Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 7

There’s Gold in Them There Hills

The Caballo Cunco Treasure: First Attempt, Part 1

While I was stopping for a week at Jura baths, on my return from Challana, Morosini, the proprietor of the hotel, came up to me one day and told me there was a lady staying there who wanted to have a talk with me—Dona Corina San Roman, daughter of the late General San Roman, a former President of Peru. Morosini presented me, and after a few minutes’ conversation she showed me an original document left by Father San Roman to his brother, the Prefect of Callao, and handed down to her by her father, which gave particulars of a large treasure that had been hidden by the Jesuits. She told me that as I had been into Challana, and got back safely, I would be just the man to go and look for it, if I cared to do so, and she made me two alternative offers. If I tried to find the place with the help of the data she would give me, she would pay me £80 per month for the six dry months of the next year, which was as much as I was getting from Mariano Penny for training his racehorses, and if I found it she would pay all the expenses of unearthing it, and give me ten per cent of the full value found. The other suggestion was that I was to take the copy of the document, and go myself, paying all my own expenses, and give her ten per cent of the treasure if I found it. I accepted the second proposition without hesitation.

The document gave no indications as to how to find the place, but simply described the kind of place, and mentioned that it was near the banks of the River Sacambaja. It ran as follows: “If you find a steep hill all covered with dense forest, the top of which is flat, with long grass growing, from where you can see the River Sacambaja on three sides, you will discover on the top of it, in the middle of the long grass, a large stone shaped like an egg, so big that it took 500 Indians to place it there. If you dig down underneath this stone for five yards, you will find the roof of a large cave, which it took 500 men two and a half years to hollow out. The roof is seventy yards long, and there are two compartments and a long narrow passage leading from the room on the east side to the main entrance two hundred yards away. On reaching the door, you must exercise great care in opening. The door is a large iron one, and inside to the right near the wall you will find an image made of pure gold three feet high, the eyes of which are two large diamonds; this image was placed here for the good of mankind. If you proceed along the passage, you will find in the first room thirty-seven large heaps of gold, and many gold and silver ornaments and precious stones. On entering the second room, you will find in the right-hand corner a large box, clamped with three iron bars; inside this box is $90,000 in silver money and thirty-seven big heaps of gold. Distributed in the hollows on either side of the tunnel and the two rooms are altogether a hundred and sixty-three heaps of gold, of which the value has been estimated at $60,000,000. Great care must be taken on entering these rooms, as enough strong poison to kill a regiment has been laid about. The walls of the two rooms have been strengthened by large blocks of granite; from the roof downwards the distance is five yards more. The top of the roof is portioned off into three distinct esplanades, and the whole has been well covered over for a depth of five yards with earth and stones. When you come to a place twenty feet high, with a wall so wide that two men can easily ride abreast, cross the river, and you will find the church, monastery, and other buildings.” Corina San Roman told me that the monastery spoken of in this document was built by the Jesuits in 1635 and abandoned in 1735. The treasure, accumulated from eleven years’ working of the famous gold mines of El Carmen, and the Tres Titilias, and from the gold and diamond washings carried on near Santa Cruz by 2,000 Indians under Fathers Gregorio and San Roman and seven other priests, who died, was all hidden under the hill indicated in this document with the exception of £70,000 for each of the priests. Out of the 500 Indians employed in burying the treasure 288 died of an epidemic of fever in the last three months of the work.

Corina San Roman also told me that her father used to send £25 every Christmas to an old Indian named Jose Maria Ampuera, who, he said, knew where the hill was. He used to send Macedonia Zambrana, one of his own men, who lived near Cochabamba, with this money and several pounds of tea, sugar and other things. The Indian was paid this to keep the secret, to visit the place from time to time, and to notify him if anybody started exploring there. He used to say he had a good enough income himself, and did not care to risk getting malarial fever in looking for it. He kept the paper himself and gave it to his daughter shortly before he died; she put it inside one of the books in the library, and after his death she could not find it, but her uncle, the brother of the General, who was a priest and lived at Cochabamba, had a copy, which is the one I saw! Many expeditions had been fitted out to look for this treasure. One had been sent by Malgarejo, the President of Bolivia, another was fitted out at Valparaiso in 1895, but both were unsuccessful. Dona Corina told me that her uncle had died in 1896, that Zambrana had not been heard of for the last eight years, and that if the Indian was still alive he must be over 100.

The first thing to be done was to find Zambrana, so in March, 1905, I left La Paz on my way to Cochabamba to look for him. I went first to Oruro by the Diligence Mail, which does the journey of 180 miles in two days, starting at 6 a.m., and changing the five mules and galloping horse every nine miles. The coach stops for half an hour at 9 a.m. for breakfast, and for lunch at 1.30, reaching the rest-house at 7.30 p.m. for dinner, leaving again next morning at 5 a.m., and reaching Oruro at 5 p.m. After La Paz Alto they go full gallop all the way; the driver has a long whip, and a box full of stones to throw at the mules, and an Indian boy, who sits on the step behind, gets off every now and then to flog them. The coach carries nine passengers, eight inside, at $25 each, and one on the box seat for $35, which I took. Luggage and mails are strapped on the top; only 35lbs. of luggage was allowed to each passenger, and the heavy gear leaves the day before in a big mule waggon, and is charged for per 100lbs. Riding on the box seat beside the driver, and driving at a hand gallop across the level high flats 12,500ft. above the sea, through the pure and exhilarating air, under a wonderful blue sky, I found the journey most enjoyable.

The highest place registered on the road was 13,200ft. Oruro is 12,800ft. up.

At Oruro I found that Mariano Penny, the owner of the rich San Jose silver mine, was away in Chili, and J. B. Minchin, who owned rich tin mines, was also away, but Dr. Shrigley kindly lent me his place on the outskirts of the town, where there was a big walled-in grass field. There I engaged an Indian called Jose, with his wife and boy, the man to look after my animals, the boy to fag and wife to cook, with another Indian to help with the cargo, and bought four good mules, two donkeys and a horse.


One thought on “There’s Gold in Them There Hills

  1. There are various discussions online of this treasure hunt of Prodgers’, but I’ll save linking them until the end, so as not to spoil what comes next.

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