Cajamarca: where history was made ... and ignored

A visit to the Cuarto del Rescate, or Ransom Room, in Cajamarca is a mighty disappointment, considering the huge significance of the acts that took place there. It was here that Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor, was held, after his capture by the Spanish, while his minions collected the requisite amount of gold and silver from around his Empire to pay the ransom for his release.

It is, without doubt, the most expensive ransom ever paid, worth an estimated $200,000,000 at today’s commodity prices – which does not take into account the intricate workmanship of the pieces collected and then smelted into ingots – and yet it still wasn’t enough to save Atahualpa’s life.

He was executed eight months after his capture, prompting our guide to remark forcefully that Ransom Room really is a misnomer: Cuarto del Estafa, meaning ‘Con Room’, would be much more appropriate! 

Perhaps embarrassed by this seedy end to a once all-powerful leader, the Spanish Conquistadors set about removing almost any vestige of the Inca civilization that preceded them, so that Cajamarca bears almost no reminders of their architectural presence.

That is apart from the Cuarto del Rescate, which is one room, of Inca stonework, with a red line drawn at around 2m high, supposedly indicating the height at which the room was to be filled with gold treasures. 

Not really much to indicate the change of regimes, religions, language and world view that the execution of Atahualpa signified. Not to mention the massive loss of life through pestilence and warfare. 

Luckily, Cajamarca has a lot else to offer, even if its remarkable place in history is not abundantly obvious or celebrated.

There is a good deal of Baroque architecture, including both the Cathedral and San Francisco Church, on the very pleasant Plaza de Armas (Main Square). This is a great place to watch the world go by, without being pestered to buy postcards or have a massage! 

A 15-minute drive from town takes one to the Baños del Inca, or Inca Baths, where Atahualpa was said to have bathed in the therapeutic, thermal springs, which helped cure a war wound. My war wound healed up a treat after I went! 

There are pre-Inca burial sites (or to use a better word, ‘necropolis’) , set into the face of a cliff, at Ventanillas (little windows) de Otuzco and Ventanillas de Combayo, which are still to be fully researched; while Cumbe Mayo boasts some remarkably well-engineered water channels, set amongst naturally-occurring rock formations.

A guided visit to the latter mostly involved looking at odd-shaped rocks and deciding what they most resembled: a mouse, an anaconda, a frog, a camel, a dolphin, a giraffe, an elephant, an old woman in a hat etc. Quite fun, but not really very informative! 

Probably the real star of the show is the cattle-farming country that surrounds the city. It is not Andean geography at its most extreme, and the climate of the city, at 2,650m (8,700ft), does not suffer extremes either; although a good deal of annual rainfall makes it lush and green, exactly as a cow would want. 

You are unlikely to hear the Inca language, Quechua, spoken in Cajamarca – unusual for a Peruvian city at this altitude. 

Perhaps it is the lack of extremes that means it does not attract overseas tourists in great numbers, but for a slice of laid-back, friendly Andean life, still largely dominated by its rural surroundings, then a few days in Cajamarca is to be highly recommended.

Have a look at our Chiclayo - Cajamarca itinerary, for ways of combining the city and environs - and perhaps adding some extra days for extended exploration - with other northern Peru highlights.