Feb 182013

We started our day in Cajamarca in the same way Inca emperor Atahualpa did nearly 500 years earlier – in the soothing waters of the natural thermal springs that grace this area of the Northern Peruvian highlands.  Known today as Los Baños del Inca, the compound is a popular tourist attraction that supposedly gets hundreds of visitors daily.  After all, who wouldn’t want to bathe in the same pools that an Inca king once used to nurse his war wounds?

Cajamarca is a beautiful colonial city with a fascinating history.  It was here that, on a fateful day in 1532, Atahualpa and his Incan army first met Francisco Pizarro.  Pizarro was accompanied by a pathetically small force of 168 Spaniards while Atahualpa’s army, fresh off winning a civil war, was estimated to be between 40,000 and 80,000 strong.  We all know how this story ends but given these facts, it’s hard not to wonder how the heck the Spaniards pulled it off.  There are many theories as to why the Spanish were so successful in their conquest of South America.  In Cajamarca, the story is known to be as follows:

Fully aware that he was severely outnumbered by the Inca troops, Pizarro devised a scheme to entice Atahualpa into Cajamarca’s main plaza.  With most of the Incan troops on the outside and those inside armed with only slings and hand axes, Pizarro ordered an attack.  Atahualpa’s men, who had never before seen cannon fire or cavalry, were no match for the Spanish.  It is believed that 7000 indigenous were killed on the day Atahualpa was captured.

Privy to the Spaniards’ lust for gold, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room once with gold and twice with silver in exchange for his freedom.  The Spanish agreed and precious metals poured in from throughout the Incan empire.  It took a full year to complete the ransom and by the end nearly 6,000 kg of gold and 12,000 kg of silver had been melted down into bullions, a ransom worth more than $72 million today.  Despite making good on his promise, the Spanish sentenced Atahualpa to death anyway.  They had promised to burn him alive in Cajamarca’s main plaza but ultimately changed the sentence to a quicker death by strangulation due to Atahualpa’s “acceptance” of Christianity in the last hour.

Unfortunately, most of the large and undoubtedly impressive stone buildings built by the Incas in Cajamarca were torn down by the Spanish, who used the stones to construct their own homes and churches.  One Inca building remains: El Cuarto del Rescate, or the Ransom Chamber, where Atahualpa was imprisoned.  We spent a full day walking the streets of Cajamarca, soaking in the history and admiring the colonial architecture.  Despite its status as a growing city, Cajamarca has a relaxed small-town vibe that left us feeling as if we could have stayed for weeks.