Cusco's Golden Corn

Larry Beahan

The sky is blue and the intense Andean sun burns down on us, cooled by the high altitude and the wind. Our Quechua guide, Vidal, in a brilliantly-beaded ear-covering Peruvian cap, poses before the ancient rocks of Sacsayhuaman and speaks. "Manca Inca was the last independent Inca king. Here, in 1536, his general lost the final battle to the Conquistadors and their Indian allies. That general killed himself in shame."

Yesterday, Vidal had crowned the day for us with a tour of Cuzco's Coricancha, a massive curving wall, all that remains of the Inca Temple of the Sun, the most important place of worship in the 3000-mile expanse of the Inca Empire. On top of that wall and from the Coricancha masonry, Spaniards built the church of Santo Domingo. Vidal swept his arm toward the great area of the temple now under archeological excavation. "The wall around all this was covered with sheets of gold. It enclosed a garden where every plant we grew and all our animals were represented by golden statues, golden stalks of corn and golden llamas, statues of beautiful women all in gold."
After a moment, I asked him, "What became of the gold?"

He put me off, "We will talk about that tomorrow."

With the mountains in the distance, the temple at our feet and glittering sun in our eyes, Vidal let us imagine the glory of the Incas in their prime.

For a few days now we twelve "adventure tourists" have been at eleven thousand feet, high in the Andes. With the help of coca tea we are mostly recovered from what the Quechua descendants of the Inca call soroche, the nausea, headache and shortness of breath which that altitude induces in flatlanders. These Inca, turned hotel keepers and guides say, the tea is full of vitamins and does not contain cocaine. Yet, as it eased our discomfort, it made our gums tingle suspiciously.

Our first night in Cuzco, Vidal had taken us on a tour of the Cuzco market, an enormous, intricate and dense tangle of stalls crammed with peppers, amaranth, potatoes, sweaters of baby alpaca, hand-carved chess sets, shoes, hats, underwear, anything a Quechua family or an adventure tourist might want or need, a veritable Inca Wal-Mart, but with crooks. Vidal said, "Stay close to me and you'll be OK. The pickpockets and muggers are watching, but they know you're with me, so you're safe."

We stopped in a tavern and played the Quechua game of Frog. We all took turns tossing brass coins at the mouth of a brass frog and scored points depending on how close we came. Vidal and my son, Teck, scored bulls-eyes or frog's mouths. We losers bought a round of the local Cervesur Beer. I tried a hot chocolate and discovered that Quechua recipe does not include sugar. The beer was excellent.

That night, we had started to make our way back to the hotel, the modest and venerable San Isidro Labrador, located a block and a half off the Plaza de Armas. The streets and the square were alive with people. Women with up to twenty petticoats bulking their skirts and wearing tiny felt fedoras, stood out. But beside the colorful Andean costumes, many people wore ordinary street dress and many, many were in police and army uniforms. The Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Indian revolution is under pretty good control according to the Peruvian government, but the government seemed unwilling to take any chances with an interruption of the tourist trade.

As we left the tavern, Xavier, X, announced that Chris, the youngest of our group, had gone to get himself tattooed. By then, Vidal had left us for home and bed. Five of us older heads conferred and decided to track Chris down to warn him about the dangers of infection and mugging involved in such a solo escapade.

We found ourselves cruising the intricate back alleys of nocturnal Cuzco in search of tattoo parlors. I suddenly realized the foolhardiness of this rescue mission as I saw X and his wife, Nancy, disappearing through a trapezoidal Inca door into a dimly lit interior courtyard. I followed with the idea of there being strength in numbers. Teck followed me out of loyalty. Bob wisely shot back to the hotel. Chris was not in that seedy establishment. We got out alive and followed Bob. Next morning at breakfast Chris removed the bandage from his sore big toe to reveal a beautiful red, blue and green Inca cross.

The next day, Vidal picked us up to tour cobble stoned streets walled by intricate Inca stone work and cruder modern construction. "The Spanish city is built of stone stolen from the Inca buildings," he said. "You can tell the difference just by looking. The Inca work needs no mortar."

At Cuzco's central square, the Plaza de Armas, scores of shoe shine boys and families, including tiny tots and their grandparents selling souvenirs, descended on us. Vidal said "Don't talk to them. They will make friends and never let us alone." He led us through the great Cathedral with its venerated statue of Nuestro Senor de los Temblores, Christ, Lord of the Earthquakes and its catacombs.

But it is our last day high in the Andes, exploring the Inca Empire. It is that promised tomorrow when Vidal is to tell us about the gold. We are at Sacsayhuaman, on the edge of Cuzco, the birthplace of, or as the Inca see it, the navel of their empire. In this Temple fortress, the massive boulders of which it is made overwhelm us. They are hundred and twenty-five ton daintily-shaped bulging pillows of rock piled on top of each other and fitted together with absolutely perfect seams, six hundred years ago. The whole colossal space is in the shape of the Sacred Puma's head. We proceed silently in the zigzag shadow of the creature's gargantuan teeth. A downhill walk from here, eased by courses of Inca stairs, the city of Cuzco's red-tiled roofs, towering churches and massive central square forms the Puma's body.

Vidal speaks, "The Spanish were mistaken. They thought Sacsayhuaman was just a fortress. In fact, it was a holy place of massive assembly and worship. It is still in use for our Inca ceremonies. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul said a millennial mass here before thousands. But his people made a mistake, too. They erected a huge cross on top of the Sacsayhuaman ruins. We Quechua are Catholic, but we temper Catholicism with our old beliefs. Some of us burned the cross. John Paul understood the mistake and made no trouble."

Vidal has assembled us at the mouth of a cave. "The gold of the Coricancha garden went to Pizarro to ransom Inca king, Atahuallpa. Those marvelous statues were melted into bullion and shipped to Spain in galleons." Vidal leans forward raising a finger and in a hushed voice says, "But, according to our tradition, some of it got away. Some of the Coricancha gold was hidden in the chincana. That's what we call these caves." He motioned behind him at the black entrance to a labyrinth formed under a sheet of lava. "These chincana wander all over, even all the way down into the Plaza de Armas. Many people have gotten lost in them.

"There is a rumor that a few years ago several students from some foreign university went in there looking for gold. They had just one day's supply of food and water. None of them ever came out. But, weeks after they were gone, one of the janitors at the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas was working alone late at night down in the catacombs. He heard a mewing sound and something like digging behind one of the walls. He removed a stone slab. Behind it, in the dark, he thought he saw a monster. He quickly jammed the slab back in place and sealed up the wall. Curious, he went back a few days later and cautiously opened the wall. Inside he found, not a monster at all, but a skinny, starved dead boy holding in his hand a stalk of maize all made of gold. The janitor took the gold and sealed the body behind the wall. He went home and told no one.

"His neighbors were suspicious when he started living so well. Then his dog got sick and died. He noticed that he himself was turning dark in color and did not feel well. One of his sons was killed in an auto accident. His daughter ran away from home. His wife had a mild cold and died of pneumonia. Then he died. All because he took advantage of wealth that he did not deserve.

"I don't know if this story is true. Like all myths it probably has a grain of truth but the story keeps growing. So many people, fascinated by rumors of gold, have gotten lost in there that the mayor of Cuzco finally had to have the main entrance to the chincana blown up with dynamite.

"So now we are going to walk through this chincana," Vidal said, disappearing into the cave. "Who's coming?"