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The Last Days of the Incas

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The epic story of the fall of the Inca Empire to Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, and the recent discovery of the lost guerrilla capital of the Incas, Vilcabamba, by three American explorers.

In 1532, the fifty-four-year-old Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led a force of 167 men, including his four brothers, to the shores of Peru. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the Inca rulers of Peru had just fought a bloody civil war in which the emperor Atahualpa had defeated his brother Huascar. Pizarro and his men soon clashed with Atahualpa and a huge force of Inca warriors at the Battle of Cajamarca. Despite being outnumbered by more than two hundred to one, the Spaniards prevailed—due largely to their horses, their steel armor and swords, and their tactic of surprise. They captured and imprisoned Atahualpa. Although the Inca emperor paid an enormous ransom in gold, the Spaniards executed him anyway. The following year, the Spaniards seized the Inca capital of Cuzco, completing their conquest of the largest native empire the New World has ever known. Peru was now a Spanish colony, and the conquistadors were wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

But the Incas did not submit willingly. A young Inca emperor, the brother of Atahualpa, soon led a massive rebellion against the Spaniards, inflicting heavy casualties and nearly wiping out the conquerors. Eventually, however, Pizarro and his men forced the emperor to abandon the Andes and flee to the Amazon. There, he established a hidden capital, called Vilcabamba—only recently rediscovered by a trio of colorful American explorers. Although the Incas fought a deadly, thirty-six-year-long guerrilla war, the Spanish ultimately captured the last Inca emperor and vanquished the native resistance.

ISBN-13: 9780743260503

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 06-17-2008

Pages: 544

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

Kim MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy Award–winning filmmaker and award-winning author who has lived and worked all over the world. Educated in the US and France, he lived for five years in Peru and spent some of that time living with a recently contacted tribe in the Amazon jungle, only 100 miles from Machu Picchu. He is the author of Life and Death in the Andes and The Last Days of the Incas, as well as three illustrated books about Peru. He currently divides his time between the US, Peru, and Thailand. Visit him at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Discovery

July 24, 1911

The gaunt, thirty-five-year-old American explorer, Hiram Bingham, clambered up the steep slope of the cloud forest, on the eastern flank of the Andes, then paused beside his peasant guide before taking off his wide-brimmed fedora and wiping the sweat from his brow. Carrasco, the Peruvian army sergeant, soon climbed up the trail behind them, sweating in his dark, brass-buttoned uniform and hat, then leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees in order to catch his breath. Bingham had been told that ancient Inca ruins were located somewhere high up above them, nearly in the clouds, yet Bingham also knew that rumors about Inca ruins were as rampant in this little explored region of southeastern Peru as the flocks of small green parrots that often wheeled about, screeching through the air. The six-foot-four, 170-pound Bingham was fairly certain, however, that the lost Inca city he was searching for did not lie ahead. Bingham, in fact, had not even bothered to pack a lunch for this trek, hoping instead to make a quick journey up from the valley floor, to verify whatever scattered ruins might lie upon the jagged peak rising above, and then to hurry back down. As the lanky American with the close-cropped brown hair and the thin, almost ascetic face began to follow his guide up the trail again, he had no idea that within just a few hours he would make one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in history.

The air lay humid and warm upon them, and, looking up, they saw the ridgetop they were seeking stood another thousand feet above, obscured by sheer-sided slopes festooned with dripping vegetation. Above the ridge, swirling clouds alternately hid and then revealed the jungle-covered peak. Water glistened from freshly fallen rain, while an occasional mist brushed across the men's upturned faces. Alongside the steep path, orchids erupted in bright splashes of violet, yellow, and ocher. For a few moments the men watched a tiny hummingbird — no more than a shimmer of fluorescent turquoise and blue — buzz and dart about a cluster of flowers, then disappear. Only a half hour earlier, all three had carefully stepped around a vibora, a poisonous snake, its head mashed in by a rock. Had it been killed by a local peasant? Their guide had only shrugged his shoulders when asked. The snake, Bingham knew, was one of many whose bite could cripple or kill.

