Photo: Incan gold cup

A gold cup such as this may lie among the thousands of priceless items thought to make up the mythical lost Inca gold. This fabled treasure, part of an exorbitant ransom for the imprisoned Inca leader Atahualpa, was supposedly hidden in the 16th century when the Inca learned Atahualpa had already been put to death by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Photograph by Bates Littlehales

By James Owen

Steeped in death, conquest, desire, and mystery, the legend of the lost Inca gold is guarded by remote, mist-veiled mountains in central Ecuador. Somewhere deep inside the unforgiving Llanganates mountain range between the Andes and the Amazon is said to exist a fabulous Inca hoard hidden from Spanish conquistadors.

The legend begins in the 16th century, when the great Inca Empire in western South America was giving way to European invaders. Atahualpa was an Inca king who, after warring with his half-brother, Huáscar, for control of the empire, was captured at his palace in Cajamarca in modern-day Peru by Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro.

Pizarro agreed to release Atahualpa in return for a roomful of gold, but the Spaniard later reneged on the deal. He had the Inca king put to death before the last and largest part of the ransom had been delivered. Instead, the story goes, the gold was buried in a secret mountain cave. And there the legend has remained, daring others to prove it.

The shadowy guide of those who have tried is Valverde, a Spaniard who some 50 years after Atahualpa's death is said to have become rich after being led to the gold by his Indian bride's family. When he died, he left written directions to its location, the so-called Derrotero de Valverde.

The gold trail went cold until the 1850s, when English botanist Richard Spruce traveled to Ecuador in search of the cinchona tree, the seeds of which were used to produce the antimalarial drug quinine. Spruce, when he finally returned to Britain, reported that he had uncovered Valverde's guide and a related map, made by a man named Atanasio Guzman.

'Golden Vases Full of Emeralds'

Treasure seeker Barth Blake followed up Spruce's discovery in 1886. If his writings are to be believed, Blake was the last person to find the gold. In one letter he wrote: "There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine." He detailed life-size human figurines, birds and other animals, flowers, and cornstalks, as well as "the most incredible jewelry" and "golden vases full of emeralds." But, Blake claimed, "I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men."

Taking only what he could carry, Blake left and never returned. Sources suggest that en route to New York, where he planned to raise funds for an expedition to recover his prize, he disappeared overboard. Some say he was pushed deliberately. Many who have since attempted to retrace his steps into the treacherous Llanganates have also paid with their lives.

Mark Honigsbaum, however, did survive to tell the tale, which he did in his book Valverde's Gold (2004). The author teamed up with two adventurers who each claimed to have independently discovered an Inca gold mining site such as Valverde described: "There is a lake, made by hand, into which the ancients threw the gold they had prepared for the ransom of the Inca [Atahualpa] when they heard of his death."

"The legend essentially is that the Inca took the gold out of the Llanganates and then returned it to where they had taken it from," Honigsbaum said. But he never found the site, which seemingly had been lost as a result of the earthquakes that regularly rock the densely forested mountains.

"We're dealing with the frontier land between fact and fiction," Honigsbaum admitted. "We know Atahualpa's gold existed because it's recorded in the Spanish chronicle, and it's recorded that a large convoy of gold was on its way from Ecuador. After that, the best and most persistent stories revolve around the Llanganates."

"My own feeling, though, is that this gold was probably taken out centuries ago," he said. "If not, and it's still there, I think it's lost forever, because those mountains are so vast and inaccessible that you're looking for a needle in a haystack."

Guide to Lost Inca Sites?

Archaeologist Johan Reinhard, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, has an explanation for why numerous expeditions in search of the gold mine and artificial lake mentioned by Valverde have failed.

"Most have followed Guzman's map that does indeed lead to some mines located on the northern end of the Llanganate range, but not to the area as can be ascertained from Valverde's description," Reinhard explained.

It's an open question whether Valverde ever existed, Reinhard added, but he says his directions do make sense against modern maps of the region.

While Reinhard doesn't believe Atahualpa's gold will ever be found, he says there's still a good chance of discovering Inca sites such as those referred to in the Derrotero. "Thus," he said, "a serious archaeological expedition would likely add significantly to our knowledge of the Inca presence in the region."

Treasure hunters and their dangerous gold fever probably aren't invited.

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