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The Gold of Gran Paititi

With the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire, many of its cities were destroyed or abandoned. Some of these would survive in name only; some, such as Macchu Picchu, were later rediscovered. None is more lost, and sought after, than Gran Paititi – for there it is, apparently, where the lost gold treasure of the Incas is.

Philip Coppens


The Coricancha – meaning “the corral of gold” – in the heart of the Inca capital of Cusco was the centre of the Inca religion. The temple was dedicated primarily to Viracocha, the creator god, and Inti, the Sun god. It was also the greatest prize the Spaniards got when they sacked the town in 1533. The south-facing walls of the temple were covered with gold, in order to reflect the light of the sun and illuminate the temple. It is said that there were more than 700 sheets of pure gold, weighing around two kilograms each. Inside the temple was the Punchaco, a solid-gold disk inlaid with precious stones, which represented the sun and which was probably the most sacred object in the Inca Empire.

Cuczo, Plaza de Armas, the central square of Cuczo

Pizarro’s men had already stripped the 1.5 tons of gold from the walls; when the main Spanish force gained Cusco. They gathered hundreds of gold sculptures and objects from the temple, including an altar big enough to hold two men and an extraordinary artificial garden made of gold, including cornstalks with silver stems and ears of gold. At the centre of the Coricancha, marking a place known as Cuzco Cara Urumi (the “Uncovered Navel Stone”) was an octagonal stone coffer, which at one time was covered with 55 kilograms of pure gold. That too was removed.
Tragically, everything was melted down within a month, put on boats that sailed for Spain, which became embroiled in a naval battle, all the gold sinking to the bottom of the seas. Everything was lost, except the Punchaco; its whereabouts remain unknown to this day. As to the Coricancha itself: that was converted into the monastery of Santo Domingo; where once 4000 Inca priests had officiated masses for Viracocha and Inti, now the Dominicans worshipped Jesus Christ.

Javier Sierra, best known as the author of the novel “The Secret Supper”, noted that at the time of the Spanish Conquest, several items of tremendous importance were nevertheless hidden by the Inca themselves, including the Punchaco. The collective of this lost treasure was labelled the “treasure of Inca King Atahualpa” and rumours had it that it was secreted away in tunnels. This rumour was linked with stories about a tunnel leading from the Coricancha and exiting near Sacsayhuaman, the fortress that towers above the city. This exit was known as Chinkana Grande (Big Cave – though it is also the Quechuan word for “labyrinth”), which upon closer inspection seems to be nothing more than a big hole a few metres deep. In 1989, archaeologist Fernando Jimenez del Oso tried to film the entrance of the cave, but failed in his efforts due to the narrowness of the opening and the rubble inside. But…
In 1600, a Jesuit Friar said: “The celebrated cave of Cuzco, called Chinkana by the Indians, was made by the Inca kings. It is very deep and runs through the centre of the city, its mouth or entrance being in the fortress of Sacsayhuaman. It comes down on the side of the mountain where the parish of San Cristobal is situated and, with varying degrees of depth, ends at the Coricancha. All the Indians to whom I have spoken have told me that the Incas made this costly and laborious cave to enable their kings and armies to go in times of war from the fortress of Sacsayhuaman to the Temple of the Sun to worship their idol Punchau without being detected.”

Interior corridor of the ancient Temple of the sun, now part of the Convent of Santo Domingo, Cuczo

In the 17th century, an effort was made to find the treasure supposedly secreted away under the Inca capital. After a team spent several days underground, only one person came out alive. Interestingly, he emerged from an opening under the main altar of the church of Santo Domingo, the site of the Coricancha. Most importantly, the survivor brought with him an ear of corm made of solid gold, definitive proof that the legends were true.
A century later, in 1814, Brigadier Mateo Garcia Pumakahua showed his superiors part of the treasure. He took an officer blind-folded through the main square of Cuzco, to a stream and then, after removing some stones, proceeded down a stone stairway into Cuzco’s underworld. Once the blindfold was removed, the officer saw large silver pumas with emeralds, “bricks” made of gold and silver, and much more. As incredible as it may seem, it is indeed likely that some of the treasures of the Coricancha were secreted away… and some left behind, leaving the Spanish with the impression that they had captured everything.
Interestingly, Pumakahua stated that when witnessing these treasures, he could hear the clock of the Cathedral of Cuzco ringing above. It seems everyone in Cuzco was walking on gold, without knowing it.

