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Cajamarca: Imperial Tomb of the Incas

Photo: Arabella Cech




Photo: Mylene D'Auriol





Photo: Arabella Cech




Photo: Arabella Cech






Photo: Sergio Urday






Photo: Mylene D'Auriol





Historically, Cajamarca is one of the most important regions of Peru. The Spanish conquest of its capital, also called Cajamarca, marked the downfall of the magnificent Inca Empire and the beginning of the colonial era.
Spanish chroniclers of the 18th century described the capital city as "large and beautiful." That has not changed, despite the bloody stain left by the Spanish conquest of this region. Visitors to Cajamarca cannot avoid hearing about the demise of the Tahuantinsuyo, as the Inca Empire was known.

On November 15, 1532, the leader of the conquistadors, Francisco Pizarro, reached Cajamarca's main "square," which, at that time, was in the shape of a triangle. There he awaited Atahualpa, the Inca leader, who was engaged in one of his favorite activities: taking a bath. Atahualpa frequently steeped himself in the Baños del Inca, some skillfully engineered thermal baths.

The next day Atahualpa, with great pomp and circumstance, made his grand entrance into the square, followed by his subjects. He was received by the Spanish priest Father Vicente Valverde, who handed him the Holy Bible. Atahualpa threw the book to the ground, whereupon Pizarro's men rushed the square and attacked the Inca leader and his men. The Incas fled panic-stricken, escaping musket fire and the Spanish cavalry.

Atahualpa was charged with heresy and condemned to death by hanging. Before the sentence was carried out, the Incan, who knew of the Spaniards' desire for wealth, made a proposal to Pizarro. In an attempt to buy his freedom, he offered to fill his cell as high as he could reach with riches.

As Pizarro recorded the promise in his chronicles (1577): "Atahualpa said that the room would overflow with gold and twice with silver for his ransom." Although the ransom was paid, Atahualpa was strangled to death. The sun set for the last time over the Inca empire and rose the next day - as it would for the next three hundred years - over Spanish colonial rule.

The Ransom Room, as it became known, is one of the main tourist attractions in Cajamarca. It is a cold, stark, silent cell measuring 17 feet wide by 22 feet long, just as the Spanish chroniclers described. At the entrance are paintings by two famous Cajamarcan artists, Camilo Blas and Andres Zevallos.

Colonial Craftsmanship
Atahualpa's bitter memory notwithstanding, the city of Cajamarca is a wonderful tourist destination. Bordered by Santa Apolonia Hill, it enjoys a spring climate year-'round. Cajamarquinos are known for their openness to friends and strangers alike. Visitors to the city often come away with fond memories of the locals and their delicious, fresh food.

The air in Cajamarca is as pure as it gets, with a fragrant blend of eucalyptus trees and other plants. The landscape is a splendid symphony of green, from chartreuse to emerald, to a deep forest "verde." Here, Federico Garcia Lorca might have written his poem "Verde, Que Te Quiero Verde" (Green, How I Love You, Green). The colors seem to symbolize the optimism with which the people of these parts face life, even after long days in the fields.

Cajamarca is located in the western range of the northern Andes and has 13 provinces. The city lies on a plateau, although some of its colonial streets lead up steep surrounding hills.

The churches are wonderful examples of colonial architecture, especially the Cathedral in the main square. Built in the 17th century, it has an imposing facade, decorated with striking volcanic rock inlay and an interior of finely detailed sculptures. Five 18th century bells sway in its unfinished towers. The San Francisco Church, also on the main square, was once described by Peruvian historian Aurelio Miró Quesada as "graceful and proud." The church was built in 1687 and is uniquely adorned by trumpeting angels.

Even then, tax evasion was practiced. The majority of the capital's churches were left unfinished, say locals, to avoid paying a tax on completed structures. Nonetheless, the churches of La Recoleta, San Jose and La Belen - with its tastefully painted yellow, red and blue statues and beautifully carved stone frontispiece - are all well worth visiting. Some Cajamarquinos spend hours at the Virgen de los Dolores Chapel, perusing intricately carved representations of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.

Incan Prowess
The Incan Baths are possibly Cajamarca's foremost tourist attraction. The specially-built pools allow hot sulphur-bearing water to mix with cool river water - evidence of famed Inca engineering.

Visitors can still relax in the warm baths, where the water bubbles up through the stone bottom. The best-known thermal springs in the Baños del Inca are El Tragadero and Los Perolitos - The Drain and The Little Pots, respectively - where the water is hot enough to boil an egg. Visitors can comfortably relax in less scalding pools there at a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

The countryside surrounding the baths is spectacular. Ubiquitous yellow flowers, a variety of trees and cottony, white clouds stand in stark contrast to the intense azure skies. These are rural scenes worthy of the finest medieval masters.
A geological point of interest is a strange rocky outcrop on Santa Apolonia, whose seat-shaped appearance has earned it the name Inca's Throne. One legend says that underground tunnels lead from this vantage point and pass beneath the city. Some even claim to hear noises from the depths of the earth, as if a battle were raging, "with sabers clashing and canons roaring," as one Cajamarcan put it. The memory of Atahualpa's fall keeps such stories fresh. Much more impressive, however, is the Cumbe Mayo Aqueduct, which starts from Cumbe Bluff, 20 kilometers from the city. Built 3,600 meters above sea level, this hydraulic engineering feat continues to stun scientists, not only because the water channels are carved from rock, but also because they run in zigzag fashion at perfect right angles, apparently to reduce the speed of the water flow. They also reverse the naturally flowing current to the Pacific back toward the Atlantic until it reaches Cajamarca. Despite running downhill at a steep angle, the water bubbles along at a gentle pace. Locals claim that the petroglyphs and carvings at the site depict tunnels that run as far as Cuzco.