An assistant professor of Latin American history and geography at Yale University, Bingham ran a hand down one of the heavy cloth leg wrappings that he had wound all the way up from his booted ankles to just below his knees. Might prevent a snakebite, Bingham no doubt thought. Sergeant Carrasco, the Peruvian military man who had been assigned to the expedition, meanwhile, undid the top buttons to his uniform. The guide trudging ahead of them — Melchor Arteaga — was a peasant who lived in a small house on the valley floor more than a thousand feet below. It was he who told the two men that on top of a high mountain ridge Inca ruins could be found. Arteaga wore long pants and an old jacket, and had the high cheekbones, dark hair, and aquiline eyes of his ancestors — the inhabitants of the Inca Empire. Arteaga's left cheek bulged with a wad of coca leaves — a mild form of cocaine narcotic that once only the Inca royalty had enjoyed. He spoke Spanish but was more at home in Quechua, the Incas' ancient language. Bingham spoke heavily accented Spanish and no Quechua; Sergeant Carrasco spoke both.

"Picchu," Arteaga had said, when they had first visited him the day before. The words were difficult to make out, filtering as they did past the thick gruel of coca leaves. "Chu Picchu," it sounded like the second time. Finally, the short peasant had firmly grabbed the American's arm and, pointing up at a massive peak looming above them, he uttered two words: "Machu Picchu" — Quechua for "old peak." Arteaga turned and squinted into the intense brown eyes of the American explorer, then turned toward the mountain. "Up in the clouds, at Machu Picchu — that is where you will find the ruins."

For the price of a shiny new silver American dollar, Arteaga had agreed to guide Bingham up to the peak. Now, high on its flank, the three men looked back down at the valley floor, where far below them tumbled the Urubamba River, white and rapids-strewn in stretches, then almost turquoise in others, fed as it was by Andean glaciers. The river would eventually flatten out and coil its way down into the Amazon River, which stretched eastward for nearly another three thousand miles, across an entire continent. One hundred miles to the west lay the high Andean city of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incas — the "navel" or center of their once nearly 2,500-mile-long empire.

Almost four hundred years earlier, the Incas had abruptly abandoned Cuzco, after the Spaniards had murdered their emperor and installed a puppet emperor on the throne. A large number of them had then headed en masse down the eastern side of the Andes, eventually founding a new capital in the wild Antisuyu — the mostly jungle-choked eastern quarter of their empire. The Incas called their new capital Vilcabamba and for the next nearly four decades it would become the headquarters of a fierce guerrilla war they would carry out against the Spaniards. In Vilcabamba, Inca warriors learned to ride captured Spanish horses, to fire captured Spanish muskets, and often fought alongside their nearly naked Amazonian allies, who wielded deadly bows and arrows. Bingham had been told the remarkable story of the Incas' little known rebel kingdom a year earlier, while on a brief trip to Peru, and was amazed that no one seemed to know what had become of its capital. A year later, Bingham was back in Peru, hoping that he would become the person to discover it.

Thousands of miles from his Connecticut home and clinging to the side of a cloud forest peak, Bingham couldn't help but wonder if his current climb would result in a wild-goose chase. Two of his companions on the expedition, the Americans Harry Foote and William Erving, had remained on the valley floor in camp, preferring that Bingham go off in search of the ruins himself. Rumors of ruins often remained just that — rumors — they no doubt thought. One thing his companions knew well, however, was that no matter how tired they were, Bingham himself always seemed tireless. Not only was Bingham the leader of this expedition, but he had also planned it, had selected its seven members, and had raised the financing bit by difficult bit. The funds that now allowed Bingham to be hiking in search of a lost Inca city, in fact, had come from selling a last piece of inherited family real estate in Hawaii, from promises of a series of articles for Harper's magazine on his return, and from donations from the United Fruit Company, the Winchester Arms Company, and W. R. Grace and Company. Although he had married an heir to the Tiffany fortune, Bingham himself had no money — and never had.

The only son of a strict, fire-and-brimstone Protestant preacher, Hiram Bingham III had grown up in near poverty in Honolulu, Hawaii. His impoverished youth was no doubt one of the motivations for why Bingham, even as a boy, had always been determined to climb his way up the social and financial ladders of America or, as he put it, "to strive for magnificence." Perhaps one episode from Bingham's younger years best illustrates how he presently came to be scrambling up a high Peruvian mountain: when Bingham was twelve years old, suffocating from what he considered the dreary, strict life of a minister's son (where for the smallest infraction he was punished with a wooden rod), Bingham and a friend decided to run away from home. Bingham had read plenty of Horatio Alger stories, and, torn between his own dreams and possible eternal damnation in hell, he decided that he might best escape by taking a ship to the mainland, and then begin his climb toward fame and fortune.