Javier Sierra co-operated with Vicente Paris in his efforts to retrieve the treasure. Paris noted that the Coricancha, the convent of Santa Catalina, San Cristobal church and Sacsayhuaman were aligned; if there was a tunnel, it would run perfectly straight.
In 1993, they decided to test the ancient accounts and their new hypothesis. They chose the main altar of Santo Domingo to check whether an opening was indeed present there. Father Benigno Gamarra, abbot of the Convent of Santo Domingo, confirmed: “Your information is correct, but the tunnel in question extends much beyond Sacsayhuaman, since it ends in some place underneath Quiro, in Ecuador.” The abbot was thus claiming that the underground network extended for hundreds of miles.
Still, there was – no doubt not unexpectedly – a problem: the main altar entrance to the underground system was partially closed after the earthquakes that hit the city in 1950. But when work had been carried out to strengthen the foundation of the church, a UNESCO report had catalogued four crypts in the monastery. Furthermore, one Spanish explorer, Anselm Pi Rambla, claimed that he had entered the structure in 1982.

So far, everything looked positive. To quote Sierra: “The priest met me in his study a little before daybreak on March 21, in order to resolve the mystery of the golden corn. ‘I’m only going to tell this to you, I will let you take photographs and ask questions on one condition,’ he warned, ‘That you do not reveal what I’m about to tell you until I am no longer here.’ I accepted. Gamarra then unwrapped a small bundle on the table of his study in which two elaborately encrusted gold crowns had been protected.”
Sierra also became convinced that the tunnel had a special function: “Every 24th of June the interior of the tunnel was totally illuminated by the rays of the sun being reflected on the surface of the famous solar disc and were in time deflected towards the interior of the Chinkana. There, a series of mirrors of highly polished metal sheets conducted the light to Sacsayhuaman.” Gamarra added that the original walls of the Coricancha had been excavated. He found out that there was a stream originating in the main square, running to the old walls of the Coricancha, under the church. To him, it showed that a natural passage connected the various structures.
In 1999, Anselm Pi Rambla negotiated with the National Institute of Culture, the palace of Government and Father Gamarra to arrange the conditions for the exploration beneath the Monastery of Santo Domingo in search of the Inca tunnel. Sponsored by Texan financier Michael Galvis (cost: $760,000), the project got underway in August 2000, using ground penetrating radar to map the underground tunnel. The project revealed that “beneath the altar of Santa Rosa, about four or five meters down, we located a cavity two meters wide that we believe can be the entrance to a great tunnel.” The fourth crypt that had been identified by UNESCO, had since “disappeared”.

Though part of the Inca treasure was therefore apparently hidden underneath Cuzco, another part of the treasure (including 14 gold-clad mummies of the former Inca emperors removed from the Coricancha) was said to have been sent by llama caravan into the Antisuyo, the mountain jungle area east of Cuzco. The caravan’s destination was a mountain-jungle city called “Paikikin”; the Spanish called this city El Gran Paititi – and hence a name was born that would soon become one of the most enduring legends.
Though there is little doubt that Paititi did exist, where it was, is unknown. Former Peruvian journalist Nicholas Asheshov states that “Peru’s so littered with ruins that there’s something seriously wrong if an area doesn’t have any – either no-one’s looked hard enough or they’re just incompetent.”
Furthermore, whether Paititi was “just” the city to which part of the treasure was transported, or whether there was something special about the city, is another big question mark. If the former, any old ruin of a small town or settlement might in theory be Paititi, yet unless there is somewhere a name or further reference, an actual discovery of a ruin might bring no hard confirmation.
But the mention of gold and/or the drive to be remembered as the man who revealed the pride of the Inca empire – on par with Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun – has had a lasting appeal on many Lara Crofts.

