The Search For Paititi, Lost City of The Incas
The Incas were rumored to have hidden their treasure in a secret, remote city deep in the Peruvian jungle. But no amount of searching has ever uncovered its location.
In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors reached the town in the majestic Andes mountains that served as the political seat of the sprawling Incan Empire. For over three centuries, the Incas had developed a complex and thriving civilization. They built stunning strongholds in the mountains (if you need convincing, just take one look at Machu Picchu); they carved out a mind-boggling series of trails that extended over 14,000 mountainous miles and across what are now six different countries; and they collected gold, silver, and other opulent symbols of wealth…and lots of it.
It was stories of these riches that captured the explorer Francisco Pizarro’s attention. So, in 1524, he set sail from Spain, leading a crew of conquistadors headed for the New World with the gleam of gold in their eyes.
Nearly a decade and three expeditions later—after the soldiers had battled, pillaged, and proselytized their way down the South American coast—Pizarro’s army finally conquered the main Incan city of Cusco in Peru.
It was the grand victory over the Incan Empire that Pizarro had dreamt of all those years ago. But there was one small problem. When the victorious army arrived in Cusco, the Incan riches of legend were nowhere to be found. Sure, the soldiers found plenty of gold and valuables to plunder, but not the vast fortune whispered of in the tales that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Where had the Incan treasure gone?
Almost immediately, speculation started to fly. Many suggested the Incas had hid their treasure in a secret, remote city deep in the jungle east of the mountains. But no amount of searching uncovered its location, and Pizarro eventually met his violent end in 1541 in Lima, a city he founded, after he was murdered by Spanish rivals.
But the death of Pizarro didn’t stop the search for Paititi, the golden city of legend. Ever since the fall of the Incan Empire, adventurers, treasure seekers, and archeologists have been heeding the siren song of the lost city that has, so far, remained out of reach.
As with all great legends—especially those concerning cities full of riches—no one is certain whether Paititi exists in real life or only in the land of myth. But what we do know is that legends of the city have been passed down through the generations of Incan descendants. And interesting bits of evidence have popped up over the years to suggest that those who have faced hardship and even death searching for this lost treasure may not be entirely crazy.
For starters, towards the end of their conquest, the Spaniards captured the Incan emperor Atahualpa in the city of Cajamarca.
Pizarro demanded a ransom of gold to ensure the emperor’s safe release. An offering of 24 tons of gold and silver—enough to fill up a room—was soon delivered to the commander.
Pizarro broke his promise and executed the leader anyway, but this incident that spelled the last gasp of the Incan Empire left many wondering, if the Incas were able to easily pull together that big of a hoard, how much more did they have?
At least one secondhand account from around 1600 also suggests the city may not be all talk. In 2001, an Italian archeologist Mario Polia was searching through the Vatican archives when he discovered a letter from a missionary named Andreas Lopez.
Lopez was writing to the Pope to report the existence of a city full of gold, silver, and other precious jewels. While he had never seen the city himself—he was repeating the stories he had been told by locals—his letter described it in detail, including specifics on its inhabitants and its location “a 10-day walk from Peru.”
The exact location he reported has never been disclosed—some conspiracy theorists suggest that, if it is known, the Catholic Church is deliberately keeping it to themselves—but the letter is another gold brick paving the road to the mythical city.
These legends, rumors, and the promise of vast riches have kept a fairly steady stream of explorers risking the perils of the Amazon to search for the city over the past four centuries.
It’s no easy task. In the years following the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the dangers and hardships of traveling through the deep, wild jungle were enough to frighten away the faint of heart. But the journey has become even more perilous in modern times.
It is generally agreed that, if the city exists, it is somewhere near where Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil meet. This area remains a remote, dense jungle, where intrepid trekkers face newer dangers from drug traffickers and those engaged in illegal pursuits like mining and logging.
It also contains the Manu National Park, home to some indigenous and uncontacted tribes, who can be a threat to outsiders (and vice versa).
Over hundreds of years, expedition after expedition has been mounted by adventurers from all over the world seeking glory and gold. The most successful of these have discovered incredible Incan ruins, although none have proved to be the city in question. The least have met their fates deep in the Amazon jungle. Among these are a 1971 group of French and Americans and a 1997 Norwegian group who both set out with dreams of triumph and were never heard from again.
But even though legions of the most intrepid explorers have so far been no match for the mythical city of Paititi, that doesn’t mean the next generation is ready to give up.
We know that huge amounts of the Incan Empire are still undiscovered, and new caches of Incan ruins continue to be found. Who’s to say Paititi isn’t among these, an overgrown, remote, and gleaming treasure waiting for a lucky adventurer to skillfully stumble upon it?
Four centuries of dashed hopes tell us that it’s probably a long shot. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the year this fabled city abandons the ranks of El Dorado, Atlantis, and The Lost City of Z and becomes more than just the stuff of legends and dreams.