophistication that was unsurpassed. It would be the empire’s undoing.

Gold was, of course, the Incas’ favoured metal – its colour, sheen and malleability made it tantamount to solid sun-droplets. Every temple to the sun (and there were many in Cusco alone), was covered with gold; every emperor’s palace a glittering treasure hoard; the roads in Cusco were paved with the stuff. These were not just testimonies to imperial power, but a celebration of the sun Himself. A Jesuit priest wrote at the time: “…he who began to reign did not touch the estate and wealth of his predecessor but… built a new palace and acquired for himself silver and gold…” Ciezo de Leon, a contemporary conquistador, began to describe the jaw-dropping wealth he had seen in Cusco but broke off, for fear he would not be believed.

The Spaniards, hearing of the fabulous wealth of the Incas, headed west to plunder the gold, silver and all that glittered. They found more booty than they could have imagined.

The earthly embodiment of the sun’s power was the Great Golden Disc of the Sun – a legendary object shrouded in mysticism and mystery. It may have served as a mirror to reflect the dawn sun into the gold-lined temple of Coricancha in Cusco, but we cannot know for sure. Whatever its purpose, it was the holiest of holies, and touching it unprepared was blasphemy. Melting it down to make something as commonplace as money was not just contemptible; it was heresy.

Legend has it that when the Incas heard the Conquistadors were approaching Cusco, the Disc was spirited away into the forested mountains and was never seen again. With that last, desperate act the sun sank over the Inca empire and a reign of darkness began.

Our journey begins in the old capital and last known resting place of the Disc: Cusco. We are here to follow a trail from history into legend – to seek the Inca holy grail, or at least discover what happened to it. And to help us, we have the notes made by Hiram Bingham, the early 20th Century archaeologist who ‘discovered’ and excavated Machu Picchu in 1912. His notes indicate that the Disc may have been taken to one of Machu Picchu’s sister cities high up in the mountains that were never sacked by the Spaniards: Puncuyoc and Choquequirao, two of the lost Inca cities of gold.


Cusco

We’ve timed our arrival in Cusco perfectly. It’s the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, and the festival of the sun – Inti Raymi – is underway. It’s the oldest surviving Inca celebration; an all-singing, all-dancing festival of colour and spectacle intended to persuade the sun to return after this, the shortest day of the year.

With the arrival of the Spanish, Inti Raymi, like many indigenous festivals went to ground and didn’t resurface until the mid-twentieth Century. Today, it’s as big as it ever was. A priest invokes the power of the sun, his arms outstretched almost in parody of late ‘fifties Hollywood epics, all participants wear colourful headdresses and robes and carry the emperor’s empty throne to the greatest temple of Cusco: Coricancha.

The Coricancha was the biggest and most imposing temple to the sun in Cusco, and allegedly housed the Sun Disc. The walls look pretty bare now, but once upon a time they were covered completely with gold. There were golden llamas, idols and other artefacts; the sight must have been stunning. Only three Europeans have ever seen the temple as it was, and like good Conquistadors they took the gold with them – including 700 sheets of gold, each weighing four and a half pounds.

The only thing they did not take was the Great Golden Disc of the Sun. Because it was no longer there…

It is here in Cusco that I meet Gary Ziegler, an American archaeologist who has devoted his life to exploring Peru’s jungle for Inca ruins. If I am to set out and find the final resting place of the Sun Disc, I will need Gary’s help. Already he has a clue of where to begin.

“We found this wonderful, major Inca road – and all Inca roads always go somewhere specific. They weren’t built just to make the going easier; they were built to go from A to B,” says Gary, with the enthusiasm of a small boy; or indeed an academic. “And the good thing is, there’s nothing recorded on maps, so there’s a good chance that no one’s been up there before.”

The Inca roads were magnificent in their hey-day. El Camino Real made up a 15,000-mile network of roads, six times longer than Route 66, much of it reclaimed by the jungle. Travelling across these roads, at an altitude of 16,500 feet where the oxygen is thin, is hard going – as we are soon to discover.

