We all love a good tale of a once incredibly rich city long since swallowed up by the jungle. Such stories have motivated explorers, treasure hunters and archaeologists for centuries, along with providing entertainment for everyone else. One of the most famous of all such jungle-clad lost cities is Paitite, the legendary lost city of the Incas that’s said to lie somewhere in the Peruvian Amazon east of the Andes.
I recently wrote about Paitite as part of an article on four legendary lost cities. The nearly five hundred year long hunt for Patitie really deserves it’s own article though, so here it is in all it’s mosquito riddled, snake-bitten glory.
Origins of the Legend
Paitite has been the stuff of legend for nearly five hundred years. Incan traditions mention a city deep in the jungle that became the last refugee of their empire after the Spanish conquest of Cusco. It’s said a vast amount of gold and other treasure was stored here, which sounds all to familiar to anyone who knows about the legend of El Dorado. However, only a small amount of the Incas treasure was ever recovered from Cusco with most of it vanishing. This makes it possible it was transported to a hidden city – far out of reach of the conquistadors.
Rumours of the lost city of Paititi spread in the decades after the Spanish conquest, and naturally led to expeditions being launched to find this city and claim it’s vast riches. The first expedition was led by Pedro Di Candia in 1538.
He was a friend of Francisco Pizarro and the former Mayor of Lima, and had naturally already made a fortune during the conquest of the Incan Empire. He heard about a fabulously wealthy land called Ambaya east of the Andes, where the last Incan capital was rumoured to be hidden.
The expedition proved to be a disaster. These heavily laden conquistadors had little experience of true jungle travel and weren’t prepared for the challenges they would face. Their armour weighed them down and made the humid heat even worse, and many men ended up contracting malaria. To add to their troubles the area they were travelling through had extremely hostile tribes (some were cannibals).Dozens of men died and they never discovered any treasure, let alone a city in the Amazon. This set the tone for numerous expeditions over the next 150 years. Historical records indicate there were at least seven expeditions during this period, but the true number is probably much higher.
The lust for gold and glory led many explorers to an untimely demise within the steamy, dangerous confines of the Amazon Rainforest.
20th Century Expeditions
The discovery of Machu Pichu in 1911 helped to renew enthusiasm for discovering other lost cities iin South America like Paititi. British explorer Colonel Fawcett went on several expeditions to discover the lost city of Z: another city he claimed was lost in the Amazon. Although Fawcetts expeditions were in a completely different area of the Amazon, his search and subsequent mysterious disappearance helped keep the hunt for lost cities in the Amazon firmly in the public’s mind.
In 1954 Hitlers photographer (he was clearly no stranger to danger) Hans Earl discovered ancient sites in Bolivia and claimed to have discovered Atlantis there.
Starting in the later 1950s Peruvian explorer Carlos Landa led several expeditions to find Paititi. He discovered the Incan stone path in the Andes, and was the first person to document Huella fortress. He also led a number of expeditions in the national park of Manu. He didn’t find the lost city, but wrote an interesting book about his search. I recommend reading about this real life Indiana Jones.
In 1971 a French American expedition led by Bob Nicolls travelled up the treacherous Rio Pantiacolla. After a month the groups guide left, and the three carried on deeper into the jungle never to be seen again. In 1972 another explorer found out they had been killed by a local tribe. Once again the hunt for Paititi had claimed more victims.
In 1979 an expedition did have some success when they discovered the ruins of Mameria. This was the first time Incan ruins had been find in Amazonia; at last there was scientific proof that Paititi could exist.
Late 20th Century to Present day
Starting in 1994 a group of explorers led by Greg Deyermenjian and Dr Neuenschwander started the most thorough search yet for the city. In 1999 they discovered Incan ruins which were the furthest yet found directly north of Cusco. They also documented other ruins and signs of civilisation, including petroglyphs.
Then two years later an amazing discovery shed more light on the legend: an Italian archaeologist discovered a report about Paititi in the Vatican archives. The report was from the Jesuit missionary Andrez Lopez and dated 1600. The report told about how Lopez had heard about an Incan city filled with gold and precious stones deep in the jungle – a city hidden from the outside world.
Some people dismissed the report as Lopez simply recording tall tales he heard while in South America. However, a number of other documents from the colonial period have been found that refer to Paititi.
In the past 20 years there have been many attempts to find the lost city. Some have been spur-of-the-moment expeditions where the adventure has been the main motivation, while others have been incredibly professional. In 2002 Jacek Palkiewicz who had discovered the source of the Rio Amazon launched one of the best equipped expeditions to date. They explored a remote region but discovered nothing apart from part of an old Incan road. On the expedition he had attempted to contact Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station to help with plotting his next move! Interestingly, he later claimed they did find remains of some buildings, but never provided any evidence of this.
Perhaps the closest to discovering Paititi so far is archaeologist Thierry Jamin and his team. They have used technology should as drones and LIDAR to help in the hunt, which is certainly easier than solely relying on traditional methods. In recent years they have found over 40 new archaeological sites in Peru. The discoveries range from the remains of villages and forts through to small cities. They also think they know where the lost city of Paititi is located – on top of a remote, strange mountain with a flat top. In 2014 Expedition Unknowns Josh Gates joined them to document part of their search. As of today Jamin and his team are still carrying out research on the mountain.
Other people think Paititi lies in a different area, and there are currently other teams such as Paititi Research searching for the city. Since 2017 they have done very extensive research using modern methods such as GIS and data analysis to narrow down the possible location of the city to a few sites. It will be interesting to see what they discover.
Paititi is one of the most enduring and intriguing legendary lost cities. The city has captivated countless people for nearly 500 hundred years, and provided the inspiration for numerous books, films and games. It’s also led to many people losing their lives fruitlessly searching the jungle for the gold filled last city of the Incas.
Based upon the evidence it seems likely that Paititi is a real place, and it could still have a large amount of treasure there. It’s possible that some Incas did retreat here after the Spanish conquest with some of the treasure of their empire. After the fall of Vilcabamba in 1572 Paititi would have been the last Incan city left. I think disease will have killed many of the cities inhabitants, with the survivors eventually abandoning the city to the jungle.
Time to dust off the old fedora and book a flight to Peru. Who’s with me?