Francisco Pizarro: Route, Facts & Quiz

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Lucia Reyes

In this lesson we meet one of the most well known explorers: Spanish ''conquistador'' (conqueror) Francisco Pizarro, who defeated the powerful Inca Empire of South America.

We also recommend watching The Inca Civilization and Pizarro: Pre-Columbian South America and Gerald Ford: Biography, Presidency & Facts


Imagine being a European explorer of the 16th Century, hearing stories of strange civilizations and rumors of golden cities and riches beyond your wildest dreams. Would you embark upon a possibly dangerous journey to find fame and fortune? Well, many men took that risk during the 1500s. Spanish explorer and conqueror Francisco Pizarro was one of them.

Early Life

Born in Trujillo, Spain, around 1478 CE, Francisco Pizarro grew up without a formal education, never learning how to read or write. But he did have a curious mind, and one day, after years of listening to stories about the 'New World', Pizarro decided to take a journey of his own.

Portrait of Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro

Pizarro's Voyages 1509-1520

Map of South America
Map South America


The first time Pizarro left Spain, he accompanied a voyage to Panama, which was being used as a Spanish base for explorations into South America. He then headed to the Gulf of Urabá off South America's Northern coast and reached as far as Cartagena, Colombia.


Pizarro joined Vasco Nunez de Balboa to sail around the Isthmus of Panama when Balboa 'discovered' and claimed the Pacific Ocean for Spain.


Pizarro was sent by the Governor of Panama, Pedro Arias de Ávila, to establish trade relations with indigenous tribes along the Pacific coast of Panama. Throughout these voyages, he helped subjugate some of the less friendly native tribes.


Pizarro accompanied an expedition into the territory of the Cacique Urraca, situated in present- day Costa Rica.

Route Map of Francisco Pizarro
Route Map of Francisco Pizarro

Stories of a 'Golden Kingdom' Peak Pizarro's Interest


Pizarro began to be inspired by stories of Hernan Cortez, who had conquered the Aztecs in Central Mexico. He was also listening to the adventures of Pascual de Andagoya, who had been exploring southern Panama. According to Andagoya, he met natives who spoke of a city made of gold. Could this be the city that inspired the legend of El Dorado?

Legendary City of Gold- El Dorado
El Dorado


Pizarro organized a team of explorers to seek this rumored wealth. He joined forces with a soldier named Diego de Almagro, and a priest named Hernando de Luque. They agreed to divide the gold, silver and precious stones they hoped to find during their conquests.

Pizarro as a conquistador
Pizarro the Conquistador

First Expedition into South America


Pizarro, Luque and Almagro sailed from Panama with a modest crew of volunteers and horses. They sailed up the San Juan River, which was part of the boundary between Ecuador and Colombia. They didn't go much farther past Colombia, though. Bad weather, hunger and hostile natives took out some of the crew. Almagro even got shot in the eye with an arrow! They headed back to Panama.

Second Attempt at 'Treasure Hunting'


The trio headed south from Panama again. A couple of times, they split up and Almagro went back to Panama to request reinforcements. After the second request for more men and supplies, a new governor of Panama, Pedro de los Rios, began to lose faith in the expedition. He ordered them to return to Panama in six months. Pizarro and the crew continued toward Peru.

April 1528

Pizarro and his men reached the Peruvian Tumbes Region. There they saw 'little camels' (llamas) and heard stories from 'friendly natives' of bountiful silver and gold and of a powerful empire who ruled those lands. It turns out the empire they heard of was the Inca Empire.

The Inca had a vast empire that included approximately 12 million people. It extended more than 4,000 kilometers and stretched throughout portions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. The Inca had a powerful army, an organized society, successful agricultural techniques and well-developed cultural and artistic practices.

Map of Inca Empire
Map of Inca Empire

Clearly having ignored the Governor's six month time limit, Pizarro finally went back to Panama. With him he had ceramics, gold, silver and some textiles that his main boat pilot Bartolomé Ruiz had captured. Even with these gifts and promising reports, Governor Pedro de los Rios withdrew his support. But Pizarro wasn't giving up - especially not after hearing of these Inca…

Third Expedition into South America: Pizarro Clashes with the Inca Empire

Pizarro and Almagro heading toward the New World
Voyage Pizarro


Pizarro didn't convince Governor Pedro de los Rios to support him a third time. So he went to Spain and convinced Emperor Charles V to sponsor him.

June 26, 1529

Pizarro was granted absolute authority and titles, such as Governor and Captain General, over lands he may discover and conquer.

Dec 27 1530

After returning to the 'New World', Pizarro headed south from Panama with a crew that included his brothers Hernando, Juan and Gonzalo. After reaching the San Juan River, they headed south along the coast by foot. They founded the first Spanish settlement in Peru: San Miguel de Piura.

July 1532

Communications built between the Spaniards and the Inca ruler Atahualpa. An explorer with Pizarro, Hernando de Soto, was sent south and returned with a convoy from Atahualpa. Atahualpa was the Sapa Inca or 'Sole Ruler' of the Inca. From the convoy, the Spanish learned of the recent struggle over the Inca throne between Atahualpa and a rival, Huascar. Although Atahualpa won, the Inca Empire had been left weakened by this civil war.


November 1532

The Spanish decided to plunge further into Inca Territory. They reached the city of Cajamarca, outside of which Atahualpa was camped with an army of men. On November 15, 1532, Atahualpa and a large group of courtiers visited the Spaniards' camp. The Spanish response to Atahualpa's refusal to be a puppet ruler or convert to Christianity was to capture him and massacre his companions.

Arrival of Atahualpa
Arrival of Atahualpa

Atahualpa pleaded for his release, offering an enormous ransom for his freedom. He filled a room of 22 feet by 17 feet with gold, and two other rooms with silver, offering it all to the Spanish. Pizarro gladly claimed those treasures and, after staking his own claim, dispersed the rest amongst his men.

July 26, 1533

After being held captive for more than a year and a half, the Spanish executed Atahualpa, thereby confirming their aggressive intentions in the land of the Inca.

Death of Atahualpa
Death of Atahualpa


After the death of Atahualpa, Pizarro and the Spanish continued to Cuzco, the Inca capital. By the end of 1533, Cuzco had fallen to the Spanish. They chose Manco Capac to be the puppet emperor, 'ruling' the Inca people, but really serving Spanish interests. On January 18, 1535 Pizarro founded the city of Lima, Peru's current capital city. However, it wasn't until the 1560s that outbreaks of native revolts against the Spanish finally died down.

Ironically, although Pizarro made many native enemies, it was conflict amongst his own men that finally brought his demise. Problems arose between Pizarro and his longtime companion Diego de Almagro. Almagro even challenged Pizarro in the Battle of Las Salinas. In 1538, Pizarro's brother Hernando captured and executed Almagro. Diego's allies avenged his death, however. On June 26, 1541, Francisco Pizarro was assassinated, bringing the adventures of Pizarro to a final violent end.

Assassination of Francisco Pizarro
Assassination Francisco Pizarro

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