The myth of Gran Paititi has intrigued everyone. In 2001, Italian archaeologist, Mario Polia came across a Jesuit document in Rome, written in 1600 by missionary Andrea Lopez, who vividly describes a large city, rich in gold, silver and gemstones, located in a rainforest and called by its inhabitants “Paititi”. Andrea Lopez described waterfalls and deep forests around the mysterious city and the information was presented to Pope Clement VIII.
In 1681, a Jesuit missionary named Fray Lucero spoke to the Indians in the Rio Huallagu area of northeastern Peru, who told him that the lost city of Gran Paititi lay behind the forests and mountains east of Cuzco. He wrote: “This empire of Gran Paytite has bearded, white Indians. The nation called Curveros, these Indians told me, dwell in a place called Yurachuasi or the ‘white house’. For king, they have a descendant of the Inca Tupac Amaru, who with 40,000 Peruvians, fled far away into the forests, before the face of the conquistadors of Francisco Pizarro’s day in AD 1533. He took with him a rich treasure, and the Castilians who pursued him fought each other in the forests, leaving the savage Chuncho Indios, who watched their internecine struggles, to kill off the wounded and shoot the survivors with arrows. I myself have been shown plates of gold and half-moons and ear-rings of gold that have come from this mysterious nation.” The testimony suggested that a century and a half after the Spanish Conquest, Gran Paititi was still an operational Inca city, beyond the reach of all.
Another treasure hunter was Pedro Bohorques, a penniless soldier who pretended to be a nobleman. In 1659, after serving in Chile, Bohorques re-baptised himself as Don Pedro el Inca, swearing that royal Inca blood flowed through his veins. Bohorques set himself up as emperor of an Indian kingdom at the headwaters of the Huallaga River south of Cuzco. He converted almost 10,000 Pelados Indians into his service, and declared all Spaniards fair game. All of this was no doubt merely a prequel to his real intentions: to send some of his followers on a search for Paititi.
Alas, his team did not return with gold, whereupon Bohorques left his empire behind and went to Lima. There, the Spaniards threw him in prison and sentenced him to death. Knowing the Spaniards were even more interested in gold than he, he promised to reveal the location of Gran Paititi if he was released. The judges refused, but many treasure hunters visited him in prison, begging him to share his secret with them. He refused, and went to the gallows in 1667.

Sunset over the Madre de Dios River

So where is Gran Paititi – generally speaking? Gran Paititi is believed to be in the Paucartambo area of Peru, east of Cuzco, toward the Madre de Dios River. Indeed, on first impression, the area where to look seems well-defined, yet that has not made the search easier – enabling some to suggest Gran Paititi simply does not exist.
One of the more recent expeditions was organised by Boston anthropologist Gregory Deyermenjian and British photographer Michael Mirecki, who mounted their first expedition in 1984. Their specific goal was a jungle mountain in eastern Peru called Apucatinti, as various accounts stated that the mountain on which Paititi is located, was called Apucatinti. Alas, which mountain is the “real” Apucatinti is open for debate, as there are several carrying that name.
However, historically, Gran Paititi was not reported as being located on top of a mountain, but by a lake – and of course there is more than one lake too. Still, in August 1986, Deyermenjian made it to the summit of Apucatinti with his Indian guides. To their disappointment, neither Paititi nor any other structures were at the summit of the mountain. Since, Deyermenjian has continued to explore the jungles, and beginning in 1994, allied himself with Peru’s foremost living explorer, Dr. Carlos Neuenschwander, who had been conducting his own investigation into Paititi and the significance of the Pantiacolla plateau since the 1950s. None of his expeditions have been successful either.