It’s time to leave Cusco and head for the Vilcabamba: the final refuge of the Inca, from which they waged a war of attrition against the Spaniards. To get there, we must traverse the Sacred Valley, cross the Urubamba River and finally – hopefully – reach Puncuyoc, the possible last resting place of the Great Sun Disc. Gary Ziegler has gone on ahead, and we’ll meet him again in the Puncuyoc Mountains.

But first, we’ll need transport.

Ollantaytambo

Peru is home to the kinds of trucks that you circle cautiously, weigh the risks involved in trusting your life to it, before deciding ‘Oh what the hell.’ This is one of those trucks. It has seen better days – well, better years – and for 150 solos, or 40 bucks, I have the dubious honour of squeezing in for a very long, very slow ride across the treacherous mountain paths.

The driver – rotund, unshaven, sporting a Hindenburg moustache and trilby hat – introduces himself as Don Tieflo and his offsider as Efraen. The truck may be a spluttering rust-bucket, but no man knows these roads like Don Tieflo and soon we set off on a wing nut and a prayer. Don Tieflo has agreed to take me to the top end of the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo where I must hire porters for my journey into the Vilcabamba.

Lake Titicaca, the place where it all began, lies further south. The Inca believed they were the children of the sun, born on an island in this vast lake in the mountains. This was their Garden of Eden. But we’re heading to the place where it all ended; the last stand.

The roads are steeper and higher now, and we jostle, bump and grind our way upwards. Don Tieflo rolls a cigarette while driving and chatting loudly above the noise of the toiling engine, as I flinch at every near-fatal near miss. I don’t think I could do this for a living. Don Tieflo of course has been doing this all his life – hauling wool and corn back and forth between Cusco and the Sacred Valley for over 50 years (probably in the same truck). In these parts, they call him El Rey de la Carretera – the King of the Road.

And then I forget everything: the valley suddenly opens and I see the Urubamba Valley (or Vilcanota) sprawling below. The Sacred Valley. The Urubamba River, a favourite haunt for rafters, flows through the valley, making it extraordinarily lush and fertile – the reason why the Inca considered it sacred. The chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega wrote of Urubamba: “This valley excels all other parts of Peru so that all the Inca kings made it their garden and haunt of pleasure and recreation “.

The Inca ruins of Pisac, carved into the hillsides of the Urubamba Valley, used to guard the breadbasket of the Inca Empire. Terraced gardens mark the valley like overlapping lily pads, every tier sliced into the hillside by human hands. We drive on, and after a short pit stop to savour the local brew Chicha (chewed corn fermented in water), we continue jostling along the road. Until, that is, the truck decides it’s had enough and stops dead on a bridge. Of all the places to break down, this is the worst: we can’t get off the bridge and we’re blocking traffic. And cranking the thing up again could take a while.

But after much sweat and toil, the truck splutters to life again and we potter, judder and bounce on towards Ollantaytambo like a drunken sailor on a bicycle. When we do finally arrive intact – much to our relief – a local carnival is in full swing, with people from the surrounding countryside all camped out in the town for the occasion. Having a bash at a piñata (actually a corn cob) while thundering past it on horseback is the essence of the carnival, although it’s actually just a good time to catch up on gossip, do a bit of trading and have a knees-up.

The carnival-goers are a spectacle themselves, with their hats, thick petticoats and the typically Peruvian (Quecha) red cloaks, dotting the green hillsides like poppies. In fact, this ‘national’ dress hails from 18th Century Spain, when Charles III ordered all his colonial subjects to dress like the Spanish peasantry of the day.

Meanwhile, I use the opportunity to find some porters for the journey to Vilcabamba. Among them is Oliandro, who hails from the Patacancha Valley, the same valley from which Hiram Bingham hired his porters.

