In the Peruvian jungles east of Cusco lies a very peculiar city. A city known by many names; Paikikin, Vilcapampa, El Gran Paititi but most famously as El Dorado, the legendary lost city of Gold. The place where the Incas hid what remained of their golden treasures, Idols and Kings.

Since I was young I have always been fascinated by the legend of El Dorado and how it has eluded discovery to this day. For those of you unfamiliar with the legend let me introduce you to the real story of El Dorado and the lost City of Gold.

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The first image of Cusco in Europe.

Cusco, Peru, 1533 – Pizarro approaches the Inca Capital City knowing full well of the treasures reported to him by his men. Qosqo the golden city of the Andes, with it’s temple walls covered with more then 700 sheets of Gold weighing more then 2 kilograms each.

Qosqo the original city of gold, now known as Cusco, holds a surprise for the approaching army of Pizarro. For at it’s center sits the Qoricancha “The Golden Courtyard”, the Incas most important temple dedicated to their creator God; the Sun. It is here where Pizarros scouts have told him of the Punchao, a massive solid-gold disk inlaid with precious stones, the representation of the Inca God himself, which has now mysteriously vanished.

Replica of the Punchao

Among the other priceless artifacts noted by Pizarros scouts were the 14 gold-clad mummies of the former Inca Emperors, all missing upon Pizarros arrival to Cusco. Tons of Gold was melted down by the Conquistadors within a month of the sacking of Cusco, most of which was sent back to Spain, some forever lost at the bottom of the Atlantic due to Spain’s Naval battles with their rivals. But it could be that the most important and spectacular of these treasures were in fact hidden by the Incas, carried away through Cusco’s underground labyrinth of secret tunnels to El Dorado.

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Qorikancha, Cusco

“What secret labyrinths? that wasn’t on the tour!”, well the reason you haven’t heard of them is that they too remain under speculation. 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 center 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 Qoricancha. 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 Punchao without being detected”. Could there be similar tunnels to El Dorado?

In the 17th century another attempt was made to investigate the tunnels, a team went in for several days and became lost in the supposed maze of booby trapped tunnels, only one member of the expedition came out alive from under the main altar of the Santo Domingo Church which had been built over the Qoricancha, the Incas main Temple. The confused and dirty explorer lay clinging not just to his life but an ear of corn made out of solid gold.

The Tunnels to El Dorado

A hundred years later in 1814, a Brigadier named Mateo Garcia Pumakahua claimed to have explored the tunnels and showed his superiors part of the treasure. He took them blindfolded into Cusco’s mysterious labyrinth to one of the treasure deposits. When the blindfold was removed the officers saw large silver Pumas with emeralds, and “bricks” made out of gold and silver.

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Ancient underground tunnels near Chavin, Peru.

These tunnels only skim the surface of the El Dorado legend. It is widely known that throughout Peru there is an extensive network of underground tunnels. I had the honor of visiting the entrance to one of these underground tunnels in Cajamarca, 1,200 miles away from Cusco.

The entrance was small and led deep underground, the only thing that kept me from exploring was the rather large padlock and a sign that read “peligroso”, dangerous… yea I’m a real Indiana Jones I know. It is thought that one of these tunnels ran through the center of Cusco and beyond to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman overlooking Cusco.

In 1993, Father Benigno Gamarra, the abbot of the Santo Domingo Church where Qoricancha remains today confirmed “Your information is correct, but the tunnel in question extends much beyond Sacsayhuaman, since it ends in some place underneath Quiro, in Ecuador.”

So you can imagine a group of the Incas highest priest protected by their elite guard finding their way out of Cusco well before Pizarro arrived in the city with his men. With them they would have brought the Punchao, their 14 gold-clad mummies of their Emperors along with other priceless artifacts. Their destination being El Dorado, The lost city of Gold.

It is said that the Spanish only acquired a small portion of the Incas actual gold and silver. This makes sense once you know that the Incas had several months to hide their treasures. Pizarro and his men did not arrive to sack Cusco until several months after he had sent his first scouts.

So where were these treasures taken? It was because of this missing fortune that the legend of El Dorado was born. Spanish explorers arrived on the shores of Peru by the hundreds during the 16th and 17th century to look for the lost city, many never to return from the mountainous jungle area where it is rumored to be.

Chronicles point to a city called “Paikikin” or better known today as the Spanish called it, El Gran Paititi; El Dorado of legend. A legend of course is born from the stories that claim to prove its existence, and since the 17th century these tales have inspired archeologists and explorers to seek out the fabled city.

“In 1681, Fray Lucero, a Jesuit missionary 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. Could this be the local name for El Dorado?

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 search for this elusive lost city has also claimed the lives of explorers and ambitious adventurers. In 1970, journalist Robert Nichols went on his own quest for the fabled city. A seasoned adventurer, he left to search for El Gran Paititi well equipped with his journey mapped out to explore the area around La Convencion. He was never to be heard of again. It has been told that large Indian warriors guard El Dorado, claims from other explorers describe them being chased out of areas by tall Amazonians of fair skin.

However the search for the El Dorado has also proved invaluable to the discovery of new ruins and archeological wonders, the most famous of which occurred in 1911 when a young explorer named Hiram Bingham stumbled upon what he thought was the lost city of Vilcapampa. Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu would prove not to be the famous El Dorado although just as spectacular a discovery.

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Machu Picchu circa 1916

One of the most recent developments to prove the existence of El Dorado came in 2001. Mario Polia, an Italian Archeologist came across a document written in 1600 by a missionary named Andrea Lopez, who describes a large city, rich in gold, silver and gemstones, located in the rainforest and called “Paititi by it’s inhabitants. He described waterfalls and deep forest surrounding the golden city. However he failed to indicate the location of the city.

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Pyramids of Paratoari

Current investigations have lead to an area known as Paratoari where massive pyramid like objects have been reported to be seen from the air. Upon further investigation it is now known that the structures are most likely geological although there are some human made structures in the vicinity and tools have been found in the area. “Furthermore, the locals, the Machiguengas, considered these pyramids to be a sanctuary of the “ancients”, known locally as the Paratoari”.

However reaching Paratoari from the ground is very difficult and requires extensive funding to research the massive area. The mysterious pyramids were recently documented in History Channels Digging for the Truth Series.

Whether El Dorado exist remains to be seen. As real as ever though remains the romanticism attributed to adventure and exploration of the Amazon, the lure of hidden treasure and a golden city. So perhaps El Dorado is not a gold plated temple like depicted in the movies but more of a storage depot for the unaccounted treasures of the Inca Empire.

It could even be underground for all we know, an end point to a vast network of tunnels in Peru. Or perhaps Cusco remains El Dorado as in the times before the Spanish, only that the real lost city remains hidden underneath the foundations of the night clubs and McDonald’s that litter the central plaza of this ancient city.

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Satellite showing mysterious man made structure in area where El Paititi is presumed to be.

“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.”

Excerpts from “The Gold of Gran Paititi” by Philip Coppens

Julio C. Tello is director of the Karikuy Peru Volunteer Program and Founder of Karikuy Tours.

About the Author

Founder of Karikuy, an organization in Peru that brings travelers to visit and explore the country. Julio also runs the Karikuy Volunteer program and is the editor of this blog. Julio likes to write about his adventures in Peru as well as Peruvian folklore, mysteries and secluded locations.

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