How not to travel – Lope de Aguirre

by Paul Cardwell on June 7, 2011

Lope de Aguirre

Lope de Aguirre the Strong, Caudillo (ruler) of the Marañones

As a travel company we try as hard as we can to make trips problem-free and above expectations. Apart from occasional glitches, often due to the inimitable forces of Latin American nature,  they go well. Memorable – but in the right sense. Disasters are also memorable, sometimes for much longer. And Lope de Aguirre’s trip was such an unmitigated disaster, that centuries later ripples of shock and fascination still can be felt!

Aguirre’s trip was an extraordinary and frightful trail of death. It started with great hopes of finding El Dorado, and ended with his head displayed in an iron cage in the small Venezuelan town of Tocuyo, thousands of miles away from the starting point in Peru. The expedition he joined as a humble soldier in 1560 saw him mutiny and kill off the appointed leaders and take command, eliminate more colleagues en route as they headed down the full length of the Amazon, attack the Spanish fortress on the island of Margarita and kill the governor, before taking the life of the young daughter he’d brought along with his own hands when finally faced with invincible Spanish forces.

The expedition was the greatest attempt to date to find El Dorado. Ordered by the ViceRoy of Peru and headed by Pedro de Ursúa, it consisted of 300 Spaniards and hundreds of natives, a force far larger than Francisco Pizarro’s that had conquered the country just 28 years before. Unfortunately Pedro de Ursúa’s men recruited many disaffected soldiers who had not joined the ranks of wealthy conquistadores and were determined to make up for lost time. Foremost amongst these was Lope de Aguirre, whose nickname ‘El Loco’ (the madman) was clearly a portent.

He wrote an extraordinary letter to Philip, the king of Spain, berating him for cruelty and ingratitude, and signing off at the end with the words (translated): “I am a rebel against thee until death”.

The traumatic expedition and twisted personality of Aguirre have led to many accounts and attempts to understand what happened and why. Arguably without success, so disastrous was the expedition. It was documented by the expedition’s chronicler, Francisco Vazquez (El Dorado), who somehow managed to survive.  Other books written about Aguirre include Abel Posse’s Daimón, Miguel Otero Silva’s Lope de Aguirre, príncipe de la libertad, Stephen Minta’s re-enactment  of the expedition in Aguirre, and Anthony Smith’s Explorers of the Amazon with a well-written chapter on the expedition.  Three films have been attempted: the 1972 Aguirre, Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinski as Lope de Aguirre and directed by Werner Hertzog;  the 1988 El Dorado, a Spanish film by Carlos Saura; and in 2007, the low budget Las Lágrimas de Dios (The Tears of God).

There is no doubt that this was a trip to hell – one way. If we were even distantly involved in organising anything one-tenth as disastrous, we would have to take the honourable course and close doors for ever. So far, touch wood, nothing remotely similar has been close to happening in our more than 10 years of arranging custom trips around Latin America. But I admit, our hands do start trembling badly every time a letter arrives from a client returning from one of our trips…….

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