What Explorer Sailed Down the Coast of South America & Discovered Peru?

Vasco Nunes de Balboa, the Spanish explorer with whom Pizarro first saw the Pacific Ocean.
... Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

Francisco Pizarro led three expeditions along the South American coast to discover and conquer the Inca Empire, the central part of which became modern Peru. Born between 1471 and 1478 in Trujillo, Extremadura, southern Spain, the illiterate Pizarro left Spain for the New World in 1502 and settled in Hispaniola. In 1513, he joined a group of Spanish explorers led by Vasco Nunez de Balboa to cross Central America and the Isthmus of Panama. Settling in Panama as a cattle farmer, he heard reports of vast riches of the indigenous empires to the south.

1 Inca Empire

At this time, the Inca Empire extended along the South American western coast between today’s Ecuador-Colombia border to the Maule River in today’s Central Chile. The empire was established in around 1438 when armies led by the Inca ruler, Pachacuti, and later his son, Topac Yupanqui, brought between nine and 13 million people under Inca rule. This included cultures such as the Nazca, Chavin, Chimor and Tiahuanuco. The empire was welded together with a system of roads, fortresses and rock tunnels. Incas developed agriculture and irrigation and built elaborate cities, temples and monuments.

2 Pacific Expeditions

In 1522, Pizarro formed a joint venture with Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Luque to explore south of Panama. Over 1524-25, and with the authorization of Panama governor, Pedrarias Davila. Pizarro and Luque made a first voyage south along the Pacific coast of today’s Colombia that ended in failure because of bad weather and hostile natives. In 1526, Pizarro embarked on a second voyage to the south, also with Davila’s permission. However, Almagro had to return twice to Panama for reinforcements leaving Pizarro ashore, first in Colombia and then Ecuador. Another explorer, Bartolome Ruiz, sailed south and seized an Indian raft carrying a cargo of textiles, pottery, gold, silver and emeralds. Ruiz returned north to find Pizarro. The reunited expedition set off from Ecuador, stopped at Tumbez, on today’s northernmost Peruvian coast, and returned to Panama.

3 Feuds and Civil War

Pedrarios Davila refused to authorize Pizarro to go on a third expedition to south. So in 1528, Pizarro returned to Spain to lobby the Spanish royals. Queen Isabella signed the Capitulacion de Toledo, a license for Pizarro to conquer Peru. He was named Governor and Captain-General of New Castile, the future Peru. Almagro and other Spaniards were left with little authority in the targeted territories, something that would lead to serious conflict with Pizarro. On the Inca side, the ruler Huayna Capac and his oldest son and heir, Ninan Coyuchi, died in a smallpox epidemic. Before his death, Huayna divided the empire between the next eldest son, Huascar, and the younger son, Atahualpa. A war between Huascar and Atahualpa ended in the defeat of Huascar’s army and his capture by Atahualpa in 1532 in Quipaipain, near Cuzco.

4 Third Expedition

Pizarro and an approximately 200-man force left Panama in late 1530 and sailed south, coming ashore once on the Ecuadorian coast and later Peru. On arriving at Tumbez, Pizarro and his party found the town wrecked. By 1532, they had led their party inland to a secure a reliable resettlement at Sam Miguel de Piura, the first Spanish colony in Peru. They moved towards Cajamarca where Atahualpa and his army were encamped. Hernando de Soto, who was not a party to Pizarro's original joint venture to explore Peru, was sent as an envoy to meet Atahualpa. The Spaniards invited Atahualpa to meet them, set an ambush, captured Atahualpa and killed his retinue. De Soto befriended Atahualpa during his imprisonment but despite collecting a ransom for Atahualpa’s release, the Spaniards executed Atahualpa on charges of murdering Huascar.

5 Conquest and Pizarro's Demise

After dividing the ransom between them, the Spaniards joined with Huascar’s remaining supporters and conquered Cuzco in 1533. The dispute between Pizarro and Almagro over their zones of authority in Peru intensified. Pizarro established a capital city in Lima in 1535 while Almagro went on to explore Chile. On his return, and without any expected riches from Chile, Almagro wanted to claim the whole of Cuzco, which had been captured a year earlier by Manco Capac in a revolt against Pizarro. Pizarro’s troops defeated both Manco Capac and Almagro’s forces. In 1538, Pizarro’s brothers killed Almagro in Cuzco. In 1341, Almagro's son killed Pizarro in revenge.

Based in London, Maria Kielmas worked in earthquake engineering and international petroleum exploration before entering journalism in 1986. She has written for the "Financial Times," "Barron's," "Christian Science Monitor," and "Rheinischer Merkur" as well as specialist publications on the energy and financial industries and the European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American regions. She has a Bachelor of Science in physics and geology from Manchester University and a Master of Science in marine geotechnics from the University of Wales School of Ocean Sciences.