In the past decade, the French explorer Thierry Jamin too has organised almost yearly expeditions in search of the city. Jamin’s interest began with the search for pyramids that satellite imagery had revealed in December 1975. Situated at the foot of the Sierra Baja du Pantiacolla, the pyramid field was apparently four kilometres long, orientated north-south, with apparently two lines of pyramids, twenty in total, and some 150 to 200 metres in length.
In 2001, with a team of 22, including the Franco-Peruvian explorer Herbert Cartagena (who had discovered the lost city of Mameria in 1979), he set out for the pyramids. When he arrived on the site, the first impression was that the structures were natural, and were an anomalous geological formation. Still, the structures suggested to have known some human intervention, if only because various Inca tools were located in the area.
Furthermore, the locals, the Machiguengas, considered these pyramids to be a sanctuary of the “ancients”, known locally as the Paratoari. They used certain valuables as everyday instruments, leaving Jamin to speculate that a treasure was nearby: Gran Paititi. Since, Jamin has made a number of repeat voyages, but despite some interesting, though rather mundane petroglyphs, he has not discovered the golden Paititi.

Jamin walks in dangerous footsteps. In 1970, journalist Robert Nichols went on his search for Paititi. Nichols had travelled to some of the toughest places in the Peruvian jungle, so seemed well equipped to have a go at locating Paititi.
Nichols wanted to explore the area around La Convención, but no news of him was heard for several months, before Nicholas Asheshov decided to search for his colleague. It was learned that Nichols had entered the jungle with two young French travellers and a dozen Mashco Indians as guides. These guides had returned shortly afterwards, refusing to go on past the Shinkikibeni petroglyphs. Over the next six months, Asheshov searched both for Nichols and Paititi, finding neither.
Two years later, Yoshiharu Sekino, a Japanese law student, went into the jungle alone and learned that Nichols and the Frenchmen had been murdered; apparently, the Frenchmen had made advances to local Machiguenga women, resulting in the murder of all three. Sekino had even made a photograph of the killers with Nichols’ machete and some of his surviving possessions.
Sekino tried more than once to follow up on Nichols’ leads, setting off into the jungle armed with satellite photographs that showed the same curious series of dots that had inspired so many others.

Paititi is not just an obsession for foreigners. In Peru itself, Juan Carlos Polentini Wester has left a powerful legacy, including one organisation, known as Paititi Peru, which organises adventure holidays, but who also firmly believe in the reality of Paititi. Maria del Carmen, the company manager, has organised a number of expeditions based on information provided by Polentini, whom she has been a disciple of, as well as accompanying him on his own treks. Polentini, an Argentine priest, trekked the jungles for more than 25 years in search of the city.
For del Carmen, “Proving the existence of Paititi in Peru is only a matter of time. If this is real, our Peru would become the most visited country in the world. Our Manu National Park and the Kcosñipata-Pilcopata area would become the launching point for all the expeditions and tourists.”

The city discovered in early 2008, which could "possibly" be Gran Paititi

Some might call her deluded, or overly optimistic, but it is a matter of fact that the jungles of Southern America are still given up their secrets. Each year, new sites are being discovered.
On January 16, 2008, National Geographic News even reported that Paititi “might” have been discovered. On January 10, Peru's state news agency reported that "an archaeological fortress" had been discovered in the district of Kimbiri and that the district's mayor suggested it was the lost city. Mayor Guillermo Torres described the ruins as a 40,000-square-meter fortification near an area known as Lobo Tahuantinsuyo. Few other details about the site were offered, but initial reports described elaborately carved stone structures forming the base of a set of walls.
Francisco Solís from the Peruvian government's Cusco-based National Institute of Culture nevertheless stated that "It is far too early to make any definitive judgments.”
If ever Paititi is discovered, it will outshine most other archaeological discoveries, if only because of all the gold that is supposedly part of this treasure. And thus, the gold mummy of Tutankhamun would be rivalled by another gold mummy from an Inca king.