By Rick Vecchio
Want to know where to find secret passages in Cusco to an ancient subterranean Inca world?
Anselm Pi Rambla sure did. So 20 years ago, the flamboyant Spanish explorer remarkably persuaded Peru’s National Institute of Culture and the Dominican Order to allow him to explore beneath the Monastery of Santo Domingo with Ground-penetrating radar (GPR).
Pi Rambla hoped to discover beneath the great church — built atop the razed Inca Sun Temple of Koricancha — a secret entrance to a legendary tunnel running nearly two thousand meters straight to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
Over hundreds of years Spanish chroniclers, adventurers, and even some bona fide researchers have feasted the imagination with tales of tunnels and treasure filled subterranean chambers underfoot in Peru’s tourism capital.
Early Spanish Chronicler Fray Martín de Morua was the first in 1590 to report stories of a vast network of tunnels or “Chinkana,” the Quechua word for labyrinth.
According to the General History of the Jesuits, published in 1600, successive Inca dynasties spent decades draining subterranean aquifers that fed the Huatanay River to excavate the passageways. In times of war, this tunnel system allowed the Inca rulers who were holed up in the hilltop Temple Fortress of Sacsayhuaman to descend underground, undetected, beneath where the parish of San Cristóbal was later built, in a straight line all the way to the Koricancha, the most sacred of Inca shrines.
The Inca were later said to have used the underground passages to spirit away vast quantities of sacred relics of gold and silver under the noses of the Conquistadors.
Garcilaso de la Vega, in his Royal Commentaries of the Inca of 1609, wrote that he used to enter the tunnel entrance as a boy with his friends, but never strayed further than the reach of the sun’s rays. “It was so complicated that not even the bravest ventured into the labyrinth without an orientation guide that consisted of a coil of rope tied to the entrance door to be unwound as it went through the tunnels.”
Tales abound of wayward explorers and treasure hunters entering the mysterious tunnels from the entrance at Sacsayhuaman, never to emerge again. And the few who did? Well…
“One man, indeed, is said to have found his way underground to the Sun Temple, and when he emerged, to have had two golden bars in his hand,” William Montgomery McGovern contended in his 1927 book Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins. “But his mind had been affected by days of blind wandering in the subterranean caves, and he died almost immediately afterwards.”
Armed with these and other accounts, Pi Rambla formed his team. It was comprised mostly of members of the Bohic Ruz Explorer Society, which he founded, but also several serious, well-respected Peruvian archaeologists. The Project Koricancha got underway in August 2000.
The tunnel entranceway was said to be located in a “Fifth Crypt” beneath the altar of the Santo Domingo. Access supposedly was blocked during the earthquake of 1950, which devastated Cusco. Pi Rambla claimed to have been shown the crypt in 1982 by Santo Domingo’s prior Father Benigno Gamarra.
He claimed Father Gamarra took him and a fellow explorer, Francisco Serrat, to the Magna Room of the Church, where he removed a small altar and a carpet to reveal a wooden trap door. Stairs led to a colonial era crypt. On the left was a red masonry wall with several loose bricks.
“We removed some of them and we were able to verify with a powerful flashlight the existence of a huge Inca construction tunnel,” Pi Rambla wrote. “The tunnel had to be very long since the light of the lantern was lost in the darkness. The Prior assured us that this tunnel was the entrance to the famous Chinkana of which all the legends spoke and that it connected with Saqsaywaman.”
But when they asked for permission to tear the wall down, Pi Rambla wrote, the prior refused.
“His words were: you have seen too much, you are privileged to see what I have shown you, and even with government permits I will not let you enter that place because it is very dangerous.”
Pi Rambla’s objective now, nearly 18 years later, was to locate that again mysteriously sealed tomb and reveal to the world the passageway into the legendary Inca tunnel system.
Things did not go well.
The team did excavate a sealed 17th century colonial crypt, but while there was a waft of subterranean toxic methane gas to contend with, no secret tunnel entrance was found.
The project was abruptly ended on August 19, 2003. The Bohic Ruz Explorer Society was forced to pay for re-sealing the tomb.
“Days later it was published in the Peruvian press that our company had endangered the structures of the church,” Pi Rambla wrote in the final project report, “that Bohic Ruz Explorer and its CEO, Anselm Pi Rambla, were treasure hunters and that the whole project had been a hoax.”
Pi Rambla alleged his project’s demise was the product of a conspiracy by the Dominicans.
The Fifth Crypt “was filled with earth and rubble and closed definitively by some Dominicans between 1985 or 1988.” And Father Gamarra — by then 80 years old — had been spirited away, Pi Rambla claimed, “and confined in the Convent of the Dominicans in Arequipa without further explanation” to prevent the truth from being revealed.
But no sweat, the Spanish explorer concluded. He would not need to excavate again inside Santo Domingo, since his team had identified the exact alignment of the tunnel — a direct path connecting former Inca palaces and royal residences, which had been converted by the Spanish into religious sites, right up to Sacsayhuaman.
But Pi Rambla hasn’t gotten around to opening those tunnel entrances, choosing instead to move on to other projects.
Last year he was on the island of Sardinia, where he is convinced the ancient megalithic “Tombs of the Giants” were truly built for the interment of actual giants. “There does exist evidence of giants, but we have to excavate to prove it definitively,” he said.
So, do you want to know where to find secret passages in Cusco to an ancient subterranean Inca world?
Up in Sacsayhuaman, the legendary entrance to the labyrinth tunnel system was supposedly dynamited by soldiers in 1927 on orders of the Prefect of Cusco to prevent any explorers, fortune hunters or curious tourists from wondering into subterranean oblivion.
Oddly, there’s no mention of that event in any peer-reviewed academic literature of the Chinkana Grande that I can find. That large, craggy outcrop of limestone is replete with geometric carvings, trapezoidal and rectangular shaped niches and naturally formed tunnels and caves. The prevailing theory among archaeologists and historians is that this is the most likely site described by the early Spanish chroniclers.
Located about 500 yards north of the Sacsayhuaman esplanade, Chinkana Grande was until recently accessible to visitors to enter and explore. But now it is roped off.
About 300 yards from the Sacsayhuaman esplanade, just across from the Rodadero, is the Chinkana Chica, another smaller naturally formed tunnel adorned with Inca carvings. Descending into this winding passage is thrilling, but definitely bring a flashlight. You have no chance of getting lost forever in here, but it’s very easy in the pitch darkness to bang your head.