What if I told you that I had been inside a fantastic tunnel system that runs beneath the continent of South America? Would you think me a liar? Or worse yet, insane? Though I admit it is a story that seems difficult to believe, I am telling the truth. Read on, dear reader, and decide if I am mad or lying.
Although it seems incredible, there is a great deal of evidence to show that a network of ancient tunnels exists throughout much of South America. Legends abound on this tunnel system, and I can state that I have even been inside some of the tunnels on this strangest of continents.
The Gold of the Incas
Legends of tunnels in South America surfaced almost immediately after the conquest when the Spaniards discovered that the Incas had hidden much of their treasure-sacred relics of pure gold either beneath the Inca capital of Cuzco or in a secret city known as Paititi. Either way, legend had it that a tunnel system was used.
The history of the conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spanish is one of the most bizarre and incredible stories of history. That Francisco Pizarro with only 183 men could conquer a sophisticated empire of several million people is a feat that has never been equaled, and probably never will be!
Pizarro made his first expedition down the Pacific Coast from Panama in 1527, attracted by rumors of gold and other treasure. A Greek of his company went alone from the ship into an Inca village on the coast, and was taken to be a returning god by the natives. They brought him to a temple filled with more gold than he had seen in his life. Returning to the ship, he told Pizarro about the fabulous wealth he had seen. Satisfied that the rumors were true, Pizarro returned to Panama and then to Spain to prepare another expedition.
He set out again in 1531, landed on a lonely beach in Ecuador and began marching inland. He was entering the newly united Inca empire, which had just recovered from a civil war. The people of Peru, Bolivia, and rest of the Inca empire were not all true Incas, but largely Quechua and Aymara Indians. Incas were the ruling elite, of a different race, who believed themselves descended from “Manco Capac,” a red-haired, bearded messenger from God.
After taking the town of Tumbes and putting quite of few of the people to death, the Spanish conquistadors continued their march south. At Cajamarca, they were received by Inca royalty with great pomp, splendor, and gifts. The ruler of the Incas (or more correctly, “the Inca”) Atahualpa was impressed by their beards and white skin, believing them to fulfill a prophecy about the return of Viracocha, the legendary bearded prophet from a far away land who had visited the South American peoples many hundreds of years before.
American Indians have no facial hair, though the first Incas are said to have had reddish-brown hair and beards, like Viracocha. Therefore, Atahualpa believed that the Spanish were Incas themselves, Sons of the Sun, gods in their own right, just as he, the Inca, was a god.
The conquistadors remained in Cajamarca for a time, while the Inca showered them with gifts. In fact, the Incas believed that the horses ridden by the Spaniards were also men, and assumed by the way the horses constantly chewed on their bits that these were the horses’ fodder. The Incas would put bars of gold and silver in the horses’ feeding troughs, saying, “Eat this, it is much better than iron.” The Spaniards found this quite amusing, and encouraged the Indians to keep bringing gold and silver for the horses to eat!
Finally, Atahualpa himself came to the Spaniards from his nearby palace. During this audience inside the walls of Cajamarca, Atahualpa had with him no less than 30,000 men, all under strict command not to harm the Spaniards, even if they themselves were attacked. This prohibition proved to be their downfall. The conquistadors kept many of their men in hiding, ready to attack, as Pizarro and his generals with the Dominican friar Vincente de Valverde had their audience with Atahualpa in the townsquare.
The Inca welcomed them as Viracocha Incas and fellow Sons of the Sun. Then the friar Valverde addressed the Inca, telling him about the one true faith, and the most powerful men on earth, the Pope and King Charles of Spain. After a long speech translated by the Indian Felipe, the Inca asked the source of the friar’s material, who responded by handing the Inca a Bible. The Inca placed it to his ear. Hearing nothing, he threw it to the ground.
This rather un-pious gesture from Atahualpa was just what the conquistadors were waiting for. The Spaniards attacked in full force, many from hiding, and began a slaughter of the Incas. They killed literally thousands, many of whom were trying to escape. Not one conquistador was hurt, with the exception of Francisco Pizarro himself, who was wounded by one of his own men as he reached for Atahualpa.
