Hostage-taking, ransom, deception and death -- and that’s only the beginning of the story. Valverde’s Gold: In Search of the Last Great Inca Treasure follows the tale of hidden riches, countless treasure hunters, and a writer in relentless pursuit of the truth -- until the allure of the hunt becomes a personal obsession.
British author Mark Honigsbaum was in Ecuador researching another book (The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria) when he first heard the tale of botanist Richard Spruce, a Spanish treasure guide called a derrotero and the explorers who reportedly set eyes on “the most beautiful goldsmith works” one could imagine, only to die before reaping the rewards of their discovery.
“Legend had it the treasure had been collected by the Indians to pay the ransom demanded in 1532 by the Spanish for the release of the uncrowned Inca chief Atahualpa.” But Atahualpa was killed before his half brother, Rumiñahui, made the journey from Ecuador with the largest payment of golden artifacts. In anger, Rumiñahui hid the gold in the Cerros Llanganatis, three peaks northeast of Baños, “...a dark, wet, and desolate place draped for nine months out of twelve in rain and frigid mists.”
Years later, a poor Spanish soldier fell in love with the daughter of the local chieftain in Pillaro, north of Baños. He learned where the treasure was hidden, became quite wealthy and then, on his deathbed in Spain, wrote out a guide on where to find the rest.
An Ecuadorian botanist, Atanasio Guzman, drew a map leading to the treasure. In 1857 English botanist Richard Spruce put Valverde’s derrotero and Guzman’s map together and the hunt was on.
The first team of treasure hunters were Captain Barth Blake and Lieutenant George Edwin Chapman in 1886. Working with Spruce, the pair reportedly solved the riddle of the guide and found the treasure, but Chapman didn’t survive the journey out of the mountains and Blake “fell overboard” on a trip to North America to sell the gold they’d taken from the cave.
Lured by his findings in Spruce’s journals, Honigsbaum begins his quest to uncover the truth and is drawn into the complicated world of treasure hunters, lies and deception. Intrigued with the half-truths and hoping that maybe, just maybe, there was a grain of truth in the tall tale, Honigsbaum inches towards full-blown gold fever.
“I would be undertaking not only a voyage into a physical unknown but what Carl Jung called an ‘archetypal’ journey into a psychological unknown -- an exploration, if you like, of the collective antecedants of all treasure legends. I had to go there.” And in doing so, he relates the stories of past and present treasure hunters as he prepares for a trip into the Llanganatis himself.
This is when the pace of the book moves quickly, drawing the reader along as Honigsbaum’s expedition unfolds. Unfortunately, to get here readers must make their way through a complicated cast of treasure hunters, historians and personalities, which at times is confusing.
But as each story unfolds, Honigsbaum’s quest becomes a little clearer and the overall picture a little less fuzzy. It’s a winding path and, like the derrotero, readers “...inch toward revelation step by treacherous step.”
Valverde’s Gold is a treasure hunt of classic proportions and represents, in Honigsbaum’s words “...both the possibility of myth and the promise of youth.” It’s an intriguing piece of work, well worth reading.