VALVERDE'S GOLD

In Search of the Last Great Inca Treasure

By Mark Honigsbaum. Farrar Straus Giroux. 348 pp. $25

Nothing gets a travel writer as fired up as the search for a lost treasure. I speak from experience, having recently spent six months in the suffocating jungles of Peru, on the trail of Paititi -- the greatest lost city on Earth. The fantasy of gold and precious gems on an unknown scale can lure a man on, coaxing him to endure the unendurable. It can also drive a travel writer mad with greed -- not for gold, but for glory. Find a lost treasure and you turn instantly from a humble traveler into the most famous explorer alive.

The quest for an immense treasure always begins with a legend. In the case of Mark Honigsbaum's Valverde's Gold, it begins with the legend of what must be the most celebrated ransom in history -- that of a reigning Inca king, Atahualpa. In November 1532, the Spanish conquistadors, under Pizzaro, imprisoned Atahualpa and scratched a line high on his cell wall. To buy their leader's freedom, Atahualpa's people would have to fill the cell up to the line, twice with silver and once with gold. The prison chamber supposedly measured more than 20 feet by 17, and the line on the wall was higher than a man. The cell's volume was therefore more than 2,000 cubic feet. Gold, which was known to the Incas as "the sweat of the sun," was brought forth from across the Inca empire. But before the ransom could be paid, Pizzaro ordered Atahualpa to be strangled to death at Cajamarca. The legend goes that the Inca's generals concealed the gold in caves and in tombs throughout the Andes, with the bulk of it thought to be in one place.

If the quest for lost treasure needs a legend, it also requires clues or, better still, detailed directions. Enter a pair of English mariners named Chapman and Blake. They heard about the Inca treasure from the nephew of renowned British botanist Richard Spruce, who had visited the region in 1857. While in a small town in the Ecuadorian Andes, Spruce had stumbled upon an ancient Spanish document, composed by a conquistador called Valverde. An Indian chieftain had taken him to the hoard, which was "buried in a lake in a cave behind three triangular peaks." Valverde comes across as a pretty honest character, especially for a Spanish conquistador. For, rather inexplicably, he only took a few pieces of the gold. But then, on his deathbed, he wrote a cryptic description of how to find the treasure, which he left to the king of Spain. So enigmatic was the document that none of Valverde's compatriots could ever find the hoard.

Arriving in Ecuador in late 1886, Chapman and Blake set off to try their luck. Unlike all those before them, they actually managed to decipher the riddle, and they found one of the treasure caves, which contained "life-size human figures made out of beaten gold and silver; birds, animals, corn stalks made out of silver . . . pots full of the most incredible jewellery; golden vases full of emeralds and other beautiful stones." Wasting no time, they took what they could carry and hurried away to arrange a full-scale expedition back to the cave. Within weeks, both men had died, Chapman while still in the Andes, Blake after mysteriously slipping overboard off the coast of Newfoundland.

Mark Honigsbaum, whose first book was the acclaimed The Fever Trail, was undeterred by the backdrop of death and chilled, vaporous mist. After hearing the stories on a previous journey to Ecuador, he decided to get to the bottom of the legend of Valverde's gold. The resulting story, which skillfully walks the tightrope between serious research and action-packed adventure, draws the reader into what can only be described as an astonishing detective thriller. The twists and turns form an intellectual puzzle of a kind, while its cast of unusual characters never ceases to amuse.

Anyone who has ever entertained the idea of seeking a lost Inca treasure would do well to read this book, not least because it introduces the awful reality of tropical cloud forest, and the indispensable need for hope, especially when the only certainty is defeat. As real explorers know, there is no glamour, no glory, to a jungle expedition of many weeks. Indiana Jones wouldn't last two minutes in the Ecuadorian Andes -- a realm of overwhelming beauty and of unspeakable hardship.

I suspect that Valverde's Gold will leave many an armchair explorer ruminating on the riddle of the Inca hoard. For those who want a stab at finding it themselves, Valverde's directions to the treasure caves are reproduced as an appendix. As for Honigsbaum, he proves himself a genuine explorer, concluding that "the treasure is the birthright of the indigenous people of Ecuador, and to spend time and money pursuing it is a sort of obscenity." Who knows whether the Inca hoard is fact or fantasy? To the people of the Andes, the line between what is real and what is not is blurred. What is more certain to Honigsbaum is that the experience changed him. The goal he set out to accomplish paled in importance, as he realized that the real treasure was the journey itself. *

Tahir Shah is the author of "In Search of King Solomon's Mines" and "Trail of Feathers: In Search of the Birdmen of Peru."