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When, in 1519, the conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived on the Mexican coast with his band of adventurers, he told the Aztec emperor Moctezuma's ambassadors: "We suffer from a disease which only gold can cure". The Spanish lust for gold defined the country's conquest of the Americas. Over the coming centuries, the conquistadors went to unimaginable lengths, committing unfathomable atrocities, in order to ease their disease.

The irony of Cortes's quote is that European diseases, more than steel, gunpowder or horses, delivered the New World to the Spanish. It is thought that maybe nine out of every ten people on the newly discovered continent perished in the first 100 years of the Conquest, representing some one-fifth of the entire human race at the time. Indeed, smallpox had spread to the Inca Empire long before the battle-scarred, ruthless but brilliant Governor Francisco Pizarro virtually stumbled upon it for the first time in the late 1520s. Fate could not have dealt him a better hand.

Historians believe smallpox killed the great Inca emperor Huayna Capac - and his most likely heir - just as Pizarro was first exploring Ecuador's Pacific coast. When the conquistador finally pushed deep into the empire in 1532, he found a land only recently recovering from the ravages of civil war. Huayna Capac’s two sons, Atahualpa to the north and Huascar to the south, had fought bloody campaigns in order to succeed their father's throne. Atahualpa, though victorious, was still anxiously awaiting news from his generals in the south. He was therefore little concerned by reports of "170 bearded white men" on his shores. Complacent in the extreme, he invited Pizarro to meet him at Cajamarca in northern Peru.

On that fateful day, in a bold and nigh-on suicidal move, Pizarro and the Spaniards captured the Inca. They also massacred some 7,000 of Atahualpa’s troops, including his greatest lords. The captured Atahualpa soon realized what interested the Spaniards most: gold. He therefore offered a ransom in return for his life. He would fill a room to a height of two and a half meters [eight feet] with objects of gold and silver. The Spaniards walked away with over six metric tons [over 13,000 pounds] of gold and nearly 12 metric tons [nearly 26,000 pounds] of silver. Today such sums would be worth at least US$60 million. They then killed Atahualpa anyway.

And so began the conquest of the Incas. In Ecuador, virtually none of the original gold of the Incas remains. But pre-Columbian gold artefacts, jewellery and adornments rank among the country’s most popular museum exhibits. In Quito, the Museo del Banco Central del Ecuador has the finest in the country. An extraordinary ceremonial gold mask from the Tolita culture, which the bank uses - controversially - as a logo, glows in its dark vitrine, alongside an entire salon of gold objects. Guided tours explain how the gold- and platinum-working techniques used by Ecuador's ancient coastal cultures were astoundingly advanced for their times. The country’s second greatest collection is housed in the Museo Arqueologico del Banco Central in Guayaquil, also highly recommended.

Although much of the captured gold was sent back to Spain to repay the debts of the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V, much was also employed to gild the interiors of Ecuador’s churches, elevating them to among the finest of the continent. Quito’s Jesuit church, La Compania de Jesus, considered to be the loveliest church in Ecuador, is a good example. It was only just completed before the order's expulsion from the New World in 1767 . Behind its magnificent carved volcanic-stone facade, replete with bevies of bleeding hearts and choruses of angels, its massive altars, baroque columns and ceilings are laden, tip to toe, with gold leaf. Some seven tons of “saint-seducing” gold, it is said. The theatricality and extravagance of its interior are breathtaking. At the altar are the silver, platinum, emeralds, gold and pearls that the Spanish, at huge human cost, drove the Indians to unearth or smelt, now turned into exquisite crosses, or embroidered into the cloak of the Virgin.

Similarly, the altar, roof and choir of the colossal Iglesia de San Francisco, Quito's oldest church, are richly decorated with baroque carvings and gold leaf. Taking time to explore Quito and the country's - particularly Cuenca's - churches will leave you with little doubt that the Spanish went quite some way to cure their disease.

|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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