And so was Atahualpa kidnapped by a mere 160 gold-crazed conquistadors (some of the original 183 had died of disease and in earlier battles). To secure his freedom, Atahualpa offered to give the Spaniards gold in exchange for his release. Sensing that they still did not realize the fabulous wealth at his command, Atahualpa stood up in the room in which he was imprisoned and reached as high as he could; he offered to fill the room with gold to that height in return for his release. The Spaniards agreed.
Complicating the story at this point were several intrigues. First, there was a great rivalry between Francisco Pizarro, his brother Ferdinand, and Don Diego de Almagro. Indeed, Francisco Pizarro and de Almagro were bitter enemies. Second, Atahualpa was still at odds with his brother Huascar, who by many accounts was the legitimate heir to the Inca throne. It had been the civil war between the two brothers that had weakened the Inca Empire just prior to the arrival of the Spanish. While he was still in captivity, Atahualpa ordered Huascar arrested, believing him to be plotting a takeover of the Empire. Both Atahualpa and Huascar now took a rather fatalistic attitude to the events taking place, as their father had predicted such a conflict before his death.
Third, most of the subjects of the Inca Empire were not Incas, but common Indians of entirely different races and cultural heritages. Few were loyal to the Incas, and many of them eventually sided with the Spanish. Finally, again from captivity, Atahualpa ordered his brother Huascar killed, thinking this would save the empire from him, believing that the Spaniards may not release him even after the ransom was paid. All of these factors together set the stage for the fall of the greatest civilization extant in the Western Hemisphere at the time.
It took some time for the gold to reach Cajamarca, as it had to be brought from Quito, Cuzco, and other cities that were hundreds of miles away. While the ransom was being gathered, Pizarro sent some of the conquistadors as emissaries to Quito and Cuzco to ensure that Atahualpa had not ordered an assault on Cajamarca. When they returned, they reported that fabulous wealth was to be found in these cities.
The Incas did not use gold, silver, and precious stones for currency as Europeans and other cultures did. Instead, they were valued for decoration, and used extensively for religious objects, furnishings, and even utensils. Many buildings had interior gold-lined walls, and exterior gold rain gutters and plumbing. Therefore, when the Inca was ransomed for a room full of gold, to the Incas it was as if they were paying with pots and pans, old plumbing, and rain gutters!
These were sent gladly, though religious objects and those with esthetic value were not. The ransom paid has been estimated to have been 600-650 tons of gold and jewels and 384 million “pesos de oro,” the equivalent of $500,000,000 in 1940. Given the rise in the price of gold since then, today that ransom would be worth almost five billion dollars.
Not surprisingly, once the ransom was paid, Atahualpa was not released. The Indian interpreter, Felipe, had fallen in love with one of Atahualpa’s wives, and he was keen to see that the Inca did not survive. He spread the rumor that Atahualpa was raising an army to storm Cajamarca. This being the only excuse the Spaniards needed to execute the Inca, he was condemned to death. Spaniards who had befriended Atahualpa advised him to convert to Christianity before his execution, which would allow the Dominical fathers to strangle him as a Christian rather than burn him at the stake as a heretic. He complied, was baptized, then strangled. This was done even though more gold was on its way, as part of a second ransom, worth much more than the first.
Meanwhile, three Spanish emissaries came back from Cuzco, the Inca capital, with even more treasure, looted from the Sun Temple. They brought an immense cargo of gold and silver vessels loaded on the backs of 200 staggering, sweating Indians. And the second ransom train of 11,000 llamas was on its way to Pizarro’s camp. Loaded with gold, it had been sent by Atahualpa’s queen from Cuzco. But when they heard of the Inca’s assassination, the Indians drove the llamas off the road and buried the 100 pounds of gold that each animal carried.
Sir Clements Markham, who had a particularly keen knowledge of Peru, believed that the gold was hidden in the mountains behind Azangaro. The Cordillera de Azangaro is a wild sierra little known to foreigners, the name in Quechua meaning, “place farthest away.” It is believed that this was the easternmost point in the Andean cordilleras which the old Inca empire dominated. However, other versions of this story say that the treasure was hidden in a system of tunnels that goes through the Andes.
One fantastic treasure story involves “The Garden of the Sun.” Sarmiento, a Spanish historian (1532-1589), wrote that this subterranean garden was located near the Temple of the Sun.