Also at Cumbe Mayo are Los Frailones - The Stone Monks. According to local legend, a group of Spanish priests and soldiers were traveling through the area. They all lied down for the night, but instead of sleeping, surreptitiously robbed one another. The surrounding hills grew angry and converted them to stone.

Only eight kilometers east of the city lie the famous Ventanillas (Little Windows) de Otuzco, which many believe were crypts. The small rectangular openings cut into rock predate the Incas. The famous Peruvian historian Julio C. Tello conducted expeditions to study these important archaeological remains. He claimed they were built by the Tiahuanaco civilization more than 500 years ago.

Cajamarcan Cornucopia
The region of Cajamarca is well known for its wealth of natural resources and agricultural production. Its main crops are potato, wheat, yucca, coca and coffee. Jaen coffee, for example, is known worldwide. One type of Cajamarcan corn is famous for its high quality starch. According to the encyclopedia Todo el Peru, Jaen has boosted its production of macadamia nuts to make cholesterol-free oil.
One could call this region Peru´s Dairyland. Some Peruvians call it the Land of Milk and Honey. Cattle raising is the principal activity, supported by an estimated 600,000 head of cattle. The region's butter, cheese and sweet caramel predominate in dairy sections throughout Peru. Namora, an area easily reached by car, has a thriving fisheries industry that produces excellent trout and river silverside.

The department is divided into 13 provinces: Cajamarca; Cajabamba, the birthplace of the famous Peruvian painter Jose Sabogal; Celendin, famous for its trade; Chota; Contumazá; Cutervo; Hualgayoc; Jaén, which produces wonderful coffee; San Ignacio; San Marcos; San Miguel; San Pablo; and Santa Cruz. Ichocan, a small village between Cajamarca and Cajabamba, is said to be the birthplace of the famous singer Ima Sumac, an octogenarian who resides in Hollywood while not recording alternative music in Europe.

The municipality's reforestation program in this rural region is responsible for most of its eucalyptus and pine groves. Many hikers find solace in the Cutervo National Park.

Some of Cajamarca's main attractions are the people's colorful clothing and their traditional long horns, much like those found in the Swiss Alps. Made from a single piece of wood, the horns measure three meters long and emit a blast that can be heard for miles.

The communities north of the city have finely detailed stone crafts and ornately decorated mirrors, whose gold trim and dainty designs are applied by hand.
In business circles, Cajamarca is probably best known for its mines. Investors swarm to the area like bees to honey. The Yanacocha Gold Mine is the biggest in South America. The Michiquillay Copper Project produces vast quantities of copper, while La Granja is another major mine, expected to produce approximately 90,000 tons of copper ore per day by the start of the next century.

Last but certainly not least: CARNAVAL! Cajamarca has the most splendid, lively celebrations in Peru every February. The painting of faces, throwing of water, brilliantly colored streamers, floats and costumes turn the streets into one walking kaleidoscope. Many Cajamarcans pass an ax from hand to hand, taking turns at chopping down a tree loaded with gifts. Once it falls, everyone scrambles! The person with the winning chop organizes the next year's tree in this tradition called palos cilulos.

Those who aren't involved are probably in the parade led by the Queen of Carnival, their creative masks a sight not to be forgotten.

Other prominent displays of folklore, such as the Candelaria and Black Summer festivals in February, include traditional dance and song. Talented entertainers come out of the woodwork during the festival Cajamarca Sings and Dances, which takes place at the end of December and the first days of January.
Cajamarcans are known for la marinera, an elegant dance that centers on the man holding a kerchief while the woman flutters around him. When liberator Simón Bolìvar passed through Cajabamba and saw the beauty of the Condebamba River, he called the place Gloriabamba.

Bolivar spent the evening dancing the marinera with Chepita Ramírez, relative of the famous painter Jose Sabogal. When they danced, he realized that her shoes were full of dust, so he leaned down to clean them. She put her hands on his shoulders and said, "Simon, we´ve won the war." Since then, this dance of courtship is reminiscent of that day love triumphed.

Other major events center around Holy Week, when the streets fill with religious processions. Statues are carried through the streets of Contumaza, Cajabamba and Hualgoyoc in a moving display of devotion.

Last but not least: Flowering in Cajamarca, a two-week festival in April. The region´s best crafts, agricultural products and livestock are shown during the week of Peru´s Independence Day, July 28.

Although Cajamarca has seen the fall of one empire, another has begun; one that will add new, glittering chapters to the annals of Peruvian history.

By Manuel Jesus Orbegoso
Volume I/Issue 6, Page 08
Updated 2003

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