- Historic Sites
De Soto And The Golden Road
Some men see the beginnings. The conquistador who first saw the Mississippi also took the Inca highway to fabulous Cuzco.
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Hernando de Soto, so the chronicler said, first came upon Cuzco at sunset.
The great wheel of the sun, sinking with an enormous burst of reddened glory, lighted up the city so that even the poorer buildings took on a burnished golden look. As the retreating rays touched the beaten gold plates that decorated its walls, the pyramided Sun Temple, towering over the lower buildings around it, gleamed as if it were cased in golden metal.
De Soto was one of that minute but magic company to whom it is given to see the marvels of the earth for the first time. Some years later he was to plunge into the wilderness of what is now the southern United States, enduring hardships, meeting barbaric Indian tribes, finally beholding the Mississippi River—never seen before by any European—and at last meeting his death by its shores. In his lifetime he traveled a long road and witnessed many fantastic things; yet never, in all of his wanderings, did he see anything quite like the storied Inca capital.
It lay in a protected hollow at the northern end of the treeless valley. On the northern higher slope of the city stood an enormous stone fortress, a structure so immense that at first sight de Soto and his companion doubted that any army could breach it. Narrow and long “like a puma’s tail,” Cuzco was made up of narrow streets, its smaller buildings painted yellow and red, the larger buildings constructed of enormous stonework. In the center was a great “square, larger than the Plaza of Saint Mark’s in Venice, which, hecause I the luminous atmosphere, seemed so near that a bolt from a crossbow could have been shot into its center.
Captain Hernando de Soto, from his position on the hill of Karmenka, had good reason to study Cuzco intently. For he, along with 200 Spaniards in this fateful year of 1533, was engaged in the conquest of an empire. De Soto was then 35, and, according to his Sixteenth-Century chronicler Oviedo, “a handsome mail, dark in complexion, with full beard and dark restless eyes, of cheerful countenance, an endurer of hardships and very valiant.”
With only one Spanish companion he had come 450 miles south from Cajamarca, where the lnca king was being held lor ransom, with the purpose of speeding the payment of the gold and silver ransom and to make sure of the captured lnca emperor’s promise “that he would (ill an immense room, once with gold, twice with silver.” Knowledge was needed too, of the sixe of this strange kingdom, of its roads and of its defenses, for the Spaniards had come not only to siphon off a winnowing of lnca gold but to make conquest of the source of all of it.
Earlier, three common soldiers had been sent to Cuzco for the purpose of spying out the secrets of the Incas, but—what with being carried about Cuzco in goldencrusted litters and being addressed as gods—they had grown so overbearing that the native officials, hurriedly getting together 234 litter-loads of gold and silver, ended their excuse lor being in Cuzco at all. So that mission ended without their obtaining vital information; next Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniards’ captain-general, chose the Hidalgo de Soto, “a gentleman on all four sides” (which meant that rarity, a man who knew who all four of his grandparents were, and knew further that they included only the purest Spanish blood).
This well-descended young soldier had landed in Yucatan in 1519, and fought for upwards of ten years throughout Central America. He was nursing wounds in Nicaragua in 1532 when the clarion call came from Pizarro and his brothers.
One hundred and eighty men, with 37 horses, equipped with two falconets, twenty crossbows and three ships, had been assembled in 1532 in Tumbes, the most northern coastal city of the Incas, to begin the conquest of seven million. After weeks of the march inland, de Soto had been dispatched ahead into the mountains with twenty soldiers to seek out the whereabouts of the mysterious Inca king. At an altitude of 8,000 feet in the center of the high cordilleras he had come upon the village of Caxas. Here, as the expedition’s official secretary, or scrivener, Francisco de Xerez, recorded it, they saw the first evidence of the grandeur of the golden kingdom: “Fine edifices and a fortress built entirely of cut stones, the larger ones being five or six palms wide and so closely joined that there appears to be no mortar between them.”
Since the natives, unknown to the Spaniards, were under the strictest orders from the Inca not to attack, the 2,000 Indian warriors at Caxas had withdrawn into the mountains leaving de Soto master of the place. A chieftain appeared and through an interpreter said that he was in the service of the Inca and took him out on a “road made by hands and broad enough for six men on horseback to ride abreast.”
Hernando de Soto thus became the first white man to see the royal highways of the Incas, cut through plains and solid mountains for thousands of miles. The chieftain averred that “this same road traverses all the intervening land between Cuzco and Quito, a distance of more than three hundred leagues” (actually 1,230 miles). He described Cuzco “as a league around, and the house of the Lord Inca four crossbow shots in length,” and told him that the Inca Atahualpa was not far distant from this same Caxas and was now taking the hot water baths at Cajamarca.