Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.
So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.
Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.
For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.
With one exception:
An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming
Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.
What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.
I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.
To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.
Terraces for crops? An amphitheater? The ruins are totally unmarked and locals told us they are not well studied. In addition to the construction pictured, there were dozens upon dozens of stone huts spread out over a mile of rocky oceanic bluffs, with front openings about three feet high and insides perhaps eight feet in diameter. Scattered around them were collections of seashells, shards of pottery and often even human bones. We found part of a skull, several vertebrae, fingers and a tibia. The structures were built by the Wari–a civilization that covered much of the Peruvian coast from about 500 to 900 AD–and were perhaps used by the Incas as well.
The view from our apartment roof (click to enlarge)
Francisco Pizarro’s “City of Kings,” founded in 1535, Lima was built specifically to conquer. The city was established as a coastal base of operations for the conquest and subjugation of the mysterious empire—the Incas—rumored to be based in the continent’s mountainous interior. I’ve got reservations about the power dynamics involved in this trip, so Lima as jumpoff point makes for a bit of uncomfortable symbolism.
But politics aside, we have been less on edge in the city than we expected to be. Pre-trip advice we got basically amounted to being ready for war: don’t drink the water, carry your passport everywhere, keep an eye on your pockets, lie to customs about your travel plans, don’t eat lettuce, watch out for counterfeit money, and don’t walk around practically anywhere alone.
We are breaking some of these rules and following others but as a whole we are comfortable, not at odds with the city around us. We walk the streets carefully but calmly and we are moderately adventurous with our food choices. It helps also to have a beautiful rented apartment and a very welcoming set of new friends with plenty of tips to share.
Another highlight of these first few days is the unity of purpose I feel here. I struggle to articulate exactly why I quit my job and bought a one-way plane ticket to South America, but my life hasn’t felt this coherent for quite awhile. Pushups, morning jogs, reading books, walking the streets, taking photos, practicing Spanish, meeting locals, writing blog posts: each act is another brick for the “South America Trip” house that I’m building.
Hopefully the soft landing and the mental clarity will be enough to prepare us for life outside the capital where—in many of the places we’re going—the culture is likely to be less international and the amenities much more basic.