To get to Vilcabamba, we can either walk for nine hours over heavy terrain, or kayak downriver for 90 minutes on the Urubamba River. I choose the latter, also because I met up with Peru’s kayak champion at the carnival: Eric Oranus, former Olympic medallist, will be showing me the ropes and guiding me along the Urubamba River.

We cast off along a calm stretch of the river, but it quickly shows us what it’s made of. Soon the river’s roar is deafening, its white water boiling over boulders the size of Volkswagens, and all you can do is ride it out the best you can. Switching between elation and terror, I somehow manage to keep up with Eric and arrive, soaked and jubilant, at the downstream rendezvous point.

Vilcabamba

I meet Oliandro and the other porters, who spend their whole lives hauling things over the Vilcabamba. Another man I meet is David Espeo; guide, translator, shaman and invaluable source of information about all things Incan on our trek through the mountains. We will be heading first to Yurok Rumi, then to Nupanca and on to Inca Wasi, the last bastion of the Inca empire.

The trekking is extremely hard going. Which is why the porters chew coca leaves along the way. Much like Qat or Miraa in north-east Africa, coca leaves are bitter and, when chewed, are said to suppress hunger, relieve altitude sickness and stomach ache and is of course a powerful stimulant. Its effect is more like drinking an espresso than a major cocaine rush, but it does the trick.

It’s said that by chewing coca, Inca messengers could run for 150 miles per day. We’re only tackling a modest ten miles, and even that is difficult. At this altitude of 10,000 feet or 3,000 metres, every step feels much heavier than at sea level, and we have to stop every 50 feet or so.

“We have a saying here in Peru,” says David Espeo. “What goes up must go up forever.” I laugh and say: “I was rather hoping for ‘what goes up must come down’.” David shakes his head and smiles sadly. We’ve hit level terrain now, which would have been easier on the legs if it hadn’t been for the swamp-like pampas, and its sinkholes and mosquitoes test even the porters’ patience.

Yurok Rumi

But then, miraculously, we arrive at a watercourse – the same watercourse discovered by Hiram Bingham on 9 August 1911. He drew the same conclusion as us: where there’s water, there’s an Inca site. We have arrived at Yurok Rumi: the House of the Rising Sun. Built by Manco Inca, one of the last Inca rulers, Yurok Rumi was for a short while the capital of the empire. It was from here that the Inca launched a last-ditch offensive on the Spanish in Cusco. Manco Inca rode forth from Yurok Rumi in 1536, and marched on Cusco at the head of an army of 200,000. He nearly recaptured the city from the Spanish too, but eventually, outnumbered and overstretched, was forced to retreat. Yurok Rumi became the emperor’s Elba.

We set up camp under the stars in the shadows of Yurok Rumi, the campfire’s flames dancing across the temple’s perfectly fitting, lichen-covered stones. And dinner, cooked in a makeshift stone oven, consists of baked potatoes and mystery meat that turns out, on closer inspection, to be guinea pig – the perfect pet back home; a mouth-watering delicacy here. But it’s very welcome (and tasty) and soon we’re falling asleep one by one under the stars. Tomorrow is another day.

I’m woken up the next morning by a horn being blown loudly; it’s the local call to prayer, unchanged since Inca times, and David Espeo will be the holy man presiding. The porters all kneel before the dawn as the sun, still weak and hesitant, rises over the crest of the mountain. Yurok Rumi – the House of the Rising Sun – was well named.

David leads the porters in prayers to the mountain gods to preserve us all on this dangerous journey over the mountains. We give offerings of guinea pig, llama foetuses, amulets and herbal alcohol. The latter’s potency is all the stronger because the bearer carried it all the way from the coast in a seashell. The reason for all this palaver is that today we climb to one of the most sacred sites in the Vilcabamba: Inca Wasi.

