The name inspired European explorers and treasure seekers for centuries, and the story grew to encompass a shining city of gold abundant with precious metals and gems.
It inspired Western literature in such works as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Voltaire’s Candide as well as a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
It even holds a special place in the English language as a metaphor for some wonderful, perhaps unattainable thing just like Shangri La or the Fountain of Youth.
But, was there really an El Dorado?
The answer: Yes, though the truth might surprise you.
A Figure on a Raft
Of the 55,000 artifacts in the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, in Bogotá, Colombia, one stands out as the major piece. Created sometime between the years 600 and 1600, it’s a 7.5” by 4” artistic offering of a log boat with figures surrounding one taller figure.
Who does that shining gold artifact’s tall figure represent?
El Dorado: “The Gilded One.”
Let’s travel together back a few centuries to a mountain lake called Guatavita in what is now known as Colombia.
Over there at the water, the leader known as the Zipa is covered in gold dust. He is a Muisca: the indigenous people who inhabited the central highlands of the eastern range of Colombia.
Unlike the Aztec or Maya, the Muisca were a confederation. It was not a kingdom, and it had no emperor. Each tribe was ruled by a chief, and the Muisca Confederation was one of the biggest and best organized of this kind of society in South America.
Their economy was strong, and their mines, agriculture, and craft workers productive. It’s not hard to see why the Conquistadors were drawn to the area with the rich emerald, copper, salt, and coal sites. Artisans also wove complex textiles and created ceramics.
Gold was not produced there, but it was imported in such large amounts that it was used in many handicrafts. Gold had another important use to the Muisca as well.
Gold was needed as the main ingredient of an important ceremony in the sacred lake of Guatavita.
Enacting a traditional ceremony and speaking the Chibcha language that King Charles III would eventually ban in 1770, the Zipa steps onto a ritual raft made of rushes and moves it into the middle of the lake. It is his investiture to leadership.
The Zipa dives into the waters, washing off the gold into the cool waters. This is followed by jewelry, emeralds, and other precious offerings being thrown into the waters by others.
In 1638, Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote this account of what we are seeing:
“Before taking office, (the Zipa) spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices… During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much (incense), and also resin and many other perfumes.
The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns…. As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day. At this time, they stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal.
They placed him on the raft … and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold… each one carried his offering …. when the raft reached the center of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence.
The gilded Indian then … [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same …
After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes, and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.”
Quite a sight.
Do you suppose all that gold going into the lake over time might build up into a significant treasure cache?
News of Highland Riches
In fact, knowledge of this ceremony spread beyond the Muisca boundaries at least as far as the Caribbean coast. As with so many stories, this one began to morph into various versions, eventually creating visions of entire golden cities in the minds of the European conquerors.
The Spaniards arriving on the shores of Colombia learned about it and became more than a little interested. They showed up on the Muisca’s doorstep eager to find the gold they’d heard about.
In short, what followed was a succession of gold-fevered treasure seekers.
Conquistadors Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada organized a non-stop bucket chain of laborers in 1545, managing to lower the lake by only about 10 feet. Supposedly, they retrieved $100,000 worth of gold but believed that this was only a small portion of what remained hidden in the lake.
Another man, Bogotá entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda carved into the perimeter of the lake to drain it in 1580. The good news was that he lowered the lake 65 feet and found four times as many artifacts as Fonte and de Quesada including gold ornaments, armor, and jewelry.
Sadly, the drain structure collapsed and killed many of the laborers. Also, though his share of the findings made him a significant fortune, de Sepúlveda made a second, failed attempt to get more money from Guatavita’s waters and died a poor man.
In 1801, famous geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt journeyed to Guatavita. After returning to Paris, von Humboldt calculated that the lake could still be holding as much as $300,000,000 (in 1807) worth of gold.
1898 saw the last expedition. A group of contractors dug a tunnel to the center of the lake and drained it to a depth of four feet.
You’d think that’s the end of the story, but it’s not. The result was so much slimy mud that it was hard to cross and, soon, the sun baked the mud as hard as concrete. With their treasure locked in baked mud, the company went bankrupt after finding only about $775 worth of gold.
All of this doesn’t even start to address the many explorations fueled by resulting stories of a city of gold. Including Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, in 1540 and Sir Walter Raleigh in 1617, men sailed to tropical waters, endured steaming jungles, risked careers and sacrificed lives in the vain attempt to find a nonexistent golden city.
Nowadays, the water is back in Guatavita, and Colombia won’t allow any more attempts to drain it. Presumably, there is still plenty of gold beneath its surface.
Sitting here in the beautiful highlands, all you can see is the green of the mountains reflected on the water. And, is that a little gold glint over there?
© 2013 Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved
References & Image Credits:
(1) Wikipedia: Muisca Raft
(2) Wikimedia: Hunzah
(3) Wikipedia: Muisca People
(4) Chibcha Language
(5) Wikimedia: Columbian Standing Man
(6) Wikipedia: El Dorado
(7) Wikimedia: Santiago
(8) Wikipedia: Lake Guatavita
(9) Lost Gold of Lake Guatavita
(10) Wikipedia: Alexander von Humboldt