That morning, with his heart no doubt pounding and trying hard to appear at ease, Bingham pretended he was going to school, left the house, and, as soon as he was out of sight, went directly to the bank. There, he withdrew $250, which Bingham's parents had insisted he save, penny by penny, so that he could go to college on the mainland. Bingham quickly bought a boat ticket and a new suit of clothes, packing everything into a suitcase he had hidden in a woodpile near his home. Bingham's plan was to somehow make his way to New York City, to find a job as a newsboy, and then — when he had saved up enough money — eventually to go to Africa, where he hoped to become an explorer.

"I believe that he got the fancy from the books he has read," the wife of a neighbor later told his parents. Indeed, young Bingham was a voracious reader. But his carefully laid plans soon began to unravel, although through no fault of his own. For some reason, the ship on which he had booked passage did not depart that day and instead remained in port. Meanwhile, Bingham's best friend and fellow escapee — whose very different and happy home life hardly justified such a drastic undertaking — had lost his courage and confessed everything to his father. Soon, the boy's father alerted the Bingham household. Bingham's father found his son down at the port in the late afternoon, standing determinedly with his valise in hand before the ship that was to bear him across the seas and ultimately to his destiny. Amazingly, Bingham was not punished; instead, he was given more freedom and latitude. And, perhaps not surprisingly, twenty-three years later Hiram Bingham found himself scrambling up the eastern face of the Andes, on the cusp of making one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in the history of the world.

Shortly after noon, on July 24, 1911, Bingham and his two companions reached a long, wide ridgetop; on it sat a small hut, roofed with dried brown ichu grass, some 2,500 feet above the valley floor. The setting was magnificent — Bingham had a 360 degree view of the adjacent jungle-covered mountain peaks and of the clouds rimming the whole area. To the left, and connected to the ridge, a large peak — Machu Picchu — rose up and towered above. To the right, another peak — Huayna Picchu or "young peak" — did the same. As soon as the three sweaty men reached the hut, two Peruvian peasants, wearing sandals and typical alpaca-wool ponchos, welcomed them with dripping gourds of cool mountain water.

The two natives, it turned out, were farmers and had been cultivating the ancient terraces here for the last four years. Yes, there were ruins, they said, just ahead. They then offered their visitors some cooked potatoes — just one of an estimated five thousand varieties of potatoes that grow in the Andes, their place of origin. Three families lived there, Bingham discovered, growing corn, sweet and white potatoes, sugarcane, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and gooseberries. Bingham also learned that only two paths led to the outside world from atop this high mountain outpost: the path that they had just struggled up and another one, "even more difficult," the peasants said, that led down the other side. The peasants traveled to the valley floor only once a month, they said. Natural springs bubbled up here, and the area was blessed with rich soil. Eight thousand feet up in the Andes, with abundant sun, fertile soil, and water, the three peasant families had little need of the outside world. A good defensive site, Bingham no doubt thought, as he drank several gourdfuls of water, looking around at the surroundings. He later wrote,

Through Sergeant Carrasco [translating from Quechua into Spanish], I learned that the ruins were "a little further along." In this country one can never tell whether such a report is worthy of credence. "He may have been lying," is a good footnote to affix to all hearsay evidence. Accordingly, I was not unduly excited, nor in a great hurry to move. The heat was still great, the water from the Indian's spring was cool and delicious, and the rustic wooden bench, hospitably covered immediately after my arrival with a soft woolen poncho, seemed most comfortable. Furthermore, the view was simply enchanting. Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba [River] below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising 2,000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped, snow-covered mountains rose thousands of feet above us. <

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Table of Contents


Chronology of Events


1. The Discovery

2. A Few Hundred Well-Armed Entrepreneurs

3. Supernova of the Andes

4. When Empires Collide

5. A Roomful of Gold

6. Requiem for a King

7. The Puppet King

8. Prelude to a Rebellion

9. The Great Rebellion

10. Death in the Andes

11. The Return of the One-Eyed Conqueror

12. In the Realm of the Antis

13. Vilcabamba: Guerrilla Capital of the World

14. The Last of the Pizarros

15. The Incas' Last Stand

16. The Search for the "Lost City" of the Incas

17. Vilcabamba Rediscovered

Epilogue: Machu Picchu, Vilcabamba, and the Search for the Lost Cities of the Andes