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  • Gold
  • Alphonso Lingis (bio)

January 13, 2012. The plane is circling down into Cajamarca, a small city in the Andes in northern Peru. We see it laid out in the hollow, a gridiron of streets from a central plaza, advancing up one side of the circle of green mountains. In the small airport a sign says Bienvenido a Cajamarca, Cuidad de Fiesta. I have arrived two weeks before Carnaval. The guidebook says that Cajamarca is the Rio de Janeiro of Peru; from all over Peru people come for carnival. But outside tourists associate Cajamarca with the place where it all started—Pizarro’s conquest. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro González landed on the coast with 168 armored and helmeted soldiers, 62 on horse-back, armed with lances and steel swords, and marched up to Cajamarca, where, they learned from informants they had tortured, the Inca Atahualpa had camped with his armies. In the central Plaza of Cajamarca Pizarro ambushed and captured the Inca and slaughtered thousands of his unarmed soldiers. The Spaniards then marched on to Qosqo and the conquest of Peru.

Lima and Arequipa look like twenty-first-century cities, with high-rise buildings thrusting up around the quarters preserved as historical heritage, and with glass-fronted shops, starred hotels, and restaurants in those quarters. Cajamarca has remained a colonial city. The Plaza de Armas is very big, a central fountain, trees, benches, and always people crossing or resting, with the cathedral on one side and the Jesuit church on the other. One- or two-story buildings surround the square and continue down the city streets; their stucco walls are painted in cream and ochre, and they have carved stone door frames and window frames white with dark wooden balconies. [End Page 55]

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Figure 1.

Custodia de la Merced (Eucharistic monstrance), Qosqo. Solid gold studded with 1,538 diamonds, 628 pearls, 312 amethysts, 3 emeralds, 1 topaz, and dozens of rubies and other gemstones

[End Page 56]

One can often look through massive doors of colonial mansions into the inner court-yards that have trees and potted plants around a circular stone fountain. I notice very few Spanish-looking people or cholos; people are small of stature with brown skin and the fine features of the Quechua population of Inca times. Almost all the older women wear many-petticoated hoop skirts, with handwoven alpaca shawls in bands of bright colors and parchment-colored leather sombreros. On every street corner there is a woman with a box on a stand packed with candies and small soft drink bottles; they are there late at night and at sunrise. In front of churches and stores handicapped and old people await alms.

For the tourist, the guidebook lists only three churches to see here and two small museums. Coming from Lima, where for six months it never rains but is muddied by the garua, the cold ocean fog, and from Arequipa surrounded by desert, I am elated by Cajamarca nestled in intense green mountains, its squares ribboned with flowers, its streets washed every hour or two by a brief sunny shower. Back at the hotel I tell the desk clerk I will stay a week or so.

On the sides of the streets there are channels for the water streaming down from the mountains. They remind me of the channels that carried the water to clean the city of Qosqo in Inca times. They are the only trace of the Inca city I see here. Save for one room.

The central plaza in Inca times was twice as large. Down one side there is a stone entrance, with “El Cuarto del Rescate,” “The Ransom Room,” inscribed over it. Inside, on a mound of dirt, there is a room of stone walls. It is said to be the room, twenty-two feet long and seventeen feet wide, that the Inca Atahualpa ordered his people to fill with gold for Pizarro, ransom to spare his life. Sun disks, ritual objects, and gold plates that covered the inner walls of temples were brought here, and the Spanish melted them into ingots filling the room to a height of nine...


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