“They had a garden in which the lumps of earth were pieces of fine gold. These were cleverly sown with maize the stalks, leaves and ears of which were all of gold. They were so well planted that nothing would disturb them. Besides all this, they had more than twenty sheep with their young. The shepherds who guarded the sheep were armed with slings and staves made of gold. There were large numbers of jars of gold and silver pots, vases, and every kind of vessel.”
Shortly after the conquest of Peru, Cieza de Leon, part Inca and part Spanish, wrote,
“If all the gold that is buried in Peru … were collected, it would be impossible to coin it, so great the quantity; and yet the Spaniards of the conquest got very little, compared with what remains. The Indians said, ‘The treasure is so concealed that even we, ourselves, know not the hiding place!’
“If, when the Spaniards entered Cuzco they had not committed other tricks, and had not so soon executed their cruelty in putting Atahualpa to death, I know not how many great ships would have been required to bring such treasures to old Spain as is now lost in the bowels of the earth and will remain so because those who buried it are now dead.”
What Cieza de Leon did not say was that, although the Indians as a whole did not know where this treasure lay, there were a few among them who did know and closely guarded the secret.
After seeing the fineness of the treasures in Atahualpa’s first ransom, Pizarro had demanded that he be shown the source of this fabulous wealth before he would release the Inca. He had heard that the Incas possessed a secret and inexhaustible mine or depository, which lay in a vast, subterranean tunnel running many miles underground. Here was supposedly kept the accumulated riches of the country.
However, legend has it that Atahualpa’s queen consulted the Black Mirror at the Temple of the Sun, a sort of magic mirror similar to that in the story of Snow White. In it she saw the fate of her husband, whether she paid the ransom or not. She realized that her husband and the empire were doomed and that she must certainly not reveal the secret of the tunnels or wealth to the gold crazed conquistadors.
The horrified queen ordered that the entrance to the great tunnel be closed under the direction of the priests and magicians. A large door into a rocky wall of a cliff gorge near Cuzco, it was sealed by filling its depths with huge masses of rock. Then the disguised entrance was hidden under green grass and bushes, so that not the slightest sign of any fissure was perceptible to the eye.
Conquistadors, adventurers, treasure hunters, and historians have all wondered about and pursued this legend. What incredible treasure did the Incas seal into these tunnels? And as to the tunnels themselves, when and how were they made, and where do they go?
Researchers like Harold Wilkins believed that the tunnels run from the central Andes around Cuzco for hundreds of miles north and south through the mountains, as far as Chile and Ecuador. Wilkins believed that there were other spurs of these tunnels that ran to the east, coming out at the lost city of Paititi in the high jungle somewhere. Another spur was said to run to the west, down to the coastal desert of Peru.
This spur of the tunnel system could have come out near Lima, the area of the ancient Inca city of Pachacamac, or near Pisac and the Candlestick of the Andes, which is further south along the coast.
Wilkins believed, as did apparently Madame Blavatsky (a well known psychic and founder of The Theosophical Society), that a spur of the ancient tunnel system came out in the Atacama Desert near to Arica and the current border between Chile and Peru, which is further south still. Madame Blavatsky related the story, retold by Wilkins, of the ancient treasure and tunnel system.
Sometime around the year 1844, a Catholic priest was called to absolve a dying Quechua Indian. Whispering quietly to the priest, the old Indian told an amazing story about a labyrinth and a series of tunnels built far before the days of the Inca emperors of the Sun. It was told under the inviolable seal of the confessional, and could not be divulged by the priest under pain of death. This story would probably never have been told, except that the priest, while traveling to Lima, met with a “sinister Italian.” The priest let out a hint of great treasure, and was later supposedly hypnotized by the Italian to get him tell the story!
“I will reveal to thee what no White man, be he Spaniard, or American, or English, knows,” the dying Indian had said to the priest.
He then told of the queen’s closing of the tunnels when the Inca Atahualpa was being held captive by Pizarro. The priest added under hypnosis that the Peruvian government, in about 1830, had heard rumors of these tunnels and sent an expedition out to find and explore them. They were unsuccessful.
