As a child, British writer Mark Honigsbaum played treasure-hunting games with friends, inspired by the tales in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." "[I]t wasn't long before we were taking the parts of Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, and the old sea dog who checks into the Admiral Benbow with a mysterious sea chest smelling of salt and far-off coral islands," he writes. Like most boys who played such games, he grew up to a more staid life, becoming a historian and author. Still, in his heart, he writes, "I never stopped being a treasure hunter."
Visiting Ecuador in 2000 to research his previous book, "The Fever Trail," about the search for a plant to treat malaria, Honigsbaum kept hearing the tale of Valverde's gold. "Legend had it the treasure had been collected by the Indians to pay the ransom demanded in November 1532 by the Spanish for the release of the uncrowned Inca chief Atahualpa," he tells us. But when the Spanish reneged on the agreement and murdered Atahualpa, the treasure -- "seventy thousand llama-loads of gold and silver weighing some five thousand tons" -- was stashed by Atahualpa's loyalists in caves and tombs within the Andes.
An ancient Spanish derrotero, or treasure guide, composed by the conquistador Valverde (who had married a princess from the region and had been taken into the locals' confidence), gives detailed instructions on how to find the gold, which is said to be buried in a lake in a cave behind three triangular peaks in the Cerros Llanganates, a nearly impenetrable mountain range in Ecuador that is "draped for nine months out of twelve in rain and frigid mists." The treasure is cursed, according to myth, and many, indeed, have died trying to find it.
In "Valverde's Gold," Honigsbaum's delightful and intriguing account of his growing fascination with this treasure, the author's interest in the gold starts off level-headed enough. As a historian, he does research and gathers information and literature, including various maps, trying to remain rational and logical in his ambitions. Could the treasure still exist, he wonders? Are the stories of earlier explorers valid? "Instinct and logic told me Valverde's guide was a hoax, a practical joke that over the centuries had acquired credibility far in excess of anything its author could originally have envisaged. Nevertheless ... I couldn't get the guide and map out of my mind." In no time, he is pulled into the mystery and soon is abandoning reason in exchange for wild supposition and impetuous hope. If the treasure is still there, he might be the one to discover it. Why not?
It's not necessarily the lure of gold and riches that captures him so much as the desire to be transported elsewhere, to a world where the source and destination of rivers are still matters of conjecture, "an exploration, if you like, of the collective antecedents of all treasure legends. I had to go there."
He researches professional treasure-hunters on the Internet and sets up meetings with those who claim firsthand knowledge of the region. Through word of mouth, he meets Roland Glaser, a German geologist and miner who'd moved to Ecuador years earlier and had led some 20 expeditions into the Llanganates region in search of the treasure. He visits with Andres Fernandez-Salvador, a former Ecuadorean track star and heir to a bottled water fortune who's spent much of the last 40 years seeking the treasure and who lost his son-in-law on such a quest. Fernandez-Salvador's reluctance to share what he knows about the treasure only inflames Honigsbaum's interest. He flies to Pennsylvania to meet with Don Bermender, a man living in a retirement community whose Uncle Sammy had left a treasure map and clues to the gold via holes punched in a family Bible. Bermender, it turns out, is as reluctant as Fernandez-Salvador to share what he knows.
The more Honigsbaum delves, the more complex the mystery becomes, the clues more contradictory and the possibility of finding the treasure more elusive. Yet his desire to find it grows. Eventually, he undertakes a three-week trek with Glaser, a guide and 11 porters into the vine-strewn region they must hack their way through with machetes. In Honigsbaum's exploration and compelling narrative, he reveals a glorious region of Ecuador and gives us a view into men's hearts and that secret place where mystery and possibility reside, utterly undeterred by hard logic and daunting facts.