The Last Days Of The Incas

It’s safe to say that if our family had not all read Kim MacQuarrie’s “The Last Days of the Incas” we might not have visited Cajamarca. The Peruvian mountain town was out of our way and many of the structures that existed on that fateful day of November 16, 1532, when Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards routed Emperor Atahualpa and the Incas, are no longer standing. MacQuarrie’s book was so good and so compelling that it brought the town to life for us and we just had to go there to experience it. It’s an example of how a good book can enhance the travel experience and influence an itinerary.

Our family is in the middle of a year-long reading contest and each month we give ourselves prizes for reading above a certain number of pages. Both our kids are being home-schooled this year so there are a lot of recognizable titles: “The Great Gatsby,” “1984,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc., but we also try to read good historical books set in the country that we’re visiting. We keep the results in a spreadsheet and update it immediately upon finishing a book. My son holds the record for most pages read in a month but my wife looks like she will beat that this month. My daughter has read the most total pages thus far and I have read the most books.

It is a good thing that we all read “Last Days,” because the Plaza de Armas at Cajamarca today looks nothing like it did in 1532. The battle of Cajamarca was a surprise attack by 160 Spaniards on the Incas that claimed 7,000 Inca lives and captured their leader Atahualpa (on the litter in the picture). The Spanish had some clear advantages in this battle. They relied on a surprise attack, soldiers on horseback with steel swords and cannon. It was a brutal half day of Spaniards slashing Incas from horseback…almost 44 Incas killed for every Spaniard. Over a thousand Incas dying every hour…almost 17 dying each minute. With the size of the great plaza much smaller and virtually none of the original buildings still standing, we had to use our imagination to visualize all that blood. The only original building still standing is the ransom chamber, the 20’x15’ adobe building that held Atahualpa while the ransom – a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver – was being collected. On our visit to the chamber, we tried to imagine Atahualpa pacing back and forth, wondering how it was that he found himself in this predicament. They eventually filled those rooms and then murdered the Inca Ruler.

The next day we went to the Royal Inca baths, the location where Atahualpa, upon learning that the Spaniards had arrived, decide to stay an extra day to relax, apparently not sufficiently worried about the funny looking visitors to interrupt his spa session. The original baths are still there but on this cold November day we bathed in the private, enclosed baths. The baths were extremely soothing and relaxing; perhaps Atahualpa and his generals were not sufficiently alert to fight properly against the Spaniards.

MacQuarrie does infinitely more justice to this story and there are lots of interesting anecdotes to flavor the tale. For example, just before the ambush started, the Friar Vincent de Valverde approached Atahualpa and asked him to accept Catholicism as his faith and Charles V as his sovereign. Atahualpa then asked to see a bible, which Valverde said “spoke to him,” but the Inca leader was unimpressed with it. (The Incas had neither books nor writing). He threw it down and that’s when the fighting began. Had we not read “Last Days,” Cajamarca would have been just another Peruvian mountain town to us.

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