In another similar story, the Father Pedro del Sancho tells in his Relacion that in the early period of the conquest of Peru, another dying Indian made a confession. Father del Sancho wrote,
“…my informant was a subject of the Incan Emperor. He was held in high esteem by those in power at Cuzco. He had been a chieftain of his tribe and made a yearly pilgrimage to Cuzco to worship his idolistic gods. It was a custom of the Incas to conquer a tribe or nation and take their idols to Cuzco. Those who wished to worship their ancient idols were forced to travel to the Incan capital. They brought gifts to their heathen idols. They were also expected to pay homage to the Incan emperor during these journeys.”
Del Sancho continues,
“These treasures were placed in ancient tunnels that were in the land when the Incas arrived. Also placed in these subterranean repositories were artifacts and statues deemed sacred to the Incas. When the hoard had been placed in the tunnels, there was a ceremony conducted by the high priest. Following these rites, the entrance to the tunnels was sealed in such a manner that one could walk within a few feet and never be aware of the entrance.
“…My informant said that the entrance lay in his land, the territory which he ruled. It was under his direction and by his subjects that the openings were sealed. All who were in attendance were sworn to silence under the penalty of death. Although I requested more information on the exact location of the entrance, my informant refused to divulge more than what has been written down here.”
Another interesting story of the tunnels around Cuzco and the incredible treasure they contain involves Carlos Inca, a descendant of an Inca emperor, who had married a Spanish lady, Dona Maria Esquivel. His Castilian wife thought that he was not ambitious enough, and that he did not keep her in the style she deemed befitting her rank, or his descent.
Poor Carlos was plagued night and day by his wife’s nagging, until late one night, he blindfolded her and led her out into the patio of the hacienda. Under the cold light of the stars, when all around were asleep and no unseen eye was on the watch, he began to lead her by the shoulders. Although he was exposing himself to many risks including torture and death at the hands of the Quechuas, he proceeded to reveal his secret.
He twirled her around three times, then, assuming her disoriented, led her down some steps into a concealed vault in or under Sacsayhuaman Fortress. When he removed her blinds, her tongue was finally silenced. She stood on the dusty, stone floor of an ancient vault, cluttered with gold and silver ingots, exquisite jewelry, and temple ornaments. Around the walls, ranged in fine gold, were life-size statues of long dead Inca kings. Only the golden Disk of the Sun, which the old Incas treasured most, was missing.
Carlos Inca was supposedly one of the custodians of the secret hiding place of Inca treasure that eluded the Spanish and other treasure seekers for centuries. The U.S. Commissioner to Peru in 1870 commented on this episode:
“All I can say is if that secret chamber which she had entered has not been found and despoiled, it has not been for want of digging …Three-hundred years have not sufficed to eradicate the notion that enormous treasures are concealed within the fortress of Cuzco. Nor have three-hundred years of excavation, more or less constant, entirely discouraged the searchers for tapadas, or treasure mounds.”
There certainly appears to be some repetition and borrowing between some of these stories. Yet most historians and archaeologists believe that they are based on some fact. That tunnels and lost treasure exist, there seems to be no doubt. But the real questions are, where are they? And, who made them?
The treasure of the Incas is believed to still be hidden in the tunnels that run under Cuzco and the ruins of the megalithic fortress mentioned above called Sacsayhuaman.
The Fortress of Sacsayhuaman
The stories of a subterranean world fascinated me and I decided that South America was a good place to investigate whatever reality there might be in the many legends. Lost treasure has its appeal as well, and many tunnels would probably never be explored if it were not for some promised treasure at the end.
I began my search in Peru where I visited Ica, Pisco and Nazca to look at the mummies, geoglyphs and catacombs. I then continued on to Cuzco to look into the tunnels that were rumored to be in the vicinity.
During this visit I went to Sacsayhuaman. The road leads up from the Plaza de Armas to a hill on the north side of Cuzco. At a leveling off of the hill, looking over the Cuzco Valley, is the colossal fortress, one of the most imposing edifices ever constructed. Walking around, we could hardly believe our eyes! Here was a stone structure that covered the entire hill; it appeared almost unworldly. It contains tunnel entrances that are sealed. The visitor can walk a short distance inside some of the tunnels, but they are ultimately blocked after 20 or 30 feet.
All over Sacsayhuaman gigantic blocks of stone, some weighing more than 200 tons (400 thousand pounds) are fitted together perfectly. The enormous stone blocks are cut, faced, and fitted so well that even today one cannot slip the blade of a knife, or even a piece of paper between them. No mortar is used, and no two blocks are alike. Yet they fit perfectly, and it has been said by some engineers that no modern builder with the aid of tools of the finest steel could produce results more accurate.
