The hidden Tunnels of the Inca (Cusco, Peru)

The old city of the Inca, Cusco in Peru, is surrounded by numerous legends and a visit to this town, situated at an altitude of three thousand meters in the Andes, is a must for every globetrotter. A mystery is however said to lie hidden underneath.

The most spectacular building around Cusco is certainly Sacsayhuaman with its mighty temple walls that seem to have been created by giant hands. It is said that under Cusco and Sacsayhuaman miles of underground tunnels are existing. Whoever tries to explore them dies, however, alledgedly in terrible agony. They are called Chinkanas and are said to lead to the Koricancha.

Cusco grew when the city of Tiwanaku was abandoned at Lake Titicaca and its greatest heyday began therefore under the Incas in 1438. Its largest and richest temple was the Koricancha Temple, with its gilded interior. Its mighty building was plundered by the Spaniards when the city was taken in 1533 and its structures destroyed by fire. A church, Santo Domingo, was built above its foundations and has since served the Dominican Order as a monastery. For a long time, nevertheless, the legend of the existence of underground treasure rooms has been persistently preserved, certainly fuelled by the eternal greed for valuables. Every taxi driver in Cusco is still wondering where the Spaniards (or whoever else) took the gold of the Koricancha.

The Santo Domingo Church constructed over the Koricancha-Tempel, whichs walls are still evident in the foundations (c) Stanley

The fable says that the Incas saved and hid the Koricancha treasure when the city was coquered almost five centuries ago. The most valuable and sacred pieces of Inca gold were therefore hidden in underground halls accessible through the secret Chinkana tunnels. Many chroniclers and even Alexander von Humboldt referred to this tunnel network in their writings. But could it be that the story of the treasure inside is – as so often – a myth?

In general, underground tunnels exist around Cusco. Some Chinkanas (from the Quechua word “chinkana” – place to get lost) near Sacsayhuamans are known. They are mysterious caves and passages in the limestone rocks. Some parts of them can be visited, but most of the caves are kept inaccessible due to the danger of getting lost in them. Whether it were the Incas who built them, or whether they are of older origin, is little researched so far. They are undoubtedly vast, but much still lies in the darkness of legend.

Well-known is a story that tells how two young people explored the tunnels and found a piece of gold after wandering in them for several days, but without finding the exit. In his despair, one died, the other finally found his way out through the church of Santo Domingo (the former Koricancha), but also died shortly afterwards. Where the mysterious entrance, from which he came back to light, is, is unfortunately not told by the legend. The legendary treasure therefore remains hidden despite all search. Shame be to him who thinks evil of it (or doubts).

Already in the 17th century a treasure hunter offered his services to the Dominican monks and mentions in a letter the entrance to Chikana in the monastery, as if he had seen it. One wonders, of course, why the Dominicans should not have looked for the gold when they built their church over the Koricancha and necessarily modified its walls.

Despite the doubts about the legend concerning the treasure, excavations took place between 2001-2003. But already at the first opening of a Kypta in the church Santo Domingo toxic gases and pathogens scared the seekers. Indeed, histoplasmosis (a lung disease) causing fungi are often present in such old underground tunnels. The excavations, which were then carried out with breathing apparatus, only discovered burials from the colonial period that had already been plundered during previous restoration works, but no treasure was seen. After many fruitless excavations, the Dominican Order lost patience with the treasure hunters and withdrew its excavation permit. A small museum now shows finds and a virtual reconstruction of the Koricancha.

The treasure remains to be discovered … if it has ever existed. In this case one is rather tempted to add a new translation to the Latin word ‘Errare humanum est’. ‘To err around is human’.

We’re eagerly awaiting the first archaeological mapping of the Chinkanas though… What ever one thinks of treasure tales, it is much more exciting to find out why these tunnels were built and what the history of their builders was than to trace the gold.

U.C. Ringuer

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