This is the most difficult leg of the journey. We must climb higher, to Nupanca, and on to Inca Wasi, perched high in the Puncuyoc Mountains where we agreed to meet up with Gary Ziegler. The cloud line is quickly upon us and, hampered by cloud and drizzle, we pick our way carefully over the high, single-file track like an elderly man in the dark. It’s not surprising the Inca chose the Vilcabamba as the final resting place for their holy relics – especially as they also destroyed many of the roads behind them as they went. Hidden by dense cloud and 4,000 metres of high, rugged terrain, Inca Wasi was never discovered by the Spaniards. Their cavalry, heavy armour and supplies would never have made it up these mountains.

Inca Wasi

And then we see it. The clouds break a moment, giving us a tantalising glimpse of the ruins, basking in the brief sunlight. Gary Ziegler, during a previous expedition to Puncuyoc, wrote: “Located at 3900 metres high on a knife edge ridge, this building is carefully constructed with massive shaped and fitted stone doorjambs, windows and niches… Life here would have been bitter on this exposed mountain.” Was this the final resting place of the Great Golden Disc of the Sun? We climb on with new strength, heartened that our destination is finally within our sights.

And when we reach it at last, the view is unrivalled. The clouds have thinned and we can see, far below, a lake in which the unmistakable image of Yurok Rumi – the great white rock tower, the house of the rising sun – is reflected. This sight can only be seen at high noon from the central doorway of Inca Wasi, and leaves us all speechless. It is abundantly clear that this temple’s location and design were not chosen on a whim; the result is truly breathtaking.

We meet Gary Ziegler at his base-camp not far from Inca Wasi. He’s been here a couple of days already and has had time to go on reconnaissance into the jungle below. He hasn’t found anything yet, but he is hopeful. “We’re going to clear trails and look for indication of life,” he says, and adds: “I’m pretty sure we’ll find something significant up there.” He would be proved right…

The next day we enter the jungle and, armed with machetes, hack our way through the dense undergrowth. This is the home of the puma, scorpion and bush master viper, although actually my biggest enemy here is much smaller: by the end of the morning I’m covered with bites from a fierce little bug called the pumacanchee – which translates as ‘makes the puma cry’.

That afternoon, we cross the sacred Vilcanota – one of the sacred rivers encircling the Vilcabamba – and continue deep into the jungle on the other side. Hack a trail here, and six months later it will have disappeared again beneath the greenery. But we persevere.

Four hours later we glimpse something none of us was expecting: a wall. And then another wall. And then a man-made watercourse. Gary Ziegler is very excited by this discovery. “David! Look at this window! This is definitely Inca.” He follows the wall up the hill until he can see the valley beyond it and calls me over urgently: “That’s the Vilcanota River there,” he says and points at the river below. “This could well be a temple to the river. The Vilcanota was the earthly representation of the Milky Way, one of the most important phenomena to the Inca.”

Again, this temple – whatever it will turn out to be – was not built here by accident. “We don’t know what we’ve got,” says Gary, obviously having a hard time tempering his excitement with academic empiricism. “But we’ve got to get the guys up here and clear it and see if we have time to see what else is around us. There’s got to be more.”

We begin the clearing away of the worst of the undergrowth. As the days wear on, the building slowly takes shape; moss-covered walls see daylight again for the first time in centuries. Could this be an undiscovered Inca temple? Or, dare we hope, the final resting place of the Great Golden Disc of the Sun?

Well, no. It turns out our euphoria is premature. Gary discovers that Hiram Bingham himself was here before us. He marked this building on his travels 90 years ago, but apparently never came back here and never excavated it. Nor did anyone else since. Which also means we must be the first westerners since Bingham to be here, and it’s certainly the first time this ruin has been filmed. For Gary and I, it’s more than good enough and Gary will make sure ‘our’ Inca ruin is restored, mapped and logged, hoping to tease its secrets from the stones.

Of course, we came no closer to discovering the truth behind the Golden Sun Disc, its fate or its location. But perhaps it is fitting that “the sole, supreme and universal god” should not surrender its mystery so easily – especially not to westerners. Still, I can’t help pondering the words ‘what goes up must go up forever’.