Each individual stone had to have been planned well in advance; a 20-tonstone, let alone one weighing 80 to 200 tons, cannot just be dropped casually into position with any hope of attaining that kind of accuracy! The stones are locked and dovetailed into position, making them earthquake-proof. Indeed, after many devastating earthquakes in the Andes over the last few hundred years, the blocks are still perfectly fitted, while the Spanish Cathedral in Cuzco has been leveled twice.
Though this fantastic fortress was supposedly built just a few hundred years ago by the Incas, they leave no record of having built it, nor does it figure in any of their legends. How is it that the Incas, who reportedly had no knowledge of higher mathematics, no written language, no iron tools, and did not even use the wheel, are credited with having built this cyclopean complex of walls and buildings? Frankly, one must literally grope for an explanation, and it is not an easy one.
When the Spaniards first arrived in Cuzco and saw these structures, they thought that they had been built by the devil himself, because of their enormity. Indeed, nowhere else can you see such large blocks placed together so perfectly. I have traveled all over the world searching for ancient mysteries and lost cities, but I had never in my life seen anything like this!
The builders of the stoneworks were not merely good stone masons- they were excellent! Similar stoneworks can be seen throughout the Cuzco Valley. These are usually made up of finely cut, rectangular blocks of stone weighing up to perhaps a ton. A group of strong people could lift a block and put it in place; this is undoubtedly how some of the smaller structures were put together. But in Sacsayhuaman, Cuzco, and other ancient Inca cities, one can see gigantic blocks cut with 30 or more angles each.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, Cuzco was at its peak, with perhaps 100,000 Inca subjects living in the ancient city. The fortress of Sacsayhuaman could hold the entire population within its walls in case of war or natural catastrophe. Some historians have stated that the fortress was built a few years before the Spanish invasion, and that the Incas take credit for the structure. But, the Incas could not recall exactly how or when it was built!
The Spanish dismantled as much of Sacsayhuaman as they could. When Cuzco was first conquered, Sacsayhuaman had three round towers at the top of the fortress, behind three concentric megalithic walls. These were taken apart stone by stone, and the stones used to build new structures for the Spanish.
Sacsayhuaman was also equipped with a subterranean network of aqueducts. Water was brought down from the mountains into a valley, then had to ascend a hill before reaching Sacsayhuaman. This indicates that the engineers who built the intricate system knew that water rises to its own level.
Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote just after the conquest, said this about the tunnels beneath Sacsayhuaman:
“An underground network of passages, which was as vast as the towers themselves, connected them with one another. This was composed of a quantity of streets and alleyways which ran in every direction, and so many doors, all of them identical, that the most experienced men dared not venture into this labyrinth without a guide, consisting of a long thread tied to the first door, which unwound as they advanced.
I often went up to the fortress with boys of my own age, when I was a child, and we did not dare to go farther than the sunlight itself, we were so afraid of getting lost, after all that the Indians had told us on the subject … the roofs of these underground passages were composed of large flat stones resting on rafters jutting out from the walls.”
There are indeed tunnels that one may enter at Sacsayhuaman and nearby Qenqo. If one walks behind the Inca’s stone seat inside the fortress toward Qenqo, one will find all sorts of bizarre stone cuttings, upside-down staircases, and seemingly senseless rock carving on a grand scale. There are also tunnel entrances in this area. Various rock-cut tunnels lead down into the earth and at least one goes to another part of the mountain area of Qenqo. All of these tunnels are blocked at some point and this area of Sacsayhuaman is still being excavated by Peruvian archaeologists.
The area is quite fascinating, but it seems quite clear that one cannot penetrate into the tunnels beneath Cuzco from these now-blocked tunnel entrances.
The old chroniclers say the tunnels were connected with the Coricancha, a name given to the Sun Temple and its surrounds in old Cuzco.
The Coricancha was originally larger than it is today and contained many ancient temples, including the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, and all of these buildings were believed to be connected with Sacsayhuaman by underground tunnels. The place where these tunnels started was known as the Chincana, or “the place where one gets lost.”
This entrance was known up until the mid-1800s, when it was walled up.