Atahualpa, Drawn by Employees of Francisco Pizzaro, 1533 (PD-US)

The Legend

The most valuable buried treasure in the world, a cache of gold and silver worth as much as eight billion dollars, may lie in Ecuador's Llanganates (or Llanganatis) mountains.

The legend of treasure in the Llanganates is based on events that began with the capture and death of Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas. Spanish conquistadors took Atahualpa prisoner in Cajamarca, Peru, on November 16, 1532. Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and silver in exchange for his life. The ransom was delivered, but the Spanish executed Atahualpa anyway on July 26, 1533.

At the time of Atahualpa's death, Rumiñahui, one of Atahualpa's generals, was in route from Ecuador to Cajamarca with a fantastic amount of gold and silver to further contribute to the ransom. When he heard of Atahualpa's death, Rumiñahui, who was in the vicinity of present day Píllaro, Ecuador, carried the treasure high up into the nearby Llanganates mountains and buried it in a cave, rather than allow the Spanish to capture it. Some versions of the legend say that Rumiñahui sank the treasure in an artificial lake.

Thus began what may well be the world's longest-running continuous treasure hunt, for what well may be the most valuable buried treasure in the world.

The Clues

A key piece of evidence that points to the location of Atahualpa's buried treasure is Valverde's derrotero. Valverde was a Spaniard who emigrated to Ecuador a half century or so after Atahualpa's death, married an indigenous woman, and suddenly became very rich. Treasure hunters believe that either Valverde's new wife or her father revealed the location of the treasure to Valverde. Eventually Valverde returned to Spain and shortly before his death revealed what he claimed to be the secret location of Atahualpa's treasure to the King of Spain.

The King sent copies of Valverde's derrotero (derrotero means guide in Spanish), to corregidors (representatives of the Spanish crown) in Ecuador, sealed with the royal seal, instructing them to use every possible means to find the treasure. The King's orders spawned many treasure-hunting excursions, at least one of which ended in tragedy when Padre Longo, a friar who was accompanying the Corregidor of Tacunga (probably the present city of Latacunga) on an excursion to find the treasure, disappeared without a trace high in the Llanganates. For a time a cross was erected in the Llanganates to mark the spot where Padre Longo was last seen.

Most of the directions in Valverde's derrotero have been verified as accurate, and treasure hunters have followed the derrotero a good distance into the Llanganates; however, there is confusion about the interpretation of one part of the derrotero which instructs the reader to pass either to the right or the left of a small mountain (depending on the reading), and this has so far kept anybody from completely following Valverde's derrotero to the treasure.

Another key piece of evidence related to the treasure's location is Guzman's map, pictured below. Don Atanasio Guzman was a Spanish botanist who lived in Píllaro, Ecuador, at the base of the Llanganates mountains, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In addition to collecting plants, Guzman was an inveterate treasure hunter. He made a map of his excursions in the Llanganates, which was lost, then recovered and revised by the explorer Richard Spruce in the mid-19th century.

Guzman's Map
Credit: Richard Spruce, 1861 [PD-US]

The Llanganates

The Llanganates mountains are an Ecuadorian national park. The term national park might conjure up images of park rangers, tourist stands, well-developed access, and marked trails. However, national parks in Ecuador are sometimes paper parks, with little protection or improved access. Only one road leads into the Llanganates, from the town of Píllaro. This road reaches only a short distance into the park. Most of the park remains wild and accessible only on horseback or on foot. Some remote regions of the Llanganates, as is true of other areas along the eastern slope of the Andes, are among the most difficult places to reach anywhere on earth. The weather alone has defeated many treasure hunters in the Llanganates. At lower elevations in the Llanganates, where the mountains drop quickly into lowland rainforest, the terrain is extremely rugged and the vegetation suffocating and almost impenetrable.

There are many abandoned gold and silver mines in the Llanganates where Rumiñahui could have buried the treasure. These mines date back to the time of the Incas and certainly Rumiñahui or some other member of his large expedition of soldiers would have known about them. Ecuador is a seismically dynamic area, with a great deal of volcanic activity and occasional large earthquakes. It is possible that if Rumiñahui buried the treasure in a mine, a landslide could later have buried the mine.

There are also many lakes in the Llanganates where Rumiñahui could have cast away the treasure. Some of these lakes are relatively well known. Local fishermen access them at night on horseback to poach trout with “redes Chinas” or Chinese nets. The poachers follow trails that circumvent the lone access road into the park. Many of these lakes are supposed to have already been probed for the lost silver and gold.

Modern Sensibilities

I was surprised that I learned about the legend of Atahualpa's hidden treasure as late as I did, after having lived near the Llanganates for the better part of a year. The locals do not play up the legend of Rumiñahui and treasure in the Llanganates in any way as a reason for tourists to visit the area. This is not a lack of sophistication. Ecuadorians rely heavily on tourism in their economy and are adept at advertising potential draws to visitors. The locals are mum either because they don't believe the legend, or more to the point, because they do.

The ransacking of the Incan empire is still a sensitive subject in Ecuador, five hundred years after the death of Atahualpa. Ecuadorians are aware of where the Cajamarca gold “fue a parar” (ended up), and blame the British Corsairs, who plundered Spanish treasure galleons at sea, equally along with the Spanish. Most of the gold and silver in Atahualpa's ransom was not in the form of currency, but rather unique works of art, including fantastic gold masks and the like, that were unceremoniously broken down and melted by the Spanish. Some bitterness still exists in Ecuador at this large scale looting of their historic and cultural treasures. This may explain some of the reluctance that Ecuadorians have to discuss the legend of treasure in the Llanganates.

Some Ecuadorians flatly told me that they don't believe in the legend. However, one woman explained to me, "Maybe we really do believe it's up there, but it's better that it stays up there. At least it's ours."

I often looked up at the Llanganates as I went about my business in Tungurahua province. Clouds and fog nearly always obscured the peaks. Torrential rains were common, causing rivers running out of the park to swell and roads below the park to wash out. Occasionally I walked along the rivers that ran out of the mysterious green-walled summits of the Llanganates, especially the magnificent Rio Verde that enters the canyon of the Rio Pastaza in a spectacular waterfall east of Baños. The vegetation there was thick and luxuriant, true jungle, even more impenetrable than the jungle in the lowland rainforests to the east. I loved the feeling of mystery that the Llanganates gave me, and I wondered what secrets they held.