Excerpt from Cradle of Gold


The Last City of the Incas: The Sixteenth-Century Conquest

Dawn broke over South America, rolling from east to west, sliding up beaches and rivers, pushing through the treetops and vines of the Amazon jungle, until it hit the Andes, the soaring mountains that chain the continent together. Soon the sun would spill over its peaks and rush toward the beaches of the Pacific. But for a few precious minutes the light lingered on the Andes' eastern slopes, and in one steep valley, in a land called Peru, it woke two thousand Spanish and Indian nobles, soldiers, and slaves. With curses and prayers, they strapped on their armor and prepared for battle. It was June 24, 1572, the feast of St. John the Baptist, but the expedition hoped that it would soon be known as the day that the nightmarish conquest of the Incas finally ended.

It had been forty years since Francisco Pizarro and his 168 conquistadors left Central America and sailed down the western coast of the southern continent. When they landed in Peru, they faced the largest, wealthiest, most powerful indigenous empire of the Americas--the Incas. Their domain stretched from modern-day Chile to Colombia, from the Pacific to the Amazon, tied together with roads, canals, fortresses, and temples. Through force of arms and savvy alliances, the Spaniards captured and executed their emperor, Atahualpa, and conquered their capital, the gold-covered city of Cuzco. But Atahualpa's successor, his fierce brother named Manco, rebelled against Spanish rule, now centered in the new colonial capital of Lima, on the coast. In 1536, Manco retreated to this remote kingdom north of Cuzco. By 1539 he had built a new Inca capital--a place to worship their deity, the sun, and their ancestors in peace. Its name was Vilcabamba, "The Plain of the Sun."

But it was not to be. Manco died, and his sons kept up the fight, arguing that the Spanish conquest was illegitimate and that their family had been wronged. After years of negotiations and skirmishes, the Spaniards had enough of the resistance: in April of 1572, the viceroy, the Spanish king's representative, declared a "war of fire and blood." He organized an expedition led by Spaniards, but supported by indigenous allies and Inca mestizos—people born of Inca and Spanish unions, consensual or not--who sought survival and recognition within colonial Cuzco rather than independence.

The expedition had three objectives: to reach and raze Vilcabamba; to confiscate its treasure and end the Incas' sun worship; and to carry Manco's son, the Incas' eighteen-year-old emperor and leader of their religion, back to Cuzco for judgment. His name was Tupac Amaru, Quechua for "Royal Serpent," referring to the great two-headed anaconda that brought rain and world-shattering change. To capture him would be difficult. To get this far the Spaniards had fended off ambushes of spears, poisoned spines, and falling boulders. The landscape had grown terrifying. Here, the Andes met the Amazon: massive mountains gave way to precipitous cliffs and ravines, forest-choked valleys, and rivers that drowned the unwary. Jaguars and vipers lurked; vines and thorns ripped at clothes half-rotting from the rain and mist. The expedition had abandoned their horses and crawled along cliffs. The bravest strapped cannons to their backs, hoping for a greater share of the loot to come. The trees hid colonies of ferocious biting ants. And then there were the waiting Incas and their hidden allies, the fierce jungle peoples who fought with poison arrows and, the Incas claimed, feasted on their victims. The Incas sacrificed guinea pigs to tell the future and left their disemboweled remains along the path, unnerving the Spaniards. Only through luck and an opportune defection among the Incas' captains had the expedition gotten this far. Vilcabamba would be the Incas' last stand, and the Spaniards were sure they would fight.

It was time. The sun cleared the ridge, and the men began to sweat. The general ordered the Europeans and Indians who had allied with the colonizers into columns led by captains and flag-bearers. The priests blessed the soldiers, and they began to march. The path rose, widened, and yielded a view of the river on their right. A massive Inca staircase led to an usnu, a ceremonial platform on which the Incas' priests paid tribute to the sun. It was midmorning, and the sun spilled over the expeditionaries' shoulders, illuminating the forbidden jungle refuge below them.

But Vilcabamba was not a glittering imperial capital teeming with soldiers. It was sacked, abandoned, and burning. The Spaniards could smell the smoke.

Thorns tore at Hiram Bingham's clothes, and he stooped low to avoid the branches and vines that the boy dodged easily. Bingham saw that the trail led them onto a series of old terraces, as at Choqquequirau, the Cradle of Gold. The difference here was that the boy's family had reclaimed them for use. Finally, rounding a promontory, the boy gestured and Bingham looked up. His eyes caught the peak of Huayna Picchu first, large and impressive. But his gaze drifted down and then he saw it: "a jungle-covered maze of small and large walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of white granite, most carefully cut and beautifully fitted together without cement. Surprise followed surprise until there came the realization that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru."

Covered by a foam of "trees and moss and the growth of centuries," the temples, fountains, and palaces buildings seemed to rise and fall along the ridge until they crashed upon the base of Huayna Picchu like a wave. Bingham couldn't be sure where the ruins ended and the mountain began. Machu Picchu – but was it the last citadel of the Incas?